New schedule at VUHS seeks student ‘equity’

VERGENNES — Major changes in class schedules are in the works at Vergennes Union High School. Administrators are making the changes, which include yearlong classes and removing band and chorus sessions from students’ lunch period to make them formal classes. This comes in part in response to their interpretation of Act 77 and Vermont’s Education Quality Standards.
Act 77 emphasizes that public education should ensure all students graduate prepared for college or careers.
Many students and teachers have been concerned about the changes and the way they were introduced, but VUHS Principal Stephanie Taylor said that the proposed schedule changes allow for student equity that aligns with the goals of Act 77.
That 2013 law, in part, created a “Flexible Pathways Initiative” that schools are required to follow.
“The intent is to broaden student access to more opportunities both within the school and through flexible pathways. Act 77 and Education Quality Standards require that we create flexible pathways to allow students to achieve proficiency in many different ways,” said Taylor. “The schedule will also more easily allow students to participate in community-based learning, internships, and independent learning.”
Conversations among VUHS administrators and a designated scheduling committee began in 2014, following the enactment of Act 77 and the new Education Quality Standards. Positive and negative aspects of the current schedule were discussed at length, but major changes were put off due to a focus on the transition into proficiency-based grading.
Proficiency-based grading and personalized learning plans are additional aspects of Act 77 and Education Quality Standards that VUHS began implementing during the 2013-2014 school year. Both are intended to include students in the planning of their high school education. Similar to the proposed schedule, they serve to offer students more flexible pathways throughout their high school experience.
Many of the new opportunities proposed in the schedule changes come from alignment with other area high schools. In recent years, Middlebury and Mount Abraham union high schools have made similar changes to their schedules.
Taylor said that aligning with local high schools would allow students to pursue more of their personal educational goals.
“We need to develop alignment within our regional schools so that students can take advantage of as many opportunities as possible. Aligning our schedule with the Hannaford Career Center and other schools allows students to participate in more cross-region opportunities,” Taylor said.
These opportunities include being able to take classes at Hannaford and other local schools that were not previously available to VUHS students, due to conflicting schedules.
At the March 11 Addison Northwest Supervisory Board meeting, Taylor also told the board that VUHS and the other schools will no longer be able to offer as many courses as they can now. That’s because of declining enrollment — there will be as many as 80 fewer students in seven years at VUHS. As a result, there will be fewer AP and world languages courses.
If VUHS aligns its schedule with the other local high schools, it will allow academic cooperation among all three to make sure students will still be able to choose from among a full menu of courses.
“We’re not all going to be able to offer AP Bio, AP Calc, three world languages,” Taylor told the board.
The way the change will work is this: No longer will the school year be split up into eight semester-long classes. Instead, each student will have eight yearlong classes that won’t necessarily meet every day.
At the ANWSD board meeting Taylor said the yearlong classes would help students absorb material. As is stands now students have long gaps, sometimes multiple semesters, she said, between courses in the same discipline, leading to the equivalent of “summer learning loss” between classes. 
Taylor said because band and chorus will be regular classes, music students with be able to attend lunchtime callback, a portion of the day set aside for students to meet with teachers and receive help or complete homework during the school day.
Taylor said that music students would have the opportunity to benefit from the support and enrichment that callback offers, an option that wasn’t there before.
“Callback worked, but it was the other side of band and chorus, and it meant that kids in band and chorus never had the opportunity to go to a class to get extra help, or they were squeezing it in during their lunch block,” said Taylor. “Removing the conflict and making band and chorus a class that people choose opens up callback for everybody.”
At the ANWSD board meeting, Taylor also added it works both ways. As it stands many students who are eligible for free or reduced lunches are now being excluded from the music programs. Statistically, those students are also the ones who need more support from teachers in their coursework, she said, and need to take advantage of the lunchtime callback period — thus many are being unfairly excluded from the school’s well-regarded music offerings.
“I think all students should experience that (music programs),” Taylor said. “We’re unintentionally discriminating.”
Following the announcement of the proposed changes, administrators began to receive opposition from students, some of whom earlier this month organized a walkout.
VUHS junior Emily Rooney said some frustration was not centered on the details of the change, but rather a result of students feeling blindsided by what they said was a lack of communication.
“Someone needs to hear that we aren’t happy, they didn’t go about making this change in the right way,” said Rooney. “They were still saying that students didn’t need to be involved.”
Announcements regarding the changes began last October when VUHS faculty members were notified and asked for input. Student Council members were the first students to hear the details of the changes, at a meeting in late November. An e-news letter to parents was sent out in December to outline changes and ask for questions.
Rooney is one of many students to attend school board meetings and meetings held by VUHS administrators and advocate for the many students that have strong feelings about the proposed changes.
VUHS senior Kylie Comeau also attended meetings about the schedule changes. Comeau said that although some decisions need to be made solely by the administration, many students felt taken aback by the changes.
“I agree that some things you don’t really need to involve student voice on, but things like this largely affect students and their education,” said Comeau. “And also parents, my parents, had no idea about this. Teachers were confused. Everyone that it was affecting, none of them really knew besides administration.”
Frustration over the schedule changes was centered on initial miscommunication over what the proposed changes were. VUHS administrators have tried to clarify and be more inclusive about the changes, offering meetings and holding a school-wide assembly for students and faculty members to raise questions and concerns.
Taylor said that a lot of resentment toward the changes seems to come from the lack of involvement in making the decision.
“I really think most people were just irritated that they weren’t given a choice,” she said. “Which is unfortunate, but that’s also the truth of this particular decision.”
At the school board meeting she said emails did go out early on, but acknowledged more should have been done.
“We certainly could have communicated this better,” Taylor said.
Taylor also acknowledged that some students in the future could not take a full course load and still sign up for music at lunchtime. But she pointed to the existing scheduling had conflicts, for example with callback.
“There will always be scheduling conflicts. There are scheduling conflicts now,” she said.
And while the initial decision regarding schedule changes did not leave room for feedback, Taylor said VUHS administrators are now working to include input wherever possible.
“The hard truth is that sometimes decisions are made at a certain level without feedback. This was a situation where we (VUHS administrators) knew we had to make a decision, and waiting to make that decision with feedback would have delayed that further,” Taylor said. “Within that decision, there’s still room for things to be moved around.” 
The administrators have been holding both voluntary and mandatory meetings for students to offer feedback and voice their concerns regarding the changes. But despite these attempts to clearly articulate the schedule changes, there is still confusion among students.
VUHS junior Kai Williams said that this is a time of major transition, and students need opportunities to figure out what the future of their high school education will look like.
“This is a huge change,” said Williams. “I think there just needs to be time for people to ask questions.”
Andy Kirkaldy contributed material to this report. Marin Howell is a VUHS senior who interned with the Independentthis past fall, edits a VUHS student newspaper, and volunteered to write this story.

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