VUHS, Mount Abe to make presentation on their education innovations

NORWOOD, Mass. — Teachers and students from Vergennes and Mount Abraham union high schools on Thursday and Friday will be presenting at a major conference in Norwood, Mass., about the efforts to transform and improve education at their schools.
VUHS and Mount Abraham were among four Vermont schools invited to present at the High School Redesign in Action conference, which is sponsored by the New England Secondary School Consortium (NESSC), a regional partnership committed to high school innovation and funded by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.
The Nellie Mae foundation has also awarded VUHS two grants totaling almost $400,000 to support its efforts to switch to a system of “Performance Based Graduation Requirements,” or PBGRs. That system will require students to demonstrate mastery of subjects to earn their diplomas, including via hands-on projects, rather than by just earning enough credits by sitting in classes.
According to a press release from the Vermont Department of Education, the conference will focus on “effective strategies for improving teaching and learning.”
The groups from the Addison County schools will be joined by representatives of South Burlington High and Cabot schools. All four are members of the NESCC’s League of Innovative Schools, which NESCC officials describe as a network of secondary schools working together to improve their programs and performance and to promote the exchange of best practices and strategies.
According to the press release, the schools, selected by NESCC officials, “have made significant progress raising student achievement, graduation rates, college-enrollment numbers, or other indicators of educational success.”  
In the press release, Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe praised the Vermont schools for their efforts to involve students in their own learning paths and thus in turn improve the quality of the state’s delivery of education.
“We know that our students need to walk different paths to reach these shared goals,” Holcombe said. “Our schools are working hard to personalize learning and build on each student’s individual passions and strengths, so that our students find school relevant, meaningful and challenging in all the best ways.”
The Mount Abraham presentation is titled, “Seamless Coexistence: Integrating Coursework And Personalized Learning.”
Presenting for the Bristol school will be personalized learning advisers Russell Comstock, Gerrie Huets and Josie Jordan; students Robin Kuhns and Brian Wendel; and Principal Andy Kepes.
According to the press release, Mount Abraham has spent the past five years “developing a personalized-pathways program” that differs from other such programs — “the great majority of the students who take part in the pathways program also take other courses at the school.”
Creating what the press release called a “hybrid model (that) has allowed many more students to take advantage of personalized learning” has posed challenges.
Mount Abraham presenters will not only describe the “personalized-learning opportunities offered by the school,” but also “engage participants in a frank and honest discussion of the school’s struggles with a blended model of student learning. Participants will have a chance to hear from and ask questions to staff and students, and they will leave the workshop with a stronger understanding of personalized learning, as well as the challenges and conflicts that may arise.”
The VUHS presentation is titled, “From Hypothesis To Practice: The Messiness Of School-Wide Transformation.”
Presenters are teacher Matthew Deblois, who helped create the school’s call-back system that allows teachers to quickly intervene if a student is falling behind in a class; teacher Kristine Kirkaldy, who has coordinated the school’s PBGR effort and co-wrote the Nellie Mae grant applications; special educator Beth Adreon, who is facilitating a Personalized Learning Grant the school received from the AOE; and students Brianna Gebo and Natalie Salley.
The press release notes that “the school’s transition to personalized, performance-based learning” is ongoing while VUHS attempts to balance “the hopes and dreams of students and staff;” embrace “rigor, relevance, and relationships”; and offer students “voice and choice as they work to acquire vital 21st-century skills.”
According to the press release, “students and teachers will share their recent adventures on their journey toward Performance-Based Graduation Requirements, including, from both the students’ and the teachers’ points of view, topics such as e-portfolio-based evaluation, yearlong projects, and integrated systems of support.
“In addition to hearing from all learners involved (teachers and students), participants can come away with tools and templates for enhancing the three ‘Rs’ in their school.”
South Burlington advisers and students will present on the “personalized, experiential-learning school-within-a-school” there that focuses on “proficiency-based learning.” They will offer, the press release stated, “concrete steps” other schools can take to start such a program.
Cabot teachers and students will present on how the Cabot high school band has transformed into a touring professional soul-funk-rock band that has “taken on all of the responsibilities necessary to independently manage their band and enter the professional music world.”
Band students have also produced documentaries for a local radio station, and workshop participants “will get a glimpse into the school’s curriculum-mapping process and tips on how to meaningfully infuse the arts into a project-based teaching and learning environment.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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