Vigne honored for her education model

MIDDLEBURY — A Vermont born and bred visionary, Susan Vigne helped broaden the scope of elementary education when she co-founded the Aurora School — taking students out of the classroom and putting them into the community through a hands-on approach to learning.
Middlebury College last month presented Vigne with a Bonnie and John McCardell Citizen’s Award for her outstanding service to the community. In conferring the honor, the college noted the New Haven resident’s accomplishments as the director, principal and a teacher at the K-6 Aurora School in Middlebury and as a member of the Christian education committee at Middlebury’s Memorial Baptist Church, where Vigne and her husband, Greg, conduct the music for Sunday worship.
Raised in Burlington and a 1983 graduate of Middlebury College, Vigne said always knew that she wanted to be a teacher. Only after years of working both in private and public schools did she decide in 1996 to start a new type of school.
“I was frustrated because students would just get into some exciting investigation and then the bell would ring,” she said about working in a public elementary school. “It was so segmented that it felt disjointed for me and didn’t feel the most effective for the students.”
Aurora, which began with seven students and has since grown to 30 (the maximum number for which it’s permitted), sets a yearly theme and guides students through it in a continuous, hands-on fashion to discover fundamental principles of math, language and science. This year’s theme is water.
The Aurora approach to learning relies heavily on the school’s surroundings.
“Community is really at the heart of what we do here,” said Vigne. “The goal of an elementary school is to have students leave here having learned the basics of reading, communication and mathematics, but also having learned what the world is.”
One of the primary methods that these students learn about topics is through community service.
To expand environmental awareness, Aurora students participate in Green Up Day and clean up old dumpsites along the Trail Around Middlebury. When studying animals, the students help out at the Addison County Humane Society. To gain a better understanding of how their community has evolved, students head to the Porter nursing home every month to spend time with seniors.
“It’s great in terms of education, but it’s also great because then the children know that they have done something that’s really made a difference,” said Vigne.
A key aspect of Vigne’s and Aurora’s efforts is to take a hands-off approach in implementing a hands-on education. She has tried to create a situation where students can flourish and work with the community by allowing them the freedom to make decisions and implement ideas.
She speaks fondly of the Aurora Global Warming Action Network that former student Matias Van Order Gonzalez, now a ninth-grader at Middlebury Union High School, began at Aurora.
“I didn’t brainstorm that idea. It was a topic that Matias came up with,” Vigne said. “He has a strong environmental interest and said, ‘Can we start a club?’ I said, ‘Sure.’”
The club used old parachutes donated by Vermont Skydiving Adventures in West Addison to make grocery bags. The students then sold these bags to raise funds for energy-efficient refrigerators at the school.
“A lot of people try to make a big difference, but sometimes it’s more effective to make a deep, small difference,” Vigne said. “You could throw a handful of sand into the ocean and it doesn’t make a difference, but you can throw one small stone into the lake, in one place, and those ripples can spread.”
To many of her colleagues and friends, Vigne is that pebble.
“Susan wants the best for every child, every family and everyone in the world. Her dedication to others and to her dream of the Aurora School as a place for them to grow and flourish is unfailing,” said Danielle Levine, a teacher at Aurora. “Susan had a dream for a school and she made it happen. She will tell you that she didn’t do it on her own; she found others who shared in that dream and that is quite true, but it is her acknowledgement of the need to work together and her openness with others that made this creation of a school possible and sustainable.”
“It’s very humbling,” said Vigne about receiving a McCardell Citizen’s Award. “In terms of Aurora it’s really an acknowledgement of the whole school and everybody who’s been involved in the community … I’m just one part.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].

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