Community Forum: VUHS needs community support

Editor’s note: This week’s writer is Vergennes Union High School Principal Ed Webbley
Over the past nine years, the staff of Vergennes Union High School has worked tirelessly at transforming us into a 21st-century school. What is a “21st-century school?” We find new definitions daily, but one could do worse than to use Harvard University’s Tony Wagner’s “21st Century Skills” as an informal measure to gauge the general preparedness for our century that a high school program facilitates in a student’s:
•  Critical thinking and problem solving
•  Collaboration across networks and leading by influence
•  Agility and adaptability
•  Initiative and entrepreneurialism
•  Effective oral and written communication
•  Accessing and analyzing information
•  Curiosity and imagination
How might that change a teacher’s job? In our case it means taking on a complex set of roles in addition to being a content expert. A teacher now must embrace acting as a mentor, facilitator, coach and academic adviser to our students. In fact, a teacher in the school we are growing has to embrace all of Wagner’s seven skill sets in order to be effective in helping 21st-century students learn.
Eight years ago, VUHS had a Department Head Council and the principal running things. We recognized then that the best decisions made for our students needed to be made closer to their sphere of influence: at the teacher level. As a result, we have created systems that depend on strong and effective teacher leadership. We now have over 21 teacher-leaders  The following changes at VUHS are all teacher-leader intensive:
•  Blowing up the 90-minute blocks and creating 250 flex minutes per week for academic interventions
•  Providing 100 minutes per week for advisory
•  Shifting advisory to academic advising and coaching
•  Increasing teacher leadership opportunities (1/4 of the faculty are teacher-leaders)
•  Creation of an Education Support Team (EST) system based on grade-level teams of teacher/advisers (that works!)
•  Becoming a practicing Positive Behavior Intervention School (more positive than negative behavioral referrals for some months)
•  Using Grade Level Team meetings to look at any student not performing to potential
•  Enormous work done on Performance-Based Graduation Requirements (this year’s freshman class must construct an electronic portfolio performing to proficiency on four of nine of the PBGRs)
•  Beginning curriculum mapping so that we can guarantee equity and common assessments
•  Beginning the evolution of teacher role from “expert presenter” to an expert facilitator and coach
So why is VUHS a bargain? To begin with we are a safe school. This year’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey indicates that our students better the state average in the following categories:
•  Fight less
•  Feel safer at school
•  Drink less alcohol (and drive with drinking friends less)
•  Smoke less marijuana
•  Suffer fewer incidents of date violence
•  Bully less
•  Are less suicidal and depressed
•  Smoke less tobacco
•  Use fewer hard drugs
•  Are less sexually active
•  Areore physically active
•  Feel more connected to adults at school
•  Feel like they have a say in their education
•  Plan on continuing their education
(We don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables, however.) We invest deeply in the social end of the school program, whether it be in time spent in our teachers’ adviser roles, or our Resource Response Center, wherein compassionate professionals support students under stress, or our Counseling Service of Addison County clinicians who support those in crisis. We believe in being a safe place to learn, but being this safe is labor intensive. 
For a small school we pack a lot of opportunity. We feature seven AP courses, two embedded dual-enrollment courses (partnering with CCV), and a CCV class “Introduction to College Studies” this semester. We offer three world languages and as much math as a student can handle. We offer deserving seniors an opportunity to try on a Middlebury College course for size.
We enjoy one of the strongest music programs — both choral and instrumental — I have known, winning festivals and honors all over the East Coast. We offer drama every semester as a class, and we traditionally put on jaw-dropping musicals in the fall (we hope to have our auditorium online for this fall). We have a tremendous visual arts program in which the artistic can take art all six years of their time here at VUHS.
We are affiliated with the New England Young Writers’ Conference at Bread Loaf as a host school, offering 10 slots to our students per spring. We offer opportunities in 18 interscholastic or club sports. In my time here we have won the state championship in women’s basketball, men’s basketball, baseball, women’s soccer and cheerleading. We have a state champion this year in oratory.
What else might qualify us as a bargain?
•  The U.S. News and World Report has us as the ninth best high school in Vermont, a National Silver Medalist, and no. 2,034 in the nation. They cite strong proficiencies in reading, math and college readiness.
•  VUHS enjoys over 204 students participating in extracurricular athletics and over 220 students participating in music programs, both signifiers of an excellent school.
•  VUHS has a 7-12 dropout rate of 1.21 percent and a 9-12 drop-out rate of 1.74 percent.
•  VUHS enjoys a four-year graduation rate of 95 percent. We graduate 97.87 percent of six-year students.
•  VUHS matches the Vermont IEP rate of 13 percent.
•  VUHS has less than a 2 percent IEP dropout rate, the state’s best.
•  VUHS betters the Vermont EST rate, 12 percent to 8 percent. ESTs save us from spending more money on SPED services.
•  VUHS is a member of the League of Innovative Schools and The New England Secondary School Consortium.
•  VUHS is a leader among New England schools in developing Performance-Based Graduation Requirements, and hence, individualized student plans.
•  Twelve percent of our students take advantage of the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center.
•  VUHS is the sponsoring school of the internationally recognized Walden Project, recently featured in The New York Times, the New Yorker, and recently, theHuffington Post.
•  The VUHS class of 2013 had an average SAT score of 528 in Critical Reading, 541 in Math, and 492 in Writing
•  At last report, of the VUHS class of 2013, 50 percent are attending four-year colleges, 24 percent are attending one- or two-year colleges, and three enlisted in the military
In short, we are the little school who thought we could. We thought we could personalize student learning. So we created our Performance-Based Graduation Requirements, which in turn, informed Act 77 (multiple pathways to graduation). So we created an advisory system in which every student has an advocate.
We thought we should encourage equitable opportunities to learn. So we developed a “call-back system” in which every student gets 200 minutes of flexible learning time for remediation or enrichment.
We thought we should devise a system to catch kids from “falling through the cracks.” So we developed a Grade Level Team for each grade to act as an Educational Support Team meeting on every student who struggles with a particular class.
We thought we wanted to reach all learners. So our teachers have worked tirelessly in the techniques needed to teach heterogeneous classes.
The point is that all the hard work detailed above is above and beyond the traditional role of the teacher as we knew it when we were in high school. We are asking all our teachers to deepen and broaden their roles as educators. For the past nine years, they have embraced all the challenges provided us by the 21st century. Please support our school. It is a bargain.
Ed Webbley
Vergennes Union High School

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