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Change: Not more of same

Publication Date: 2009-08-15

from the Rutland Herald, July 29, 2009. We don't need more of the same; we need a transformation of how we view learning and our children.

Summer might not be the best time to introduce the topic of twelve months of school. After all kids are out enjoying the warm weather by going to camp or playing with friends. High school students may be out trying to earn money to help them through the next year. Teachers are breathing a sigh of relief after a demanding year.

And yet, just before the start of summer, Commissioner Vilaseca announced his intention to create a system of "transformational" schools. He defined these as schools that are open for 12 months of a year, from early morning to late at night. These schools would be a home base for students who could then take online courses, commute to college or participate in apprenticeships. He doesn't explain how he will pay for this in a time when he admits to a contradictory goal to consolidate school districts to save money.

The problem with discussions about reform in our schools is that they mainly focus on the infrastructure of education and largely ignore the heart of learning. Those of us who are embedded in the educational system here in Vermont know that there are a lot of good students who are prepared for life, but we also know that there seems to be an increasing number of students who are falling by the wayside as an emphasis on testing and standards has taken the focus away from the individual student, the humanness of learning.

Going back to the Vermont Design of 1968 we can find in our history an attempt by educators to define that humanness. Education should be about learning not teaching. A student must be accepted as a person. Students should receive an education that understands learning needs as they relate to an individual's understanding of the world not arbitrary facts and information with little relevance to the student.

If Vermont is truly going to transform its educational system and re-emerge as a leader, we need to consider how we might address some of the major obstacles to learning for students. We need to look at how inclusion of all children with special needs affects our ability to reach all students. We need to ask some hard questions about whether inclusion is really working. In the past year, I observed teachers who were thwarted by having to deal with behavior that frequently disrupted teaching. Gifted students were left out because a talented teacher didn’t have time to plan for their needs. Too much energy was spent dealing with disruptive students. Bullying of one student by another student has become a major topic in schools and it takes away attention from the learning needs of students who come to school prepared to learn.

Commissioner Vilaseca is clearly talking about transforming high schools in his proposal, but what about our elementary and middle schools? They need our attention, too. I think all students need to have individualized planning to meet their needs. Whether a student has special needs, is an average learner, or is gifted there are special considerations that could be made. Small classes and small schools provide more opportunities for individualized planning.

Online courses, attending college classes or participating in internships may work for high schools, but our elementary and middle schools need to look at options for students as well. There may be a much greater need to incorporate the arts, music and sports into programs. Some children may need to be placed in situations where academic stress is lessened in order for them to come to terms with emotional baggage they bring with them into school. In-school mental health services are increasing so it is important to consider these in a plan for an individual child. Talented teachers need to be paired with talented students so teachers can teach at their best and students can shine.

I don't think the transformation of Vermont schools is going to happen if we extend the school year. In fact, I don't see how it will make our situation better. We don't need more of the same; we need a transformation of how we view learning and our children. Instead of moving towards sameness of experience for all students, we need to open up our options. We can provide greater access to learning for every individual by addressing their academic needs and recognizing that often those are undermined by emotional and behavioral needs.

Consolidation to save money, extending the school year and looking outward to the community and our colleges for options should not be the first and only focus at this time. We need to look internally for ways to develop an education that is at once strong academically for all students while retaining the very essence of our humanness.

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