Bristol teen finishes high school her way: Vermont Adult Learning provides alternate path to graduation

MIDDLEBURY — Hannah Gorton has never attended a traditional school. Nevertheless, the Bristol 17-year-old will soon have the credentials she needs to pursue higher education.
Gorton, who was homeschooled, will receive her GED on Thursday, June 8, at Vermont Adult Learning’s 2017 graduation and achievement ceremony in the Kirk Alumni Center at Middlebury College (see story on Page 14A).
Vermont Adult Learning, or VAL, offers a variety of courses and degree programs that give individuals who have faced barriers to a conventional education the opportunity to continue their studies in a more intimate and flexible environment.
According to David Roberts, the regional manager who oversees the nonprofit’s Middlebury office, which serves all of Addison County, such barriers may be unanticipated health issues, family commitments, or work obligations.
“Some people think our students are disadvantaged for whatever reason, or disabled or dumb. It’s just that, for whatever reason … something has disrupted that normal process,” he said. “We have smart students. We have students with challenges. It’s a good mix of students and we try to create a really good learning environment.”
Though many students enroll at VAL unexpectedly, others plan to attend from the outset of their education. One such student is Gorton, who was homeschooled from the age of five. Her four siblings before her have also earned GEDs, a “general equivalency diploma” that certifies a level of mastery that substitutes for a high school diploma. A younger sister will study for her GED soon.
The Gorton family’s decision to homeschool their children came when Gorton’s eldest brother was in sixth grade. Gorton said he told their mother that he felt as though he was not truly grasping the material taught in the classroom. Shortly thereafter, their mother, Heather Gorton,decided to pull her children out of public school and teach them herself.
Gorton believes that being homeschooled allowed her to work with her mother to tailor an education plan that made it easier for her to learn and grow. She said she would not be where she is now without her mother’s guidance.
“I felt like I understood things better because, obviously, she knew the best way to get things across to me,” she said.
On a typical day as a homeschooled student, Gorton and her siblings would wake up at around 8:30 a.m. and begin work on the day’s assignments. They would each complete their schoolwork independently, trying as best they could to study the same subjects when possible. Their mother would check in on their progress, answering questions and helping when needed. This instilled in Gorton a kind of independence that served her well when she began to take classes at VAL and study for the GED exam.
According to Natalie Reigle, a mathematics and science teacher at VAL, this is a trait found in most homeschooled students.
“In general, homeschool students are used to working one on one and working independently,” she said. “The other difference (between homeschoolers and high schoolers) is that high schoolers are used to materials being fed to them, and I’ve found that home schoolers are usually more independent learners.”
Roberts said that students who come to VAL after attending a high school often struggle with adapting to the independent nature of VAL’s coursework.
“When students come here from high school, they’re used to used to always interacting (with others), which can often be a used as a distraction,” he said. “ Building an ethic of self-motivation and self-study, and being able to sit down and get things done, is one of those things that homeschoolers are good at, and maybe that’s an advantage.”
Though there were not as many students to interact with at VAL as there would be at a regular school, Gorton said that being in a classroom with students and a teacher she was not related to was one of the more difficult adjustments to make.
“My siblings and I talked a lot (during school). I’m a shy person, and I didn’t really know the other students at VAL so we didn’t really talk at first,” Gorton said. “However, after I was there a little while they would come up and say hi, and I got to know kids more and more.”
She believes that interacting with other students at VAL helped her become more outgoing in other parts of her life.
“I feel like I can socialize better. I didn’t have a problem with that before, besides being shy at first, but I feel like now I can kind of just jump into things and be like ‘Hey, how are you,’” she said. “I feel like VAL has helped me be able to put myself out there more at my job.”
In addition to working with VAL staff, students have the opportunity to take courses at the Community College of Vermont that Vermont Adult Learning pays for. Courses are comprised of both college and GED students.
“Getting into the college and into an office environment is always good for these students because it helps them learn professionalism and how to act outside of home,” Roberts said.
In addition to college courses, VAL offers a variety of resources for homeschooled students to supplement their education.
“We had a (homeschooled student) here dissecting eyeballs, a pig fetus and brain. You can’t do that at homeschool and we can supplement that education and make it even better,” Roberts said. “It would be great if all the homeschoolers in the state knew that we were available.”
Most homeschooled students, like Gorton, opt to earn their GED rather than a high school diploma because many high schools do not register homeschooling for credit, and many colleges will not accept the certificate issued by homeschool companies.
At Thursday’s ceremony, Gorton will be one of seven students receiving their GEDs. An additional nine students will graduate from VAL’s high school completion program.
The completion program allows students to work with their local high school and VAL to craft a plan that works for them. After the plan is approved, students take courses with VAL, which will then submits the student’s work to their high school for approval.
Roberts says this allows older students to earn a high school diploma without having to go and sit in a classroom with teenagers, and allows teenagers greater flexibility in earning their degree. He cited one example of a student who works for a successful sugaring business.
“(The student) works with a guy and they have 10,000 taps. During February, March and April, he’s not doing school,” he said. “We were able to bring him here and since we work all year long, there’s some flexibility on when he can get his diploma.”
Vermont Adult Learning also works with students to develop skills and a plan to land a job once they graduate. Gorton says her short-term plan is to take a year off from school and then attend O’Briens Aveda Institute, a cosmetology school in Williston. After working as a beautician for awhile, she plans to “open up her own little place.”
According to Roberts, giving students the confidence they need to complete their educational and professional goals is what Vermont Adult Learning is all about.
“If you can allow people to build confidence in a safe learning space, then its amazing how they just kind of grow and expand,” Roberts said. “That means we’re doing our job.”

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