ADDISON COUNTY — As schools around the county scramble to keep up with rapid developments in information technology, leading educators have repeatedly voiced concern that education models embraced 10-20 years ago aren’t cutting it anymore. And students who don’t fit the traditional education mold are getting left behind.
Educators at Mount Abraham Union High School and Vermont Adult Learning recently won $100,000 each for their respective schools that will help them buck the one-size-fits-all education trend and empower students to become lifelong learners who are self-sufficient in the 21st century.
The grants from the Rowland Foundation will cover the cost of a sabbatical for the teachers and provide funding to implement their vision when they return to their schools.
Lauren Parren and Laura Mina were awarded a joint Rowland Fellowship to transform Mount Abe’s library into a hub for personalized learning and professional development.
Alison Bromage, who runs the High School Completion Program at the Addison County branch of the nonprofit Vermont Adult Learning (VAL), was awarded the other Rowland Fellowship. She will use the fellowship to create a countywide experiential learning program that teams up students who are at risk of failing out of school with professionals in various career fields.
A LIBRARY FOR A NEW ERA
Last August, Laura Mina left New York City to take a post at Mount Abraham Union High School as the library media specialist. When she arrived, Mount Abe Co-Principal Leon Wheeler saw an opportunity to blend library information services with technology services.
To put this idea in motion and help the young teacher adapt to a new school, Wheeler paired Mina up with veteran educator Lauren Parren, ANeSU’s education technology coordinator. From the get-go, the two educators hit it off. They began visiting different school libraries across the state and concluded that Mount Abe needed to re-envision its library.
In late September, Wheeler, Mina and Parren attended a conference put on by the Rowland Foundation, a South Londonderry-based nonprofit that promotes professional development for educators. Afterward, Mina and Parren decided that with help from the Rowland Foundation, they could create a new vision and plan for the school’s library. Wheeler wholeheartedly backed their proposal to turn the library into a practice ground for personalized student and teacher learning.
“The time seemed to be perfect for us as a school because we know the direction we’re going in. It’s taking shape all the time, but we’re clear about where we’re going,” said Wheeler.
He explained that Mount Abe is moving toward an education model that serves multiple student pathways by providing students with different learning environments and access to 21st-century technology. Revamping the library’s function is critical to continue moving in that direction, he said.
The Rowland Fellowship awarded to Parren and Mina marks the first time Mount Abe educators have ever won this prestigious award.
Their project is three-fold. They want to:
• Create a plan to rearrange and expand the current library.
• Make personalized learning more visible.
• And provide specialized development programs for teachers.
The first two legs of the project go hand-in-hand. Rearranging the library will create different learning environments in which different types of learners can thrive. For example, they said while some students can’t read with noise, others have trouble focusing without it. While some students need to work on individual projects, other students have group projects that require collaboration. Students think differently and require different avenues to explore different ideas, explained Parren and Mina. Revamping the library’s physical space, they think, will change the way students study.
But in order to improve the school’s education model, teachers will also need a space to learn, Wheeler pointed out.
“There’s a different concept of what learning needs to look like for kids. In order for that learning experience for kids to change, the professionals need an opportunity to figure out, ‘What does this mean for me,’” said Wheeler. “It’s a paradigm shift for teachers … and it takes time.”
Parren and Mina plan to spend much of next school year traveling around the country, looking at libraries and school models that integrate this idea of personalized learning into their curriculums. The money they were awarded will pay for their travel expenses and substitutes in their absence. The grant will not pay for capital construction costs to the library. The project is meant to create a new plan to overhaul the library, not fund suggested physical alterations.
For the first six months of the next school year, their plan is to alternate two weeks together on the road “in the cloud,” as Parren put it, followed by two weeks at the school. But to create a new model to bring Mount Abe’s library into the 21st century, they’ll first need to answer a number of big questions.
“We can all say we’re going to transform learning,” said Parren. “We can all say I support student-centered learning. But we don’t know what it really looks like and that’s what we’re going to try to figure out.”
But what about those students who struggle to learn in the walled-off setting of a school?
Using alternative education models, Alison Bromage helps students who don’t fit into the traditional school landscape. She does this in the fresh Vermont air, outside the barriers of school walls.
Take “Chris,” the student she anecdotally referenced at the beginning of her Rowland Fellowship application. Frustrated at Middlebury Union High School, Chris was on the verge of running away. In a forestry class he was really interested in, he was struggling to see eye-to-eye with his teacher.
As Bromage wrote in her application, “I learned that Chris knows nearly every inch of land in Addison County; he hunts coyotes for their bounty; and he talks poetically about being in the woods, surrounded by dusk, as the deer come out. He just didn’t fit in at school.”
It was Chris who gave her the impetus to apply for the Rowland Fellowship. She wanted to connect Chris with a community mentor — someone like a game warden or taxidermist — to show him that he could find professional success doing what he loves. While learning, she thought, why shouldn’t Chris get school credit for his hard work?
“Why shouldn’t a student get a science credit for shadowing a dental hygienist or a game warden for three months?” she asked in an interview last week.
But it wasn’t just Chris she wanted to connect with local professionals, it was all of the students at Vermont Adult Learning. With the infrastructure in place and support from local schools, the only thing preventing her from creating a network for community-based learning was time, until the Rowland Foundation awarded her a fellowship — the first given to an educator at VAL.
Now, she’s planning to help a range of Vermont students, ages 16-22, hone professional skills outside of the classroom.
“What better learning experience than to actually make learning real? Let the students feel ownership of what they do,” she said. “Kids lead rich amazing lives outside of schools, and why shouldn’t they get credit for it? They’re doing slam poetry, they’re hunting, they’re doing taxidermy. Why isn’t that considered part of their education? Because it’s outside of four walls? That’s sort of ridiculous to me. These students might be amazing chess players or designing video games and that’s seen as superfluous to their education or called an extracurricular activity when it might be the heart of that student’s future.”
Bromage has already matched several students with community mentors, and some students have received school credits. One student who was severely ill came to Bromage because he missed too many days of school to continue in a normal setting. He’s a local history buff, said Bromage, and she linked him up with the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, where he’s been conducting research on the War of 1812. As a result, Vergennes Union High School is giving him academic credit.
That’s the type of partnership Bromage wants to expand upon. For the first six months of her fellowship, she’ll reach out to Addison County experts and professionals to see who’s interested in having an apprentice. Meanwhile, she’ll design a curriculum around the opportunities that crop up. During the second six months of the fellowship, she’ll work toward implementing the project.
Her aim is to create a community education cooperative that can be used as a model for other communities, and her far-off goal is to put herself out of a job. If public schools can provide more avenues for hands-on education and can support those students who don’t learn effectively in the classroom, Bromage’s position would become obsolete.
Local professionals interested in working with Bromage can contact her by phone at 802-388-4392 and by e-mail at [email protected].
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected]