The parking lot outside Champlain Valley Union High School was a zoo on a recent Friday as students, parents and community members rushed to make it to presentations on time. Students roamed the halls looking for their rooms, sharing smiles with classmates, chatting with parents, and reading over note cards in anticipation.
The day they had been preparing for during their four years at CVU was here: Grad Challenge Day.
Each of the nearly 270 seniors had been working on a project all year to fulfill the half-credit Grad Challenge requirement. Each student logged 30-plus hours working on an independent research project that spoke to their interests and tapped skills they have acquired through the years.
“Things you learn in non-school environments have just as much of an impact, or more, than school,” senior Gerald Berkowitz said during his presentation on winter wilderness survival. He said he learned about perseverance and teamwork.
Grad Project topics ran the gamut reflecting the individuality of the senior class. They ranged from preparing for a marathon and exploring the wilderness to building robotics and self-taught coding, to passing state legislation, working in animal shelters and many more.
Each student collaborated with a CVU teacher and a community partner with experience in their area of interest. They brainstormed, researched and assembled their presentations.
Some students researched topics they were interested in but might not pursue directly later in life. Logan Griswold worked with and researched sled dogs, and said he learned to be persistent through his work with dogs. Sawyer Miller-Bottoms shadowed physical therapists, and his project helped him realize which type of physical therapy he wants to pursue studying in college.
“I don’t want to be a hand therapist,” he said during his presentation.
His mother Amy Miller has been one of the community panelists for Grad Challenge before. This May, she watched as a proud mom.
“It’s amazing to see what these kids have challenged themselves to do,” she said. “It’s challenging to talk in front of people, and the kids have such pride in their projects.”
Teachers who introduced students in their presentations agreed that these individual projects are amazing to see.
“It’s great research where students are interested in something, so they can better learn the skills while they are doing the project, which is also a focus of the school going forward,” librarian Peter Langella said. He helps with the research portion in the library and notices that students often put even more than the mandatory 30 hours of work into the projects.
Grad Challenge started in 1994 at CVU, and is in its 24th year. Things have changed over that time, especially recently with attention turned to proficiency-based learning.
“With proficiencies, students go deep into topics and reflect on what they learn,” Langella said. “We are trying to take the next step of personalized learning at CVU.”
Seeing the success and popularity of Grad Challenge and seeing programs at other schools, Langella is working with art teacher Abbie Bowker on a project called “RISE” which stands for reflective interest-based student experiences.
Administrators and teachers are talking about expanding on this interest-guided approach and not just limiting the effort to seniors. Principal Adam Bunting said that as soon as next year CVU could be implementing a two-week period where all students are engaged in co-creation and interest-based learning.
“So, what we are saying is that this is for all students. We are experimenting with it next year,” Bunting explained.
Allowing students to have a say and drive their learning helps provide students direction and purpose, Bunting said. It deepens skills and really boosts their involvement along the way.
“It’s that push to move toward that type of learning that students own,” the principal explained.