A new program at CVU aims to tap student passions

By Abbie Bowker

Last spring we reported that my colleague Peter Langella and I were named to the 2017-18 class of fellows by The Rowland Foundation. Peter and I are both educators at Champlain Valley Union High School. I am a visual art teacher and Peter is a librarian.

Our fellowship included a sizeable grant which allows each of us release time from our daily jobs to research school transformation initiatives and create an interest-based program at CVU that allows all students to practice skills, gain knowledge, and meet proficiencies through regularly scheduled experiences of their choosing.

This is an update on our work and an invitation for the community to learn more at an upcoming information night.

Peter and I started this work over five years ago when he learned about Burlington High School’s Year-End-Studies program. That program takes the last two weeks of the school year and changes the learning experience to a different set of varied courses that match up with the passion of both the students and the teachers.

These short courses were intriguing to Peter, who, as his role as a librarian at CVU, saw firsthand how the productivity and engagement of students wanes toward the end of the school year. “I saw this as a way to recharge the learning environment, learn for learning’s sake, and make meaning out of the tail end of the year,” he said.

He knew that I had been working on other scheduling ideas and looped me in. When Peter came to tell me about Year-End-Studies, I was so excited for what opportunities this kind of program could offer CVU, and we got to work right away.

Work we did. We created visiting teams to go to Burlington and Rutland high schools (which has been doing a year-end model for over 20 years) to see firsthand what the experience was like for students.

We loved what we saw.

We worked to bring the learning back to CVU and make recommendations for change toward a year-end model, but the fit wasn’t right for the time. I think we hit the timing wrong on a couple of fronts, not least of which was our changing administration. During the time period we were exploring this work, we had two different principals and while they were both supportive, the idea just didn’t gain traction.

Enter the Rowland Foundation which provides grant monies to innovative teacher leaders who are interested in making substantial changes to their school to better serve their students. We applied with our concept to take the excitement of that Year-End-Studies program and administer it to a schedule that would allow this type of learning to occur one day each week, all year long.

It had been a long while since one of CVU’s teachers was awarded one of the highly competitive Rowland Fellowships and as part of the application process, the principal of the school is interviewed and has to sign off on his support for the proposal.

CVU Principal Adam Bunting told the Rowland Foundation that he thought the proposal to be “elegant in its simplicity” and later explained, “I’m excited for Abbie and Peter’s Rowland proposal because it will increase the number of students who have a deeper sense of purpose. We will provide students the opportunity to explore their interests and their values through learning that they find personally relevant, meaningful, and applicable.”

The grant finally became a reality and we have been working on defining and refining the program recommendations all year.

“We call the program ‘RISE’ (Reflective Interest-based Student Experiences) and we believe that RISE better accounts for the whole student (their interests and values); it connects to the pursuit of lifelong learning, and will increase engagement and a desire to learn,” Peter explained.

This year Peter and I have been able to evaluate the recommendations against a lot of research, site visits, interviews, and surveys and have gained important feedback from a variety of sources. We’ve dedicated countless hours to understanding what is out there, what is possible, and working through what we think is the best course of action for CVU. We are steadfast in our larger recommendation to move to a one-day-per-week model for CVU but we recognize that we need to take smaller steps forward to forge the best path.

In supporting our effort, Principal Bunting summarized: “CVU is an innovative school. We stay abreast on the best teaching practices, we are constantly trying to better ourselves for the betterment of our students. Sometimes that change happens too fast, other times too slowly. Occasionally, we have growing pains. But with a large change like this one, we want to take it slowly, we want to — no, need to — get it right for our students and our families. Abbie and Peter have been incredible students of their own work, really putting things to the test, and have come up with a rollout plan that is really feasible and moves us in the right direction and at the right speed.”

Which means next year we hope to see some smaller changes that will move the work in the right direction. We are recommending some small changes to the daily/weekly schedule that can help make things better for our students right away: to create some built-in support time, give advisors and students more time to prepare for their Personalized Learning Plans, align the schedule to better match a college schedule for those interested in dual enrollment, and create more consistency in the flow of classes.

Peter explains that we are hoping to run a year-end-studies program similar to what BHS does. “We recommend approaching it differently based on our research and work from this year, but the heart of it will be the same: Students and teachers learning about their passion and reinvigorating the learning experience at the end of the school year.”

We anticipate that in so doing, we will be building capacity and excitement for a broader approach to RISE in the future, which may include one day each week dedicated to this type of learning experience, he added.

We invite the community to an informational presentation of the RISE proposal. We are looking for public comment as we explore implementing these new learning opportunities for CVU students in the 2018-19 school year. The meeting will be Thursday, May 31 in the CVU library from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.

More information about our work is online at rowlandcvu.weebly.com/. Contact us at abowker@cvsdvt.org or plangella@cvsdvt.org.

Abbie Bowker is a visual art teacher at Champlain Valley Union High School.

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