CVU turns 50: a legacy of innovation, leadership, and community

CVU-sign_Hinesburg_Vermont_USAAll CVU alumni, students, teachers, staff, and administrators are invited to “walk” with the 50th graduating class at its commencement on June 13 at Patrick Gym. An alumni reception will follow. To RSVP, ask questions, volunteer, or stay in the loop please visit the Facebook page, Champlain Valley Union High School 50th Birthday Celebration; email; or call 482-7111.

In 1960, Shelburne resident Barbara Snelling, wife of future Governor Richard Snelling, chaired an Exploratory Committee to study the possibility of creating a supervisory school district to provide one regional high school for area elementary schools. Sound familiar? The tension between retaining or consolidating local school districts is as fresh and relevant in Vermont today as it was 50 years ago. If the past informs the future, the remarkable success of Champlain Valley Union (CVU) High School serves as an exemplar for the great potential and challenges that define school consolidation efforts. Thankfully, we are all the beneficiaries of the epic efforts of Snelling and a cadre of community leaders who exemplified the strong leadership and drive for innovation that continue to be the hallmark qualities defining and enhancing the CVU community today.

From the start, things moved quickly. IBM had arrived and population was growing rapidly. Vermont was awakening from a century-long snooze. The Exploratory Committee – including the towns of Charlotte, Hinesburg, Shelburne, St. George, and Williston – worked quickly. By 1962 the towns approved the supervisory union. An organizational committee was quickly formed, a school board elected and building plan completed.

The August 1962 groundbreaking anticipated a September 1964 school opening. The new building was mandated to be “a simple, practical structure, without frills, to accommodate 750 students and expandable to 1,000.” The completed structure comprised three separate buildings connected by breezeways. It was guaranteed to handle anticipated enrollments for 10 years. At the last minute, the board dropped the track and greenhouse to meet its frugal budget.

In the meantime, the board hired a superintendent, principal, and faculty; purchased furniture; created and approved policies; developed curriculum; and bought six school busses. The school was already a month ahead of schedule.

Doors opened in 1964, and CVU served 13 area elementary schools with an initial enrollment of 460 students. The faculty had one week to prepare for the first day of school while the school board faced two alarming concerns: they needed one more bus and 10 more teachers. As soon as the first student stepped inside, the school board faced the realization that student population would increase at a far faster rate than anyone anticipated. In 1966 new projections predicted that student population would reach 2,400 in eight years! The school board proposed two bonds to expand the school. Both were defeated. At just four years old CVU purchased its first “temps” modular classrooms that has served CVU with a remarkable sense of permanence.

In spite of these concerns, CVU was off to a great start. The board noted that “from the beginning the community has demonstrated its enthusiasm and support for the school.” The newly-hired faculty was “an extremely well prepared professional staff” and Principal Vince Durnan noted, “the students quickly absorbed into the greatly expanded program of courses and became a close knit student body, functioning as a unit.” CVU won the soccer state championship in 1964 and 1965. “Soccer Central” had arrived.

In 1968 Snelling announced her resignation as chair of the CVU School Board. Her vision and leadership left an indelible mark for future generations of students, teachers, administrators, and school board members. Her legacy provided a rock solid foundation which would serve the community well during the tumultuous 70s. Her departure corresponded with the purchase of four more temps.

CVU’s great tradition for innovation was born of necessity. With two failed construction bonds, how was the school to deal with the instant overcrowding? In 1966, Principal Vincent Durnan proposed some possible solutions for restructuring staff and facilities to accommodate growing enrollment, including team teaching, correspondence courses, independent research projects, staggered session, UVM courses, and summer school. Off-campus classrooms, an extended school year, and CVU’s unique scheduling allowed for classes of various lengths – none of which required added expense.

Soon more innovative educational ideas, always a trademark of CVU, would come to pass. In 1970 the Do Unto Others (DUO) program began. Ultimately this community service/internship/career exploration program would see 300 CVU students engaged in the community. This cutting-edge initiative also had the added benefit of getting numerous students out of the building at one time. A year later, the LIFE program, an alternative off-site program for students who struggled in the large school, opened its doors under the leadership of Tom Hart. The LIFE program continues to serve as a pre-eminent model for alternative programming.

A proposed alternative year-long calendar, called 45-15, was advanced in 1971 to address overcrowding but the community did not favor this proposal. At the same time the state informed school administrators that the building was 20,000 square feet short of its required size. CVU’s intrepid latest principal, Johannes Olsen,  persevered. He responded with the multiple access curriculum and calendar. This proposal included 16 nine-week sessions staggered in three-week intervals. Students could self-design a schedule as long as they attended 175 days a year. Since students could begin and end the school year any time during the year, the program featured the possibility of three-year graduations and year-round schooling. It should come as no surprise that Olsen’s proposals were not well received.

