VUHS wins support, cash for work on new graduation requirements

VERGENNES — The New England Secondary Schools Consortium has this month already awarded Vergennes Union High School expert support and $6,000 for its work to establish Proficiency Based Graduation Requirements and Personalized Learning Plans — and VUHS is a finalist for comprehensive support over the next two years.
Making the initial cut means VUHS will receive not only the cash, but also three days of help from a Great Schools Partnership school coach to prepare its final application and fine-tune its Proficiency Based Graduation Requirement (PBGR) work.
To make the first cut, VUHS had to be a member of the New England Secondary Schools Consortium’s League of Innovative Schools, send a team to the League’s Summer Institute, and submit a multi-year plan that detailed the school’s PBGR and Personalized Learning Plan (PLP) effort.
VUHS Principal Stephanie Taylor said winning — NESCC will announce its decision in December — would not mean money, but major help in what has been a teacher-led, multi-year transformation of the way VUHS teaches students.
“VUHS would have the benefit of a school coach for one day per week for approximately 30 months to help us move our personalization and PBGR initiatives forward,” Taylor wrote in an email last week. “Making the first cut means that our submissions have met the criteria established thus far as a League of Innovative Schools member with a promising design for continued support.”
That weekly coaching would also come from the Great Schools Partnership, an organization based in Maine.
VUHS special educator Beth Adreon served as the lead writer of the VUHS submission, according to school officials, with primary help from Taylor, Assistant Principal Jay Stetzel, teacher Becky Dowdy, and teacher Kristine Kirkaldy, who has led the VUHS PBGR effort.
Currently, VUHS juniors, sophomores and freshmen increasingly must fulfill some of the school’s nine PGBRs before they receive diplomas.
By 2020 all VUHS students will receive diplomas solely by demonstrating knowledge kept in electronic portfolios and obtained through Personal Learning Plans. Student PLPs will include off-campus and self-designed learning as well as classroom work.
The nine VUHS PBGRs focus on personal wellness, community involvement, research skills and information analysis, math and science research skills and problem-solving, reading comprehension, fine arts creation or performance, effective written communication and technical language, effective oral communication, and the ability to use technology.
According to the VUHS PBGR document, by 2020 seniors will have to include evidence in their portfolios they have met each of those PBGRs, and offer a final defense of those portfolios.
To become a finalist for continuing support through the NESCC award, VUHS had to:
• Outline its strategies to put PBGRs and PLPs in place and explain challenges that have to be met.
• Explain how the support would be used.
• Outline how its teachers would be educated to work under the new system.
• Show how “students are empowered to make demonstrable decisions” about their education.
• Demonstrate how students, teachers and parents will be able to access portfolios in which students keep evidence that shows their mastery of material.
• Show how the school intervenes to help students who need support (VUHS has set aside a mid-day block of time when students can meet with teachers for remedial work. Teachers contact students through their morning meeting advisers to set up these “callback” meetings for that help).
• Demonstrate that there are teacher leadership teams, and that principals regularly visit classrooms, something Taylor and Stetzel pledged to do faithfully in a summer interview with the Independent.
Over the years, VUHS has won two $100,000 Rowland Fellowships and about $170,000 from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation to support its PBGR work and help create the callback system.
Those funds have, among other things, supported after-hours and summer teacher meetings at which they have written PBGRs for each academic discipline, while making sure they conform to state and federal standards; created ways to evaluate non-traditional student work; and worked to develop the technology for the electronic portfolios.
After its years of work, VUHS is ahead of most state schools in moving in this direction: The Legislature in the spring passed Act 77, which requires schools to incorporate PLPs and off-campus opportunities into their curriculum.
In December, the Vermont Agency of Education adopted new Educational Quality Standards that say “Schools must provide students the opportunity to experience learning through flexible and multiple pathways,” and require them to allow students to “demonstrate proficiency by presenting multiple types of evidence, including but not limited to teacher- or student-designed assessments, portfolios, performances, exhibitions and projects.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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