Vergennes schools face equity challenge

“If we step back from content being the metric by which we’re evaluating student performance … then suddenly that levels the playing field, there’s equity.”
— Superintendent Sheila Soule

VERGENNES — On the surface there appears to be plenty for Addison Northwest School District administrators and teachers to like about the multi-grade-level student test results that were released in the Vermont Agency of Education’s most recent “Annual Snapshot.”
ANWSD as a whole is rated as “Meeting” standards for English Language Arts and Mathematic instruction, as is Vermont as a whole.
And in some respects ANWSD looks better than the state. Vergennes Union High School is ranked as “Excelling” in its improvement in English and Math instruction, thus faring better than schools across the state as a whole, which received evaluations of “Not Improving” in English and “Improving” in Math.
But there is a nagging problem in ANWSD, and it is one that is shared by the Mount Abraham Unified, Otter Valley Unified Union and Addison Central school districts.
The four local districts are among the many in Vermont in which students who are eligible for free lunches and/or for special education services are not showing the same amount of academic progress as their peers.
“If we look at students in need of additional support, individual education and special-ed students, that subgroup is not performing (in school) as well as … their historically privileged peers,” ANWSD Superintendent Sheila Soule said.
“They’re not closing the achievement gap between the groups.” 
The better news is that unlike the days of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, when schools were identified as failing if different classes in different years performed less well on tests, now data is being used to identify schools that need help closing what school officials call an “equity gap.”
And the newer federal law that does so, the 2015 federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), also provides funding to help schools that are so identified.
Soule said the 50 Vermont schools or districts that are eligible are those that show the largest equity gaps; small schools are exempted because they are too small to offer a large enough sample size. In all the local districts the Annual Snapshot identified only union high schools and the largest elementary schools as showing equity gaps.
You can see the full report for Vermont schools online at
At VUHS steps had already been taken that Soule and VUHS Principal Stephanie Taylor believe can help close the equity gap. The school’s long and at times painfully slow march toward proficiency-based education should itself help to level the playing field, they said.
Taylor said focusing on the proficiency of each student during classroom instruction and tailoring personal learning plans — including allowing more internships and student-driven and student-designed projects — should create equity.
“All students should be showing growth,” she said.
Soule said learning skills such as problem solving, communication and collaboration can be found in many settings by focusing on skills rather than content.
“Some kids are going to access that analytical kind of problem-solving thinking through a traditional classroom experience, AP Calculus, something like that. Someone else might be tapping those analytical kind or problem-solving skills at the tech center, or in an internship working side-by-side with someone who owns a business,” Soule said.
“If we step back from content being the metric by which we’re evaluating student performance … then suddenly that levels the playing field, there’s equity.”
Taylor said the new VUHS schedule also creates equity. Previously band and chorus were available only at lunchtime — when it conflicted with the school’s mid-day “call-back” period, during which students who need extra help can meet with teachers to catch up. That conflict often meant the group of students who were lagging could not take advantage of the school’s music programs. Now they are available as regular courses.
VUHS, like almost every other high school in the state, has also switched almost all courses to year-round sessions taken every other day rather than half-year courses taken daily. Taylor said the switch allows for more immersion and more time for teachers to work with students who need help.
Taylor also plans by January to add students to the school’s leadership team through an application process. She said those students could be members of a new joint student-teacher Communicating School Redesign course that Soule has supported at the school.
Soule and Taylor also described two key programs — supported by grants as well as in-budget funds — intended to help the school’s faculty take steps to close the equity gap and better work with proficiency-based education.
The first step will come when teachers return for their preschool in-service. Keynote speaker and University of Vermont professor Matt Kolan will talk on what Soule called the “structures or belief systems that are in place that are preventing kids from succeeding.”
She hopes Kolan can open minds and begin dialogue on the topic.
“If there is a belief system that only the kids who reach the highest level of coursework in our system are successful and everyone else is less than, we’re going to have results that mirror those beliefs,” Soule said.  
Starting before classes resume and then during professional development throughout the school year, two organizations — Great Schools Partnership and Teachers Development Group — will work with VUHS teachers to update instructional practices.
Soule said proficiency-based education and assessment — students will not be graded, but be evaluated much as schools are, as exceeding, meeting, approaching or failing to meet required standards — requires a different approach.
Great Schools Partnership, she said, will be “working with the teachers with their practice in their classrooms, because we’re changing the endgame for them.”
Taylor said VUHS is also moving away from a traditional department structure of grouping teachers for in-service work. Groups will include teachers from all disciplines and grade levels, and the sessions will not focus on content, but on the principles of good teaching.
“It’s what are the qualities of good instruction, and there’s a distinct list of what good instruction should look like in every classroom. It doesn’t matter what the content area. It doesn’t matter what the grade. Instruction should include these elements,” Taylor said.
“And I think now that we are going to be moving away from an assessment-based (grading) system to students showing evidence of proficiency, and dealing with students who are challenged with the idea of meeting proficiency, what is it we need to be doing in the classroom?”
The Teachers Development Group, on the other hand, will focus on the VUHS Mathematics Department. While overall trends are good, the equity gap in that discipline is particularly stubborn, Taylor said. The main focus will be classroom instruction, but math labs are being added.
“In math we tend to teach to the middle. And it’s one lesson and everybody practices it. And students who aren’t keeping up go somewhere else to get caught up. And what we need to do is to be working to get those kids caught up in our own classes,” Taylor said.
Both Taylor and Soule acknowledged the changes, including the switch to proficiency-based education and assessment that is backed at the state level, have been and will be challenging.
“If you’ve been teaching a long time and you’re used to really traditional instruction and we’re suddenly saying, ‘We’re defining success differently,’ it changes your practice completely. So we’re beginning the support with Great Schools to really get at the heart at what that means instructionally in the classroom,”  Soule said. “Teachers need a lot of support in thinking that through and redesigning learning opportunities, redesigning curriculum, redesigning those learning experiences.”
Soule also believes the existing changes and the work to come in ANWSD can make a difference for students on the wrong side of the equity gap.
“We think about equity as closing the gap,” she said. “We might expect that students who for one reason or another are disadvantaged to have the same learning opportunities, and we can expect that they will have success and growth, and that there are no barriers to them having those opportunities.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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