Innovative educator Lee Shorey leaves legacy at VUHS

VERGENNES — Trying to get in a quick word with longtime Vergennes Union High School special educator Lee Shorey after the school’s June 14 graduation ceremony is like approaching Beyoncé at the Met Gala — you wait your turn.
Several students, many of them graduates from years past, hugged Shorey, asked her how she is doing, and, importantly for some, reassured her they are doing well — “I own my own business now!” said one who returned from the Midwest. One also told her about another former student of hers who is also making his own way successfully.
Those interactions help explain why Shorey, who has just retired, stayed at VUHS for 40 years.
There she worked not only as a special educator, but also as the founder of the school’s Response Resource Center, an innovative discipline system designed to keep students in the classroom, and as a driving force behind many of the school’s defining activities — the annual senior walkathon; Back to Your Roots, in which seniors visit their former elementary schools; and the annual Peace One Day celebration.
Although Shorey’s family has for generations had roots in the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard (her parents met there while in line waiting for a movie), as a youngster her nuclear family had moved from state to state, from California and eventually back East.
Shorey, who recently turned 65, said she and her husband Phil, a stonemason who died in 2013, and their three children eventually found a home in Ferrisburgh and at VUHS.
“I found community by my career here. I moved so much. And for Phil and me there has been a sense of community that we never felt we would experience, through both our work and through our kids,” Shorey said.
Truthfully, it was also about her students and what they meant to her, and she meant to them. Shorey, for instance, remembers all too well the night her husband was stricken at their home and died. A former student she had once had to discipline but had gone on to become a Vergennes Area Rescue Squad EMT, was first on the scene.
He comforted her, put a hand on her shoulder and told her she had done a good job for Phil, but VARS could take over now. Shorey remembered the contrast from his early school years.
“I put him in detention. I made him repaint a picnic table at the elementary school. He had graffitied it and left his initials there. And I hunted him down,” Shorey said. “And he marched over there and met with the custodian and sanded it down and re-shellacked it. And he told me senior year it was the best thing I could have done. And he was the first one through the door to try to save Phil. How can I even tell you that how meaningful that is to me?”
Another time, even earlier, another VARS EMT and former student showed up when her daughter was in a car accident — even though he wasn’t on call.
Shorey had to pause for an occasional deep breath as she related those incidents, or discussed the students approaching her at graduation, or her receiving other signs of respect and affection as she approached retirement.
A letter to Shorey from a sophomore concluded: “Every day I’ll try to follow in your footsteps and inspire others, because of how much it meant to me when you did it. Thank you, Lee.”
Shorey, typically seen at VUHS with her certified therapy dog, Commodore, summed up, “I’ve found community in this school, and I want to give it back to them any way I can.”
Shorey did not come immediately to VUHS after completing her undergraduate education; she and Phil first headed to Woodstock. But before long the Shoreys and more than two-dozen friends bought Ecole Champlain, once an exclusive summer camp on Kingsland Bay in Ferrisburgh. It is now Kingsland Bay State Park.
They accepted troubled students from around the Northeast into what they renamed as the Kingsland Bay School. Eventually they contracted solely with the state of Vermont, and ultimately sold the property to the state, which transformed the property into the park. Shorey and others briefly ran the school in Vergennes. But by 1979 most of it was absorbed into VUHS.
The VUHS program served what Shorey called “high-risk” area students who needed extra attention.
What Shorey and others who came along to VUHS offered was the Tutorial Assistance Program, or TAP. She denies having any official leadership position, although she coordinated eight other teachers while teaching three subjects; she settled on “lead teacher.”
“I don’t know what you would call me. I was the one who did the circles. ‘Positive peer culture’ it was called back in the early ’80s, and we kept that concept going,” Shorey said.
By 2001 the program had a new acronym, ACT, for Alternative Collaborative Team. It served grades 7 through 9 with an alternative to typical classroom education that included the first VUHS boat-building collaboration with the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s Nick Patch.
“We would work on them (students) on the mountain. We would work on them in canoes, on the water, just really great wonderful stuff,” Shorey said. “What we would do with horseback riding, I don’t think an insurance company would even consider doing that now. We were out and about all the time.”
Maybe a decade ago Shorey and planning room mainstay Laurie Steadman were discussing Steadman and teachers’ frustrations with the VUHS disciplinary system. The planning room was where teachers would send disruptive students to chill out, which allowed classrooms to function.
