Mt. Abe paves new paths to graduation

BRISTOL — Imagine a high school curriculum that takes a science lesson out of the lab and into nearby fields and forests, or an art class that requires students to take photos in their communities rather than in a classroom studio. Consider a physics unit that does away with textbooks in favor of rebuilding a car’s engine, or a music lesson that requires a student to build an instrument in addition to playing one.
That’s exactly what some school officials at Mount Abraham Union High School envision for a new pilot program they hope to launch next semester. The alternative, self-designed curriculum — called simply “Pathways” — aims to boost graduation rates and better serve nontraditional learners at the Five Towns-area high school.
With $250,000 in grant funding from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, the Pathways program will take up residence in a Main Street storefront in downtown Bristol in January. Project planners hope to enroll about 12 students for the first few months, expanding the program to around 26 the following year.
Consultant John Clarke and Addison Northeast Supervisory Union Associate Superintendent Nancy Cornell were on hand at the Mount Abe school board meeting late last month to update the board on the new program.
“We’re trying to engage students who are not otherwise engaged in school,” Clarke told the board. That might mean the program would cater to students struggling in traditional classrooms, but the self-designed curriculum could also be a good fit for highly motivated students looking to dive into independent projects.
Ideally, Cornell said, the program would shape students who would be “lifelong learners with 21st century skills.”
Clarke said that these sort of self-designed curriculums were popular in the 1960s, but didn’t succeed because students didn’t have enough guidance. Under the Pathways program, students would work closely with faculty advisors to shape their independent projects. Then, under the umbrella of these projects, the students would complete coursework that tied back to the high school’s core curriculum.
For instance, if a student wanted to start his or her own business, drafting a business plan might include elements from math or writing courses. A student interested in compost or agriculture would learn about the science behind his or her passion. Students would also work closely with adult mentors in the community on internships or other jobs.
“The student has a task with a purpose that’s really his or her own,” Clarke said.
Mount Abe middle school principal Leon Wheeler, who also spoke to the school board about the program, said that lines up with what has been Mount Abe’s “somewhat cutting edge” approach to personalized learning in the past.
The planning team also included Mount Abe English teacher Josie Jordan, Russell Comstock from the Metta Earth Institute in Lincoln, and Gerrie Heuts, the director the Bristol Recreation Department.
Heuts said she’s happy that the proposed program would bring students into the heart of downtown Bristol, a move she thinks will encourage more collaboration between students and adults. She’s also excited about the kind of learning she thinks the self-directed program would promote.
“We’re used to being fed,” Heuts said. “This kind of learning really focuses on your place in the world, and how you go about providing for yourself and learning and gaining every opportunity you can.”
Nellie Mae first supported the program last year, when the high school won one of five New England grants to explore and plan for “multiple pathways to graduation” programs. Cornell told the board that the foundation was encouraging of the group’s work, and agreed to award the school the $250,000 grant to set the plans in motion.
Just fewer than 4 percent of high school students at Mount Abe dropped out before completing 12th grade, according to the most recent data from the Vermont Department of Education. That rate is tiny when compared with national averages that show only about 70 percent of high school students n the United States graduate in four years with a regular diploma.
But Mount Abe’s dropout rate is the highest among the four area high schools. School officials hope the Pathways program, working in conjunction with other programs like the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center, might boost those rates.
The planners acknowledged that down the line, the program would need to look to other sources of funding to keep going, should the Pathways program be successful. That would be difficult in a time of tight school budgets, Clarke acknowledged. The decision about how to allocate funds would fall to the school board.
“It’s an enormous challenge,” Clarke said. “It’s the right challenge. It’s the right time to think about it. … If it works, I think most of us won’t want to let it go, so we’ve got to think about internal funding.”

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