The original version of this piece was published as a column in Valley Parents, a special section of the Valley News, on November 10, 2022*.
Good Things are Happening in Schools
News of how the pandemic impacted test scores, controversy in school board meetings, and shortages of qualified teachers and leaders can tend to paint a sometimes discouraging picture of the state of our schools. These are indeed serious challenges, but it is also important to remember that schools are places of hope and possibility. At the Upper Valley Educators Institute, a graduate school of education in Lebanon, we have a ritual called “cool things in schools,” where people in our programs share inspiring, promising, and effective practices or moments they are witnessing. We do this in part to share great approaches, but we also do it to remind ourselves that, even in the face of challenges and complications, we are lucky to do creative work aimed at supporting the intellectual and emotional growth of young people.
In that spirit, I want to take a few minutes to highlight some of the cool things going on in our schools across the upper valley.
Student Led Conferencing
At the Ottauquechee School in Quechee, they center student voices as a vehicle for learning. One way they do this is through Student Led Conferencing. Student Led Conferencing puts students at the center of their own learning, asking them to reflect on their goals and progress together with their caregivers. According to Amelia Donahey, the school Principal, “Every time we ask students to share what they’re learning and why it matters to them, we invite them to be leaders of their own learning, [which makes them] more excited to be at school. Student-led conferences require preparation and practice, but the end result is children being able to articulate their current strengths, skills and next steps clearly to caregivers. Caregivers appreciate this level of depth; it’s a big change from the one-word answer to the ‘How was school?’ question!” An extensive and growing body of evidence suggests that healthy, student-centered school climates are an essential element of continually improving schools. Practices such as student led conferencing are an exciting piece of building a climate like that. (Want to learn more about student-led conferences? Visit: https://www.edutopia.org/blog/student-led-conferences-resources-ashley-cronin).
At Thetford Academy in Thetford, place-based learning in the community was traditionally an integral component of the environmental studies and outdoor education class. While getting out into the world was disrupted by the pandemic, teacher Scott Ellis has brought them back! Students in his class visited the Whitman Brook Orchard in Quechee this fall to learn about grafting and pruning apple trees, and this week they did trail and clean-up work at the school’s adopted campsite in Haverhill while learning about conservation and environmental stewardship. The high school design tech class traveled to Hanover to put the final touches on the energy efficient window inserts they had created for the Latham Library. And finally a team of middle schoolers attended a training on public health data and peer leadership as part of a youth-adult partnership project. About these activities, Carrie Brennan, the Head of School, said, “We are excited to get students off campus to collaborate with partners, apply their learning in real world contexts, offer service to the community, and explore the greater Upper Valley.” Placed-based learning, when connected to the core curriculum of the school, is a promising way to increase student well-being and deepen learning. (Want to learn more about place based learning? Visit https://vitalcommunities.org/upper-valley-teaching-place-collaborative/).
Investments in Leadership Development
One of the challenges I highlighted at the start of this column, and one that is quite acute in many schools across the region, is a shortage of qualified school leaders. Mt. Lebanon Elementary School in Lebanon has been enormously successful in navigating this environment through a commitment to investing in their leadership pipeline. The current principal of the school, Katie Roach, had a distinguished career as a learning specialist when the school and district decided to support her development as a leader, ultimately moving her into the role of assistant principal in 2015. This meant that when there was an unexpected principal transition at the start of the 2021 school year, the school had a seasoned and experienced leader ready to move into the role. Of course, this left a vacancy in the assistant principal position. Fortunately, the school was already investing in the leadership development of Elisabeth Bailey, the school’s then speech and language pathologist. Elisabeth was serving as a UVEI principal intern at the school while pursuing her principal license, and she was being mentored by Katie. Again, this meant that when the school interviewed for the open assistant principal position, there was an effective and well trained educator ready to take on the role. Elisabeth was hired in the spring of 2022 and is the current assistant principal. The work continues, as the school is currently supporting one of their teachers who is training to become a literacy specialist; again through UVEI. This commitment to investing in leadership capacity has helped them buck the trend of leadership shortages, maintain progress at the school, and support the growth of their people; even during difficult times. To me, this is an excellent example of what is possible when a school invests in their people.
These three very different stories about exciting things happening in upper valley schools give me hope, renew my commitment to what is possible, and inspire me to continue working to build up our schools. Do you know of other inspiring, hopeful, or exciting practices that I should highlight? I would love to hear it! (Contact me at email@example.com.)
Page Tompkins, EdD
President & Faculty Member
Upper Valley Educators Institute
To learn more about UVEI, visit www.uvei.edu
*The quote from Amelia Donahey. Principal of the Ottauquechee School – as well as the section headings – were added for this post and did not appear in the original column.