But Shorey said those students’ behavior wouldn’t change, and they were missing valuable classroom time.
The solution took many forms. VUHS created a mid-day callback time where students could meet with teachers to catch up on missed work, and a morning meeting system that allowed advisors to communicate with students who needed to be called back.
And Shorey, colleague Ralph Bernardini and Steadman came up with another idea, to use techniques from Shorey’s programs and apply them to discipline throughout the school. Soon the Resource Response Center — or RRC — was born to replace the planning room.
“It was responding in a way that was having kids understand through teaching what they need to change in order to keep learning,” Shorey said.
In the new system Steadman would still get the call, but an RRC member — they include Counseling Service of Addison County members and school employees — would respond. The RRC member could cover the class and allow teachers to have a conversation in a hallway or private location, or remove the student if necessary. Or if the issue was more widespread among the students in a room ask them to circle up with the teacher and the counselor and work out an answer.
“It would happen so quickly that student could continue with the class if we were good with what we wanted to do in the situation,” Shorey said. “There were all these different things RRC could do to keep learning going and enhance it on some level.”
Many will remember Shorey’s extracurricular efforts even more. Her work to create the first senior class walkathon came in the fall of 2009 after a mutual tragedy in Shorey’s life and in that of one of her student’s — the death of a close friend.
“In 2009 I lost Beth Houskeeper to breast cancer. Her daughter, Kate, was like my fairy god-daughter,” Shorey said. “We had lost Beth in the spring and I saw Kate in the corner with a vacant look in her eye and I thought, ‘How could I get through to her?’ And I turned to the whole class and I asked, ‘How many of you have been affected by cancer in your lives?’ O
ver half of them raised their hands, and I go, ‘So, what are we going to do about it?’”
That moment sparked a discussion that led to the first walkathon. The senior class walked from VUHS to Porter Hospital, part of the way over each of three days, raising pledges for aid to women in financial need for free mammograms.
The class raised $4,500, and the walks have since become an annual fall fixture. The senior class decides on a cause, typically connected to a class or community member, collects pledges, and stages a walkathon. This past fall senior raised about $4,000 for the Love Your Brain foundation in honor of a classmate.
The fall walkathon occurs while younger students are taking standardized tests. Shorey thought about sending seniors back to their elementary schools during spring testing. By combining service projects and mentoring, she said several goals could be accomplished, including reinforcing the class’s bonds.
Projects have including planting trees, mulching playgrounds, and creating time capsules. This year, Shorey asked seniors to give advice to sixth-graders, something she said meant not only a lot to younger students, but also crystallized for older students how far they had come.
“They talk about who they are, where they’re going, what memory they have,” Shorey said. “It brought tears to all of our eyes, what those seniors said to all of those sixth-graders.”
Those tears came mostly from teachers, who were able to reconnect with students they had not seen for much of six years.
“I want teachers to know the impact they have on students,” Shorey said. “Back to The Roots was all about that, to have teachers see how students have grown through the system, and each of them have had a piece of it.”
Teachers appreciate any such feedback, Shorey said.
“You do it all day long through 185 days teaching in front of a class … They’re raising up a student from grief or sadness and they’re still getting that German lesson out. It’s that all-encompassing role that they play,” she said. “And the amount of feedback a teacher gets is minimal, minimal. And what keeps them going, what drives them, is the response from the students and what they get back from the students. That’s what we feed off of.”
Three years ago Shorey retired as a special education teacher, but administrators persuaded her to remain fulltime and run a leaner RRC operation.
“I was gung ho to keep that going. I wasn’t finished with that yet,” Shorey said.
But she said she has plenty to keep herself busy in retirement, including with Commodore.
“I get a posting every month where you can bring your therapy dog. And I’ve gotten invitations to go the schools after the school shootings. After the Parkland shooting I couldn’t go, and there’s post-traumatic stress that’s going on now. I can go with Commodore,” Shorey said. “Everything I’ve done here … and I say, ‘Not on my watch. Not on my watch.’”
She also intends to travel and meet at least one of her idols, the Pakistani activist Malala, but also to finish what she and Phil hoped to do at their house.
“Our plans were when we both retired that Phil would work on his own home, and that is something I’m determined to do,” Shorey said.
But she also hints VUHS might not have seen the last of her.
“I just feel there’s a lot I can do and maybe come back as a resource for this school,” Shorey said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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