- Oliver Parini
- Suzy King teaches an Excell class at BHS.
The Burlington School District appears to be regaining its balance after a turbulent 12 months of leadership conflicts and fiscal disorder. Former critics have begun to praise the school board and interim superintendent Howard Smith for his efforts in the last three months to mend relationships and clean up the books.
But last year's drama did not escape the attention of a foundation that funds a multi-million-dollar project in the Burlington and Winooski school systems. When the two districts applied for a second round of funding in the fall, the Massachusetts-based Nellie Mae Education Foundation postponed a decision "because of the absence of a permanent superintendent of schools and the imminent changes to the makeup of the Burlington School Board," according to a statement emailed to Seven Days. "Stable and supportive leadership at multiple levels is a critical component of the ... initiative and is a major factor in our decision to fund work in school districts," warned Nellie Mae senior program officer Jessica Spohn.
In other words, Burlington and Winooski could both lose out on the next $1.5 million installment of a $5.25 million grant that was meant to last six years.
It's not an idle threat — Nellie Mae put the brakes on a similar initiative at the Sanford School District in Maine, after deciding its superintendent was unreceptive. The Bangor Daily News reported that a group called Maine Parents for Transparent Education Policy objected to the initial grant in 2012 on the grounds that it pushed an "agenda" without sufficient input from parents.
Founded in 1990, Nellie Mae is a philanthropic organization whose stated mission is to "stimulate transformative change of public education systems across New England."
Here in Chittenden County, the foundation's threat has turned an education initiative into a political hot potato. The people who administer the grant have raised some eyebrows by turning their education efforts to voters — and elected school officials — in advance of Town Meeting Day.
The Partnership for Change launched in 2012 with an initial $3.75 million Nellie Mae grant that the two school districts won together. Now Burlington High School and the Winooski middle and high schools are three years into the project, which aims to remodel the way kids are educated. The end goals: to give students more control over their course work and evaluate them in a more meaningful way.
A chunk of the change was used to "buy time" for teachers who want to test-run new methods. During the first two years, that meant sabbaticals for educators to rethink their approaches. Faculty had to apply to be "fellows," and most who passed muster seemed to be on the young side and eager to try new ideas.
This year, the partnership funds nine "partner teachers" in Burlington and 13 in Winooski to maintain their regular teaching schedule — minus one class. They use the extra time to redesign their courses, and meet regularly to share ideas about how to give students more autonomy and to ensure that they all master certain essential skills, regardless of ability level.
At the iLab in Winooski, students lead independent projects, which have ranged from recording hip-hop albums to writing self-help books. At BHS, students take a two-week course at the end of year on subjects that have included computer game design and farming.
The partnership also works with different organizations to get parents and community members more engaged with the schools. For instance, it developed a "family-friendly" report card with the Parents and Youth for Change to make it easier for New American families to understand their children's progress. Color-coded visuals show how close students are to college readiness.
It's not uncommon for New American teenagers — and their parents — to arrive in the United States without being able to read or write. Even within their daily English Language Learner classes, the range of literacy is huge. Partner teachers Suzy King and Beth Evans, who teach ELL at BHS, noticed many students were coping by copying classmates instead of getting the help they needed to catch up.
So the two teachers created a class called Excell (Excellence for English Language Learners). The newly arrived students spend 90 minutes each day learning "survival English" and adjusting to an American style of schooling.
In an Excell class last week, Joseph Mwali, who arrived from Congo in November, and Cho Lwin, who came to Burlington from Thailand in September, practiced talking about the weather. At first the word "blizzard" tripped them up, but after googling photos of the word, they got it. Sharing an iPad, they recorded a video in which they took turns saying, "This is blizzard. I don't like blizzard," and then emailed it across the room to King. At a nearby table, Shahed Kudaier, 16, and her older sister Moj, 19, carried on a halting conversation. They arrived from Iraq just five months ago.
This class — which includes mindfulness exercises and other less traditional approaches — helps make refugee kids feel comfortable in a foreign academic setting, according to Evans. (Mindfulness, which involves focusing on the current moment through meditation or other techniques, is meant to help people concentrate and regulate emotions.)
Once they master 11 categories of conversation — which include weather, shapes, alphabet and introductions — they move on.
Evans and King also visit students in their homes to meet their families and learn about their needs. Without the extra time provided by the partnership, the two women said, that would be impossible.
Similar principles of "proficiency-based learning" apply in a ninth-grade humanities class co-taught by partner teachers Nadya Bech-Conger and Jocelyn Fletcher. If a student fails a vocabulary quiz, instead of moving on to the next assignment, the student signs up for a "callback" to try again until he or she passes. In other words, the teacher never gives up on a student.
In the same spirit, the class is integrated — meaning would-be honors students learn alongside less advanced students. Bech-Conger and Fletcher have designed an "embedded honors" system, in which the high schoolers can go above and beyond without being segregated into different classrooms.
A few students were drinking cartons of chocolate milk as Fletcher projected pie charts on a screen that showed how many students were "proficient" in certain skills such as annotation and vocabulary. "I'm pretty psyched about the growth I'm seeing," she told the class.
During the early years, it was the teachers who needed cajoling, recalled the partnership's director, Hal Colston, one of three staffers who administer the Nellie Mae grant. "There was a lot of effort to be a partnership with a capital 'P' and to brand ourselves," said Colston, who founded the Good News Garage. As a result, the "teachers reacted as if we were this third-party entity, helicoptering in."
