Community forum: A Vergennes teacher leads the way in education

By Andy Kirkaldy

This week’s writer is Andy Kirkaldy, an Addison County Independent reporter who has covered education in the Vergennes area for two decades.

A major shift in the way Vermont schools must deliver education is looming, and there is a way for Vermonters to help our schools adapt—by supporting a single Vergennes teacher with 30 seconds of their time.

But before I explain how to do so, here’s why it is important for Vermonters to help that one teacher and her school.

This past spring, the Legislature passed Act 77, which requires schools to adopt “Flexible Pathways” for students working toward high school graduation.

Act 77 concludes, in part, with this:

“By Nov. 30, 2015, a school district shall ensure development of a personalized learning plan for:

(A) each student then in grade seven or nine; and (B) for each student then in grade 11 or 12 who wishes to enroll in a dual enrollment pursuant to Sec. 1 of this act.”

Additional deadlines exist for 2016 and 2017.

And, as the infomercials say, “but wait, there’s more.”

This past December, the Vermont Agency of Education adopted new educational quality standards that include this:

“Schools must provide students the opportunity to experience learning through flexible and multiple pathways, including but not limited to career and technical education, virtual learning, work-based learning, service learning, dual enrollment and early college.”

Critically, it states:

“Students must be allowed to demonstrate proficiency by presenting multiple types of evidence, including but not limited to teacher- or student-designed assessments, portfolios, performances, exhibitions and projects.”

Many high schools around the state are doing good work and have been working on or have already incorporated personalized learning plans, known as PLPs. A partial list includes Mount Abraham, Champlain Valley, South Burlington, Bellows Falls and Thetford.

One school is further ahead of the curve and could serve as a model for many others: Vergennes Union High School.

Not only is VUHS adopting PLPs, but within a few years all its students must demonstrate what the Agency of Education standards talk about: showing their mastery of material in order to graduate, not just sitting in classrooms long enough to earn enough credits for their diplomas.

For several years now, VUHS has been developing “Proficiency Based Graduation Requirements,” (PBGRs), which are now being phased in. Each class of seniors will face increasing demands to show concrete evidence of what they have learned.

The VUHS effort has been backed over those years by two $100,000 Rowland Foundation Fellowships and two grants from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation that total almost another $170,000.

Those funds have supported countless hours of after-school and summer work, almost all done by teachers.

Tasks include writing PBGRs for each academic discipline, while making sure they conform to state and federal standards; creating ways to evaluate non-traditional student work; and developing the technology for electronic portfolios in which students will keep material to showcase their learning.

A central benefit to students, as well as the more hands-on instruction they will receive, is that they will also take more active roles in their education.

Students must take responsibility for collecting material to put in those portfolios during their high school careers. They must also help design elements of their education—they will help create their PLPs, which can include off-campus internships, work and community service projects as well as classroom instruction.

Students of all abilities and talents will also better be able to focus them and work at appropriate paces.

The VUHS efforts do not have to be duplicated elsewhere, but other schools can save time and, yes, money, by studying what VUHS has done. The proverbial wheel does not have to be reinvented.

How can Vermont residents help?

The Nellie Mae Education Foundation has nominated one VUHS teacher, who has led the effort at the school and wrote or co-wrote $270,000 of the grants that the school won, for a competitive award.

If she wins, it would mean another $100,000 to help VUHS put the finishing touches on its PBGR work.

The VUHS teacher is up against nominees from the other five (larger) New England states. It’s essentially an online popularity contest, and she is trailing the Maine nominee.

The deadline to vote is Tuesday, Sept. 30. Voting is easy: Log onto vuhs.org. In the middle of the screen the words will appear: “Kristine Kirkaldy nominated for Leadership Award. Help her win $100,000.00 for VUHS! Vote for her here.” (The direct link is www.nmefoundation.org/grants/larry-o-toole-award)

Click on the link, find her photo among the six nominees, on the bottom right, and vote. That means supplying a name and email—Nellie Mae will not try to sell you anything. That provision simply prevents people from voting more than once.

As for the matching names, yes, Kristine Kirkaldy is my wife.

But I have been covering VUHS for 20 years, and I can certainly be objective on the facts.

Subjectively, I believe I am lucky. Kristine is really kind and wonderful as well as, like her VUHS colleagues, smart and dedicated.

Objectively, I can say she, VUHS and Vermont are worth your votes.

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