BRISTOL — In a storefront-turned-classroom, Mount Abraham Union High School senior Jeff Casey paused mid-sentence while his classmates chuckled.
It was the end of term, and the 18-year-old was presenting his final coursework. In his case, that meant a slim folio of poems, a sketchbook filled with photographs and collages, and, in the grand finale, a short story inspired by John Updike’s “A & P.”
His classmates were in stitches, and applauded enthusiastically when Casey reached the end of his story about a grocery store clerk stuck people-watching from the check-out lane.
“You should publish that,” one of the other students called out.
“I seriously want a copy of that story,” said another, and Casey shortly obliged, handing over the slightly rumpled pages to his classmate after the presentation.
A truck driver barreling down Bristol’s Main Street tapped his hydraulic brakes, a noisy reminder that this classroom is a world away from Mount Abe’s bustling hallways. In what used to be an antique store on the village’s main drag, Casey and 13 other students spent this semester wading through the first months of an academic experiment in self-directed learning.
This is the “Pathways” program, Mount Abe’s pilot project in alternative education. The classroom is equipped with computers, couches and large tables. But gone are the rows of neatly arranged desks and suites of matching textbooks: In Pathways, students construct their own curriculum, collaborate with faculty and community mentors, and work toward an independent final project instead of a traditional exam.
In Casey’s case, that meant spending the semester focusing on creative writing and art. While he knew he liked composing short stories, he tried his hand at poetry for the first time, and began experimenting with mash-ups of photography and painting.
But the projects are as varied as the students in the program, who range from eighth- to 12th-graders. Fourteen-year-old Jamie Weening, a ninth-grader, learned how to build his own guitar, a lesson in everything from music to the physics of sound.
Jonah Wheelock, 14, spent the second half of his freshman year investigating the philosophy of teaching, shadowing educators at Bristol Elementary School, the Red Cedar School and Robinson Elementary School in Starksboro. Wheelock wants to be a sixth-grade teacher someday, he explained, so he wanted to see how different teachers tackled conflict resolution, teaching methods, classroom environment and presentation of materials.
Meanwhile, eighth-grader Sterling Pelsue, 14, spent his semester studying blacksmithing, wild edibles and hunting and fishing — skills he hopes will come in handy someday as an outdoor guide. In a lesson about cold-water survival, he didn’t just read about hypothermia: He dove headlong (under proper supervision) into Bristol’s Clifford Pond, trying to survive 30 minutes in 55-degree water. His body temperature dropped from 98.6 to 95 degrees.
“I tried to swim, and it was like trying to run into a really high-powered fan,” Pelsue said. “You don’t move at all, but you’re trying so hard. In your brain, you’re going like 100 miles per hour, but after 30 seconds of straight swimming you only moved two feet.”
The philosophy behind Pathways is relatively simple: Some students learn more when they’re investigating a project that has relevance in their own life.
By tying academic standards to independent projects, the Pathways directors hope they can engage the sorts of students who don’t, for whatever reason, succeed in traditional classrooms. That includes highly gifted students who grow bored in the classroom, as well as those more suited to learning by doing.
This semester, Pathways relied on teacher and guidance counselor recommendations to recruit the class of 14 students. But word is spreading. Next year, Pathways will double its enrollment to 28 students, and between 50 and 60 students have expressed interest in the program.
But building a program like this is a trial-and-error experiment, Mount Abe educators said. Program leader and advisor Caroline Camara said this semester was a learning experience for teachers and students both. Assessing project-based learning is a different beast altogether than grading papers, and even students need to learn how to document their learning in new ways.
Part-time staff member Vickie Boffalo pointed out that students also have to discover what it means to be part of an independent, experiential learning community — and that change doesn’t happen overnight.
“It takes a while for the environment to really kind of foster that type of (self-directed) learning, for students to realize that they have to take an ownership for it, and that they’re in charge of their learning rather than waiting for a teacher to present every instruction,” Boffalo said.
That’s why the program’s directors are excited that most of the younger students in the program will continue on with Pathways. They envision that in the long term students will come into Pathways and stay for years. The options for building each student’s curriculum over that time is flexible: While students are required to head to Mount Abe for math class, they also have the chance to take courses at the Hannaford Career Center and the Community College of Vermont.
The first semester of the Pathways program wraps up this month, but many of the younger students in the program will be back next fall: In fact, it’s in September that Pathways will double its enrollment from 14 to 28 students.
This year-long experiment is funded by a $250,000 outside grant from the Nellie Mae Foundation, and the program’s directors are working on grant applications now that could bring in $200,000 for next spring. Camara said that if all goes in the program’s favor, Pathways could be independently funded with as much as $1 million per year for an additional three years beyond that.
But eventually the program’s funding would need to be taken over by local money — and Camara knows that building in funding for a new program will be tough in this economic climate.
Still, she’s adamant that the Pathways program could be part of the “systematic change” that Mount Abe is eyeing after the high school landed on a controversial list of 10 persistently low-achieving schools in the state.
Economic challenges aside, educators and students both at Pathways are enthusiastic about the program.
“It’s fundamentally changed me as an educator,” Camara said. She worked for four years as a science teacher at Mount Abe, and taught at Vergennes Union High School before that. If she ever returns to a traditional classroom, Camara said, Pathways will have revolutionized the way she thinks about teaching.
“It’s essential for every student to really come at their education from their passions, their interests, from their perspective on what they see themselves becoming as adults,” she said. “It’s much more of a partnership in education rather than a teacher driving the knowledge that’s being transferred.”
That partnership is part of what Casey appreciated most during his time in Pathways. He’d attended a the Red Cedar School in Bristol for a few years in middle school, and liked the informal learning environment there were students called teachers by their first names and collaborated on lesson plans.
Transitioning into Mount Abe after that experience was difficult, he said.
Not that Pathways was easy. Casey struggled midway through the semester to produce work without the strict guidelines of daily homework exercises and defined assignments.
“I was forced to step up,” he said.
Most of the younger students in the program hope to continue in Pathways. Wheelock was one of the students on the advising team that crafted the program, and said he’s grateful Mount Abe has this option for students now. He wishes the program had been around when his older brothers came through the school; both opted to earn their General Educational Development (GED) certifications rather than complete traditional high school.
“I just couldn’t stand sitting in a classroom and doing the work a teacher handed to me,” Wheelock said. “I like doing my own work. Being able to write about what I want to makes it so that I’m able to do work a lot more productively. It’s just really good for hands-on kids.”
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at email@example.com.