Now, though? "I believe that both districts are owning this work," Colston said. "There is so much passion and excitement because they have the space and time to practice their teaching."
Participating teachers agree. At first, Fletcher said, "A lot of it felt really pie-in-the-sky and philosophical. We had no idea how that was supposed to translate into the classrooms." But this year, she noted, "There's been a huge momentum shift."
Dov Stucker and Benjamin Roesch got involved early on as fellows, but they were frustrated at first. "'Student-centered learning' was a catchphrase getting thrown around," Stucker said. They responded by starting an elective called the School Innovation Seminar in which students study different learning techniques. That might sound abstract, but students rave about it, and it's spawned other projects. Xander Long, a senior who took the class last year, said it inspired him to create another class, in which he and several peers act as "student consultants" and try to improve the way BHS works. Long is analyzing alternative discipline methods.
Stucker acknowledged that "initiative fatigue is very real" among his peers. But he also thinks that in terms of getting teachers to embrace the partnership's goals, "We are past the tipping point."
When Nellie Mae issued its ultimatum, the partnership staff decided to get involved — not just in the search for a permanent superintendent, which came to an end last week when the board appointed Yaw Obeng to the post. Colston, who served on the search committee, was effusive about the choice. "I feel amazingly good about this." Asked for his stance on the partnership, Obeng, who's currently a superintendent in Ontario, Canada, responded by email: "I have heard only good things about the project. I anticipate giving a positive endorsement as soon as I receive some details."
The partnership's efforts to secure support on the Burlington School Board have been less successful. In fact, they've made some members question their motives.
In particular, school board members have bristled at the partnership's decision to play a role in the upcoming school board elections on March 3. Partnership staff helped plan the candidate forums aired on Channel 17, and in the process, made sure each candidate took a public stand on the partnership.
The partnership also put together a voter guide in English, French, Nepali and Vietnamese. That cost $135 and was paid for with foundation funds. Last Friday, the partnership published online Q&As with the candidates, asking them their opinions about issues such as the budget, diversity and the partnership.
"This is an important moment for us to be involved," Colston explained, no doubt referring to Nellie Mae's concern about "imminent changes to the makeup of the Burlington School Board." He emphasized that they're committed to remaining neutral and won't endorse one candidate over another, regardless of their responses.
"People's jobs are on the line," is how school board member Brian Cina, the board's liaison with the partnership, put it. Although he's been a cheerleader for the project, he noted in an interview last week: "I have concerns about their recent efforts to influence the election, and I have challenged them about this repeatedly."
When the North District candidates — current board member Scot Shumski and challenger Mark Barlow — were asked on Channel 17 whether they supported the Partnership for Change, Shumski responded with a question of his own: "Are you just an educational initiative or a political initiative?"
Only eight of the 16 candidates participated in the Q&As. An earlier attempt by the partnership to design a job description for school board members — without inviting the sitting board to weigh in — also ruffled feathers.
Despite the aggressive outreach, others say they still don't understand what the partnership actually does. Mark Porter, who joined the school board in June, said, "They are not very transparent to the board."
Cina disputed this observation — he said partnership staff frequently attend board meetings and have made repeated attempts to keep members in the loop.
"Having this grant has put us ahead of the curve," said board member Liz Curry, who pointed out that it's helping Burlington to meet new state mandates, such as the requirement that students develop "personalized learning plans." But in stark contrast to the partner teachers' perspective, Curry said that during the last year, "My sense is that it's lost some momentum." She attributes that to the turnover at the top — former superintendent Jeanne Collins was shown the door last summer, and up until last week the district didn't have a permanent leader.
Even so, Curry and Cina both expressed confidence that Obeng would effectively fill that void and that the rest of the board will rally behind the initiative. Despite the concerns he and others have raised, Cina said, "There has been a misconception that the board doesn't understand or doesn't care or doesn't support it, but actually I think the board as whole supports the real work of the partnership and supports the work of empowering teachers to do innovative work in the classroom."
If the partnership is going to be more than a six-year experiment, that support will be essential. It was never envisioned as a project with a start and end date — the whole point is for schools to continue the work even after the grant money goes away, integrating these new approaches into all classrooms.
Colston estimated that it could take 10 years to make that happen. And it might include making some controversial changes — a total shift to proficiency-based learning, for instance, might mean that some students who are slower to master certain skills would stay in high school longer.
Cina said the board will need to build the partnership's goals into its budget. "That's the way to sustain this," he said. "It can't just be this appendage that we keep alive."
Some people, like Curry, contend that doesn't have to cost more. Others aren't so sure. Shumski, who also emphasized that he supports the work the partnership has done in classrooms, said he's concerned about the "expectation that we will spend our own funds" once the grant ends. For him to feel comfortable ponying up, Shumski wants to see proof that the partnership's work has actually made a difference.
There's no such hand-wringing on the other side of the Winooski River, where Onion City school officials say they are fully committed to the endeavor. Superintendent Sean McMannon said his district is at a point "where there's no turning back." They are making plans to mainstream practices such as the iLab and mindfulness training. The five school board members have proven "incredible advocates" for the effort, he added.
Winooski underwent some tumultuous times several years ago, but these days its board is the picture of unity. In 2014, it won the Vermont School Boards Association's annual Award for Exceptional School Board Leadership. How do they feel about potentially suffering the fallout of the neighboring district's dysfunction?
"We'll be patient with our friends next door, and whatever happens, happens," said board chair Michael Decarreau. "I'm not normally an optimist, but everything will work out." Colston said he expects the foundation will make the final, post-election funding decision this spring.