Changing landscape awaits VUHS leadership team

VERGENNES — As Vergennes Union High School enters a time of academic transition, its top leadership team will have a different look this coming school year, although the members of that team are already well known at the school and to one another.
The VUHS board has changed co-principal Stephanie Taylor’s title to principal, and she will no longer have primary responsibility for just the middle school, but will now oversee grades 7 through 12.
After the departure late in the past school year of former co-principal Ed Webbley, the VUHS board also decided to hire an interim assistant principal for the coming school year rather than another co-principal.
Filling that interim post is Jay Stetzel, a Vergennes resident who has served as a VUHS middle school counselor since 2004 and earned his administrator’s license in 2010.
VUHS board chairman Kurt Haigis said the search committee put forward two finalists, one an “external candidate,” and the board concluded an internal hire who is familiar with the school would be a better choice during this transitional year. The board also agreed with the search committee that Stetzel had compiled a solid record in his decade at the school.
Stetzel said he had not previously applied for principal positions since obtaining his license, but felt the time was right when Webbley stepped away.
“Knowing that I would be working with Stephanie as a fellow administrator in the school was certainly enticing to me, and I just felt I was ready to make that next move,” Stetzel said. “And I feel there are a lot of things at our school that need just a little more guidance, a little more leadership around, and the great things we are doing could be even better.”
In a recent joint interview with Stetzel, Taylor agreed with those points, starting with their professional relationship.
“I hope it comes through how enthusiastic we are about working with each other,” Taylor said.
Some of their division of responsibilities will develop as the school year progresses, although they have worked out some details, such as Stetzel working more closely with the food service staff and Taylor with maintenance personnel.
Other aspects will be determined.
“As principal, the buck will stop with me,” Taylor said. “I see Jay as very competent and capable, and we work well together. And we’ve worked a lot on a lot of different things this past year. I don’t know specifically what the strengths of his (administrative education) program were, so I want to make sure he has the skills and the background, for instance, in (teacher) supervision and evaluation before I can hand over responsibility for a particular teacher or section of the building.”
Both expect, at least to an extent, a work in progress.
“I think that’s something we’re also going to have to figure out with staff. When they need something, depending on what it is, who are they going to?” Stetzel said.
VUHS is also in an academic transition period above and beyond the leadership change. The next three graduating classes will face increasing mandates to meet Performance Based Graduation Requirements (PBGRs). In order to earn diplomas, VUHS students will have to maintain portfolios in which they track and demonstrate their mastery of subject matter; they cannot graduate simply by sitting in classes and passing courses.
Morning meeting advisers will play a key role in tracking students’ progress, Taylor and Stetzel said, and part of their task will be to make sure the advisers are up to speed on new responsibilities.
Those advisers will be asked to work closely with grade-level teams that will help oversee the PBGR effort. That effort has been led, Taylor said, in many respects by Spanish teacher Kristine Kirkaldy, who has led PBGR teacher groups and won two grants to fund the work, and French teacher Matt DeBlois, who won another grant and crafted the morning meeting system. That system includes the advisery role and a mid-day callback period that allows teachers to meet with students who need to be brought up to speed.
“Grade-level team and the morning meeting are where our performance-based graduation requirements are going to be rolled out,” Taylor said.
She added that advisers are going to be PBGR coaches with “responsibility beyond just establishing relationships, taking attendance and checking in with kids every morning.”
The work to ensure the PBGR effort bears fruit also includes making sure students’ portfolios can be properly evaluated.
“The PBGR group is talking about what they need to do to develop and assess student performance,” Taylor said.
VUHS and Addison Northwest Supervisory Union officials are also working with teachers to make sure Common Core standards are adopted into classrooms and students are prepared to take related Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) tests.
Stetzel and Taylor also said they want to offer more support to VUHS teachers. Many of the positives in recent years, they said, including PBGRs, have been driven by teacher-leaders, who at times could use more backing.
“Teacher-leaders still need support from administration,” Stetzel said. “I think there are varying levels of support they have gotten. So my vision is we are there to provide that support, and we will provide that support.”
 Both also believe teachers have not always gotten enough feedback on and support for their classroom work. They plan to step up efforts to give VUHS faculty members constructive input.
 “They want some feedback. They want to know how they can improve what they’re doing,” Stetzel said. “Our goal is it is a collaborative approach.”
The more experienced Taylor will take the lead in this area, but will work with Stetzel to develop a common understanding and expectations.
“It needs to be a consistent approach,” she said.
Stetzel will take charge of one board goal — working with a nutrition adviser and probably a committee to evaluate the existing VUHS food service and quality and upgrade its nutritional value.  
“One of the things I want to work on is the nutrition piece,” Stetzel said, adding, “hopefully over the next year we can figure out where we want to go and how we want to get there.”
Over the summer, Stetzel and Taylor will work with the VUHS guidance department to survey and evaluate how students who have gone on to further their education have fared at school and in the workforce.
Stetzel said the number of students going onto secondary education has increased, but their next steps have not been studied.
“That’s something else we need to focus on, letting people know when students leave our school, how are they doing,” Stetzel said.
Taylor said that effort, like the conversion to PBGRs, has the same goal.
“It’s all really the same conversation. It’s about giving the students the skills to succeed in a world that’s changing very quickly,” Taylor said.
Taylor also wants to prepare for the enrollment drop officials know is coming, another two-dozen students in the next two years, and make sure the school can adapt and still meet students’ needs.
“We need to plan for that and look critically at how our classes are structured. What is our schedule? How is our schedule impacting our students’ ability to take classes? And, again, build in the time. We’re moving from a credit-based system to a standards-based system with the PBGRs, and that looks very different,” Taylor said.
As change comes to VUHS, Taylor and Stetzel also want to make sure parents and community members are kept in the loop.
“I want us to reach out more so that people know they can come into the school, call us, email us,” Stetzel said. “If they have an issue, if they have something good to share, whatever that might be, we’d like to see that communication increase.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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