Opinion: Act 46 offers an opportunity to prioritize, think differently

For some, the dialogue around what to do about our declining enrollment is limited to which school we should close. I would argue that is the wrong conversation for us to have. Foremost, that begins the conversation with an adversarial stance where we create winners and losers. In that scenario, our focus remains on what we don’t want and most of our energy is placed on reacting to or even preventing the change idea.
Act 46 affords us the opportunity to think differently; to prioritize what we do want for all learners across our system. When we focus on what we want to create as opposed to what we don’t want to lose, our focus shifts to possibilities and desired outcomes. This generative process helps tackle habits of thinking that might be holding us back.
One such habit of thinking is our current configuration of students. Because we currently group students across four buildings in three clusters of K-6, and one cluster of 7-12, our thinking going forward tends to hold this as a fixed idea. This fixed mindset is what causes us to believe that our only option is to close a school since enrollment is dropping dangerously low. I encourage us to focus not on the four buildings but rather on our PreK-12th grade students and ask What do we most hope to achieve by any change possibility? Once we are clear on our goals and objectives, the way we use the four buildings in our district to leverage the change possibility will become clear.
One such priority moving forward could be to focus on building up our strong middle school model to expand opportunities for young adolescents in our district. In 2009, Vermont’s Middle School Task force convened to create a research backed roadmap for schools to fully address the unique needs of early adolescent learners (ages 10-15). In their publication “Middle School is Not A Building,” they helped us to understand this unique time in the life of our young people as “one filled with extraordinary potential, excitement, and challenge.”
The rapid and dramatic development of life at this stage — intellectually, socio-emotionally and physically — encourages these students to ask rich questions about themselves and the world around them. In truth, nearly every conclusion students draw about themselves and their place in the world is made during this critical time in their lives. They develop habits of living that can either enhance their future possibilities or create barriers to their success. Certainly our world has only become more complicated since this was first published; and the needs of our youth even more complex.
We have the opportunity to embrace this challenge and build a system that addresses these complex needs more fully. Fortuitously, this comes at a time when we are transforming the educational experience of high school students through developing strong student-centered approaches to learning that include robust flexible pathways such as Early College, Dual Enrollment, and internships.
Laying a strong foundation in middle school will support students in taking full advantage of these options as they continue in our system. Carving out distinct identities (5-8, 9-12) as we pursue both these priorities makes sense. We currently have middle school age students in all four of our buildings. I can think of no greater gift to give these young learners than a place to call their own; surrounded by adults committed and supported in creating an ideal learning environment for this watershed moment in their lives.
Restructuring middle and high school leaves us open to many possibilities at the primary level. For example, rather than replicating the learning experience across our elementary schools we could carve out unique identities that provide true options and choice for parents and families.
Taking advantage of an outdoor learning environment in one location, while building a state of the art makerspace in another are two unique approaches to science learning. Both achieve the same ends but through different means. In this way we can build a greater variety of options more affordably. It is also an attractive draw for families considering a move to our area, which may help to address declining enrollment.
While these are only ideas, I think they model the kind of thinking necessary for us to take full advantage of this unique time in our district. We have a highly-skilled staff, a wonderfully supportive school board and community, talented administrators, and an engaged student body. We also have four buildings in top shape for many years to come. These are the ingredients for a successful innovation if we can remain open to ideas and possibilities.
Let’s remain curious about the concepts and issues we are facing so we can be open to new information and stay on the lookout for innovative options that can be put into practice so as to truly bring even better outcomes for our students.
Sheila Soule is Superintendent of Schools for the Addison Northwest School District.

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