The end of summer and the beginning of another school year is an important milestone in the life of each child. For many Vermont kids, this summer was likely a time of rich experience and opportunity, with travel to a new place, quality time with family and friends, camp, and days packed with learning, excitement, and growth. Though sadly, this is not the narrative for some of our kids, with time outside of school less engaging, where people, parents, and programs may be absent, and where boredom is too present and pervasive.
We know that ensuring kids have more time to learn in high-quality, engaging environments is essential for their development and a good indicator of future success. That’s exactly why we’re working so hard to ensure more Vermont children have those opportunities to learn and be engaged both in and out of school.
Starting next year, every Vermont child will have access to high quality pre-K education, making Vermont the first state in the nation to guarantee pre-K education to every three and four year old. With universal pre-K, we have taken a big step towards ensuring that all Vermont children enter their school age years with every possible opportunity to be ready to learn. To further support these efforts, we’ve also been able to secure $37 million in federal grants to bolster early education programs to help give Vermont kids a strong start.
Because we all know that kids can’t learn effectively when they’re hungry, we’re also working to ensure that all low-income students have access to free, nutritious school meals. To do that, we have eliminated the reduced-price category for school lunch, allowing all students eligible for free or reduced price meals to get lunch for free. Since this took effect, food service directors have reported a marked increase in school meal participation. Working with Hunger Free Vermont, we also launched a new program that allows eligible schools to offer free meals to all students in the school, reducing administrative burdens on school administrators, creating a more inclusive school meal experience, and reducing the stigma that can be associated with receiving free meals. Six months after the launch of this new program over 30 Vermont schools have already enrolled and are reporting improved school meal finances and an average school meal participation rate increase of 10 percent.
Beyond the early years, we’re working to ensure that high school students have opportunities to engage beyond their day-to-day curriculum. By creating flexible pathways to secondary school completion, we’re increasing Vermont students’ individual options while fostering a connection between school and careers. These flexible pathways include Personalized Learning Plans for every student, internships, career and technical education as well as work-based and virtual learning.
To allow for further personalized learning, I signed into law legislation that expanded dual enrollment, a program that allows students to earn college credit for free while still in high school. The law has been a huge success, with the number of Vermont students taking advantage of dual enrollment, doubling from around 600 to almost 1,300 in 2014. Combined with the Vermont Strong Scholars program–which will pay for up to one year of college-level tuition for any Vermont student who studies at a Vermont college or university and stays to work in an emerging sector of our economy–Vermont students who play their cards right will be able to receive up to two years of free college tuition.
The reason I feel so strongly about creating extra-curricular educational opportunities for kids is because I benefited greatly from such help. As a kid who learned differently, I remember being told in second grade that I would unlikely go on to college, let alone become a successful student. But one teacher believed in me. After her long days at school, Claire Ogelsby loaded me in her Willys Jeep and took me to her log cabin deep in the woods on Windmill Hill Road in Westminster West and, slowly and creatively, she taught me how to read.
Every child in Vermont deserves the same opportunity to be inspired, engaged, and guided to learn with that helping hand I received. It has been my goal that each Vermont child receives not only the best, but the most equitable education possible, from pre-K through adulthood. With the help of many, we’re building an educational system in Vermont that will provide those opportunities and let every child, regardless of income, achieve his or her full potential.