New graduation requirements win over VUHS seniors

VERGENNES — Like probably most members of the Vergennes Union High School class of 2016, Panton resident Julia Johnson did not welcome last week’s mandatory Proficiency Based Graduation Requirement (PBGR) presentation.
An April email had reminded seniors what most had ignored or forgotten: They had to make a presentation of at least five minutes before their morning meeting peers and several teachers that reflected back on their academic and personal growth at VUHS.
Thus the seniors were the first to face PBGR requirements to graduate — and their ride with PBGRs has been bumpy, something VUHS administrators admit.
Johnson and five other seniors gathered one morning last week to discuss their PBGR experience, and hers was typical: She had no interest in doing the assignment, but something changed for the good in the process.
“I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t see value in it. But now looking back I see incredible value in it,” Johnson said. “This process really allowed me to look back at the challenges I’ve been through and the lessons I’ve learned. It was incredibly powerful for me, and I really learned a lot about myself through it.”
Weybridge senior Anissa Martin, a transfer to VUHS as a junior, missed the early fits and starts of the school’s innovative and widely praised PBGR program. She remembers getting the reminder that made her “a little upset.”
“Three weeks before graduation we got an email saying this is what you have to do to graduate,” Martin said. “Here we are, end of the senior year.”
But Martin said she came away with a positive experience, and believes the younger VUHS students will do well with the PBGR process.
“It was helpful to see my growth between this year and last year. I used my writing pieces, just because that’s where I grow the most, and that’s where I show my growth the most,” Martin said. “Even just for the two years I’ve grown quite a bit, and it was amazing to see it. In the future I think it would be beneficial to the freshmen of this year.”
Addison’s Dylan Bougor said a light bulb also went off for him and some of his friends as they prepared for and then did their presentations.
“We kind of procrastinated. I did. I admit. Then I took the time and actually did it, and I think there are a lot of benefits,” Bougor said. “For people in your morning meeting and people who just come, it shows them what you’ve done, your work and your goals and struggles during your high school years and everything like that.”
There are nine Performance Based Graduation Requirements in all (click here to see related story) that list the skills members of future classes will have to master. They include oral skills, writing, research, math and science, technology, community service and awareness, and the fine arts.
Students will also have Personalized Learning Plans in which they will track their progress toward mastery and collect evidence that documents proficiency. They must also reflect along the way, including at the year-end presentations.
VUHS Principal Stephanie Taylor said proficiency will most often be demonstrated in the classroom. The decade-long PBGR effort at VUHS has included work to incorporate proficiency-based grading and instruction into classrooms.
Last week’s presentations are important, but not the heart of the work to install the PBGR approach, Taylor said.
“Building them into class is easy once people (teachers) reconnect with them and understand these are just things we want people (students) to know and be able to do, and to show that they know,” Taylor said. “Proficiency is going to be determined in the classroom as they go through all the classes.”
Students as well as teachers have more responsibility, she said — they must work with advisers and teachers on their own personalized learning plans.
Those plans do not mean “they get to study what they want when they want,” Taylor said.
“It’s putting the learner in the middle of the learning. Actually, the onus is on the student in the shift. It says, these are the standards. This is what I need to do to show I’m proficient in this area. Where am I in relation to these standards, and what do I need to do to get there, and how could I get there, perhaps in a different way? What fits my needs as a learner?” Taylor said.
“Is it taking a class, because that’s the best way to understand calculus, or are there other alternatives? But this is the end goal. It’s not just 60 or 70 hours in a classroom. It’s, ‘I need to show evidence of this kind of learning. I need to do this as a 12th grader. What experiences do I need to get from here to here?’”
What sounds good on paper is not always easy to put into place. Taylor acknowledged that not all teachers, who serve as morning meeting advisers, bought into the change. Morning meeting advisers play key roles in communicating information and supporting students and initiatives at VUHS.
“We know morning meeting is only as good as the morning meeting adviser,” Taylor said.
Ferrisburgh senior Nikki Salley and Bougor said they had a series of morning meeting advisers before their final adviser proved to be helpful. Salley said the PBGR process suffered from growing pains that the class of 2016 felt.
“There was a lack of support and information up until a few months ago,” Salley said. “It’s changed so much. And I know at first our teachers had no idea what was going on, and that made it difficult.”
VERGENNES UNION HIGH School Principal Stephanie Taylor sits with senior Dylan Bougor and discusses the school’s Proficiency Based Graduation Requirement program.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Vergennes senior Kyra Duggento called the presentation process ultimately “very beneficial,” but recalled some of the seniors’ frustration.
“It had a lot of ups and downs. There were times when we were told you have to do this part of it, but it’s not going to count. You have to do this, wait, now you don’t have to do that. It spiraled into you have to do at least something to graduate,” Duggento said. “That kind of uncertainty made it so students didn’t want to do it (the presentation) or feel inclined to do it.”
Part of the confusion was a yearlong independent project concept started while the seniors were sophomores. The class believed it was part of the PBGR effort, but longtime VUHS PBGR coordinator Kristine Kirkaldy, a Spanish and Community Based Learning teacher, said it was actually separate.
“It got so confusing for the kids, the decision was made to stop it,” said Kirkaldy, whose $100,000 Rowland Fellowship and successful application for $187,500 of Nellie Mae Foundation grants has helped fund the PBGR effort.
Students — speaking freely with Taylor and Kirkaldy in the room — also cited a lack of communication.
“Freshman year I started out a little confused. It definitely changed from freshman year to senior year,” said Vergennes senior Aaron Gaines.
“We were given so little guidance up to this year,” Duggento said.
Kirkaldy pointed out the news of the presentation had actually been emailed to all seniors in August, but had gone unnoticed. Then she drew a laugh.
“Old school. We sent it to you by an email. Now we’re going to start Tweeting it at you 140 characters at a time,” she said.
Taylor and Kirkaldy said future communication would be designed to make sure it had been received.
“We tried in multiple ways to communicate our message, and we tried to do it in different-sized chunks,” Kirkaldy said. “Our task will be to communicate and seek feedback to say, this is what we think we said, what did you hear?”
The seniors said, however, their younger peers would be more ready for the PBGR process than they were. For one, all middle school students now do Capstone projects that are yearlong, proficiency-based efforts that end with presentations. And the seniors believe younger students and teachers alike understand the process better.
“I’ve noticed teachers are starting to get a much clearer idea of what needs to happen,” Duggento said. “So they’re setting it in stone and starting with the freshmen on up. It’s getting clearer and clearer what needs to happen.”
Taylor said she learned from surveys handed out after the presentations that most students and faculty members shared the feelings of the half-dozen seniors: They were worthwhile, and cast a new light on the PBGRs.
“Overwhelmingly, the adults in the building made the connection while viewing those presentations,” Taylor said. “People came to understand just a side of students we don’t always see in the classroom. And that’s reflected in the survey. Over and over again in the adult surveys we gave and the students we gave there was a sense that these were valuable because of the opportunity to reflect and to think about what it is we do every day.”
Kirkaldy, on the front line for a decade, saw a “a huge milestone” in last week’s presentations because teachers and students began to understand “the whole process” better.
“People came to that powerful moment of ‘I get it.’ This means something. It’s not another hoop. We’re making connections and building relationships,” she said. “And that’s kind of cool in a school.”
And for some students, including Gaines, creating a Personalized Learning Plan and going through the PBGR process meant personal revelation.
“I actually wanted to be a dentist going through my junior year. But while doing this and taking my personal finance class I decided I didn’t really want to do that, and I’m going to go into business instead. So personally I found this helped me,” Gaines said. “It definitely changed my point of view on where I wanted to go in life.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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