Philanthropists examine tech ed

MIDDLEBURY — On Oct. 7 a group of important figures in Vermont’s education system — including education commissioner Armando Vilaseca — gathered at the Middlebury Inn to discuss career and technical programs and the role that philanthropic organizations can play in these programs.
In attendance were representatives of charitable organizations and individual donors, legislators and career and technical program administrators, all there to take a look at the current state of vocational education and what philanthropic institutions can do to help those programs expand their offerings.
Holly Tippett, one of the event’s organizers, works for the Vermont Community Foundation as an advisor to the McClure Foundation, which has in recent years chosen education as its funding focus.
Tippett said that through the event, the VCF hoped both to celebrate the work of philanthropy in education and to inform philanthropists and donors about current opportunities in the education system.
“Private philanthropy can’t make a huge dent in public education,” said Tippett. “But there are strategic ways in which philanthropy can make an impact.”
To Tippett, if a grant-funded trial program in a school has a positive impact on any students, it has served its purpose both for those students and as an experiment that can then be used by other schools.
Vilaseca took the floor to give the issue a broader context. He said that the entire public school system needs to be approached with an eye toward reform — the Vermont education system, he explained, follows a structure developed in 1892 to govern schools.
“We’re trying to prepare our students using late 19th and early 20th century methods and expecting 21st century results,” said Vilaseca. “It works, but it could work better.”
In this setting, he said, the role of career and technical education is evolving — not as an alternative to the traditional classroom structure, but into something from which all students can benefit.
“(Vocational education) has evolved to become tech-based, to prepare students for the technological world,” said Vilaseca. “Career and technical centers are leading the way.”
There are always distractions from progress, though, and Vilaseca said that this year is no exception.
“Budget issues distract from the goal,” he said. “That distraction is really huge right now.”
He highlighted roadblocks from administrators and parents, who often feel that altering the system to include more vocational and nontraditional classroom learning will cause colleges to take students less seriously when it comes time to apply.
Vilaseca also pointed out Vermont’s education system has the inherent challenge of geographical distance between schools and small (and declining) school sizes.
But Vilaseca said possible solutions for these problems for schools include sharing programs through technology, and offering students hands-on, immersive experiences right in their own communities.
Such programs have the potential to engage more students in their own education, he said, and could be the key to fixing Vermont’s educational problems — or some of them, at least.
Vilaseca noted that Vermont has a high school graduation rate that is higher than the national average, but that the numbers drop precipitously when it comes to students enrolling in and graduating from institutions of post-secondary education. That, he said, indicates that the system is not preparing its students well enough.
“A high school diploma today is basically a ticket to poverty,” he said.
But does that diploma have to be earned between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., 175 days out of the year?
“No,” he said. “But it’s hard to break out of it.”
The next two speakers were there to prove that they were, in fact, breaking out of the mold. The first was Penny Chamberlin of the Barre Technical Center, speaking about her organization’s pre-technical outreach program. In 2007 she was finding students from the regional schools who were arriving at the center lacking in the social and practical skills they needed to succeed there, and some of them were dropping out of the programs.
Further, many of the center’s students were spending hours each day on a bus that took them away from their home schools.
“I wanted students to be more connected to their communities,” she said.
So Chamberlin developed a program to put 9th and 10th graders into small crews in their communities working on projects outdoors, with industries in their home areas.
Since 2008, said Chamberlin, the 78 students that the program has served have averaged a full letter-grade increase, and students who were missing 30 or 40 days of school each year were showing up, bringing the attendance rate of the programs to 92 percent.
She said that along with an increase in social skills, confidence and dedication to their activities, many students who did not seem inclined to continue their education are now enrolled back in traditional programs at their schools or in career and technical education programs.
The program’s funding, said Chamberlin, came both from the Department of Education and the McClure Foundation, and Chamberlin said that because the Barre Technical Center is one of the least costly centers to run in the state, and because the program used resources from the students’ home schools, the overhead was not high.
Lauren Curry was next in line to talk; he is the executive director of the Tarrant Foundation, a Colchester organization currently engaged in a project that brings technology into schools.
Curry talked about the organization’s failures — funding the purchase of computers, but without any training at the same time on how to integrate them into the classroom — and its current success as a partner with UVM’s education department in the I-LEAP program, which brings technology-rich learning into classrooms.
In all of the organization’s partner schools, students now receive a laptop, classrooms get Smartboards and teachers get training on how to integrate these new technologies into the classroom.
As examples of what technology allows the students to do, Curry spoke of the podcasts, audio interviews and videos that the students have been able to make as a result of the technology grants — some of which are available to the public on Vermont Public Radio’s website.
“They’re achieving the same benchmarks,” said Curry. “But they’re doing it in ways that are engaging to them.”
The question of funding was never far from the table during the discussion. During her talk, Chamberlin made the point that funding for technical and career centers is often difficult to work with — the technical centers are allocated funding from the state for each student that attends, but that this funding is ultimately coming from the sending school’s budget.
This situation makes it harder to free up funds for pilot programs like the one at the Barre Technical Center, and makes it more difficult for the schools and technical centers to work in collaboration.
“This (funding structure) puts the technical centers in competition with the high schools,” said Tippett, who serves on the board of the Hannaford Career Center. “And it puts institutional interests above student interests. I don’t think any institution would want to be there.”
Therefore, Tippett hopes that philanthropic funding opportunities will encourage schools to move into more adventurous territories.
“Everybody’s so focused right now on the budget stuff,” she said, summarizing one of the ultimate points of the summit. “We can’t, year after year, ignore the larger issues.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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