These times found public schools everywhere struggling with rapidly changing social mores, increased substance abuse, very crowded conditions, massive educational reform initiatives, and community concerns. CVU was no exception. The school board was faced with two court-mandated obligations: Title IX required equitable access to programs for males and females; and a mandated reconfiguration of the composition of the school board. On top of this, a bond to improve athletic fields was defeated. In an impressive understatement, the superintendent suggested that “It is time that more positive things about our school are brought out.”

The arrival of new principal Lou Lambert to Champlain Valley Union (CVU) High School in 1973 was rightfully perceived as a renewal. Lambert noted on CVU’s 10th anniversary that 35 to 40 percent of CVU students were college-bound, and the school ought to enhance services and programs for students who do not go to college. Finally, in 1974 and again in 1978, bonds passed to improve fields and upgrade the woefully small library. Two alternative, off-site programs – Girl’s Life and The Learning Place – were introduced in 1975.

Sadly, Principal Lambert succumbed to an aggressive bone cancer in 1978. Associate and Acting Principal Greg Sinner noted, “The human dimension of what happened to our school community this year virtually defy description. The powerful and painful reality that Lou was dying banded us together in way that was more significant than those of a more superficial ‘school spirit.’ We responded in a thoughtful and humane way. Lou’s death sparks the irrepressible human spirit. To paraphrase Lou, ‘At CVU we not only learn to achieve and to reach beyond our grasp, we also learn to love one another.’”

Lambert’s message of love would be sorely tested right away. Overcrowding had reached a critical level. The superintendent bluntly noted, “CVU is the least adequate high school in our region.” The school board was busy with teacher negotiations and grievances. In August 1978, CVU teachers were the first to go on strike in Vermont in 70 years. Barbara Powers was hired as the next principal. Greg Sinner retired soon after, and a year and a half later Powers announced her resignation.

CVU hired Jim Fitzpatrick as principal in 1980. His theme of responsibility, respect, and learning struck a chord. After defeating two construction bonds, the community voted for a revised bond in 1982. CVU was a busy place. In 1984, the present House (Fairbanks, Chittenden, Nichols, Snelling) system was created. Computers soon arrived to campus, and in 1985 the community finally passed a bond for a new parking lot.

After eight years as principal, Fitzpatrick announced his resignation; Associate Principal Val Gardner became CVU’s seventh principal. Gardner’s mantra, “Take care of yourself. Take care of this place. Take care of each other,” emanated through the school. Under her leadership, a number of initiatives were introduced. In a three-year span, the Graduation Challenge program was piloted and implemented. CVU’s advisory system, the Direction Center, as well as the Freshman Core and block scheduling, began on a positive note. The Winter Carnival, Bash the Trash (pay to hack away at a car with a sledge hammer), gave way to the Trike Race. And thanks to a generous 21st Century Grant to extend the school year beyond its traditional schedule and calendar, CVU was able to extend library hours and provide summer link and summer school programs.

Although the building was showing a lot of wear and tear, the community defeated a bond in 2001. Two years later it passed a bond for essentials: roof, windows, rewiring, etc. In 2005, the big bond passed – 18 plus million dollars for a major overhaul and expansion of the main building, a state-of-the-art wood chip burner, and extensive improvements to fields. CVU initiated a football program at this time.

Gardner resigned the same year, leaving behind a dramatically changed CVU. Perhaps one of the most controversial changes was the retirement of the CVU Crusader for the CVU Redhawks. Although many struggled with this change, it certainly did not impact the school’s athletic prowess. CVU has won over 110 state championships in the last 50 years.

In just the last two years, the school won seven state championships each year. Redhawk nation is alive and thriving.

During Sean MacMannon’s tenure, CVU reached its peak population of 1,389 – a far cry from those early predictions of 2,400. The school continued to improve the facility with a complete overhaul of the auditorium. One of the most successful initiatives, CVU Access, has evolved. Today thousands of people from the area attend classes at CVU in the afternoon and evening.

But some things never change. CVU has been blessed with great leadership. Snelling provided a rock solid foundation, and the school board has offered great continuity throughout the years with high-quality membership and long tenures. New principal Jeff Evans empowers students, faculty, and staff to engage in various committees and councils that support and sustain the school.