VUHS honored for innovative plan for earning diplomas

VERGENNES — Vergennes Union High School was recognized last week for its ongoing efforts to establish Proficiency Based Graduation Requirements (PBGR) as the norm for its students to receive their degrees.
VUHS and its middle school have been inducted into Vermont’s “League of Innovative Schools,” according to the state Department of Education.
VUHS Co-Principal Ed Webbley said the school applied to the Department of Education for the distinction in January, and school officials were unofficially informed in early March the honor was on the way.
To earn membership in the League of Innovative Schools, which is comprised of secondary schools from across Vermont, both the Department of Education and the New England Secondary Schools Consortium (NESSC) must approve of the application.
School officials said the plan calls for the school’s incoming ninth-graders to pilot the PBGR program by showing their mastery of subject material through a variety of ways — portfolios, performances or independent projects.
According to the Department of Education press release, “The hope is that within four years all high school students will be graduating based on demonstrated abilities, not simply seat time.”
Addison Northwest Supervisory Union curriculum coordinator Carol Spencer said those incoming freshmen will not be required to graduate through PBGRs. But what the school discovers in the process will be vital.
“Every year the system will grow based on what we learn,” Spencer said.
Spencer said Webbley and VUHS teachers deserve to be honored for their efforts.
“It’s the real thing,” she said. “Our high school is on its way, and this is a recognition of that.”
Webbley said the school’s teachers have worked hard on creating new units and ways of measuring academic achievement to meet PBGR goals.
“We’re way ahead of the curve,” Webbley said. “And the recognition is just icing on the cake.”
VUHS Spanish teacher Kristine Kirkaldy has coordinated the school’s PBGR effort after serving as the main author of a successful $137,700 grant application in 2011 to the Nellie Mae Education Foundation; those funds have supported the project.
French teacher Matt DeBlois and Kirkaldy also each won $100,000 Rowland Fellowships that have made crucial contributions to the process, Webbley said.
Webbley said many others have also stepped up to the plate in any number of ways, naming off the top of his head Sarah Thompson, Judy Wiger, Theresa Smith, Nancy Ambrose, Beth Adreon, Roberta “Cookie” Steponaitis, Michael Thomas, Co-Principal Peter Reynolds and the entire middle school staff.
“This story is really about teacher leaders. I’m so happy with what Kristine and those people have done,” Webbley said, adding, “I’m so happy to go up to a second floor classroom and listen to two dozen teachers talk about best practices … That can only happen in a student-centered school, and I give the teachers all the credit.”
The other members of the League of Innovative Schools are Brattleboro Union High School, U-32 Junior and Senior High School, Burlington High School, Rochester High School, Williamstown Middle/High School, Cabot School, South Burlington High School, BFA-St. Albans, Essex Union High School and Montpelier High School.
Spencer said part of the league’s concept is to identify innovative schools so that other schools know where to look to see what’s working.
“Those schools have all become models for us, just as what we’re doing is becoming a model for them,” Spencer said.
Webbley said VUHS has already become a magnet for curious educators.
“We schedule numerous visits here,” Webbley said. “The league is supposed to be a resource as well as a recognition.”
According to the education department press release, the goals of the league are “to promote innovative strategies,” “to establish a network of best practices,” and “to promote greater educational equity and opportunities for all students.”
League schools, it said “will serve as models for local education agencies around the state shaping the future of Vermont public education.”
 The education department press release also included a shout-out to Vergennes Union Elementary School.
 The release noted that since 2005 VUES has seen “tremendous improvements” on its “Annual Measurable Objectives, which are based on Addison Northwest Supervisory Union’s action plan for making Adequate Yearly Progress in Reading and Math. In all subgroups they are seeing significant progress, and they are closing the gap between students in poverty and their peers. They also focus on students’ whole development, and have a successful child nutrition program.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].                                                                                    

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