School boards partner for student-centered learning

On Jan. 25, Burlington and Winooski school boards and superintendents came together for a half-day retreat to learn about and provide input on a new vision for the two districts that will better prepare young people for the realities of 21st century life.

Since 2012, Burlington and Winooski have been engaged in a conversation about how best to “remodel” their school systems toward more student-centered practices and policies. Together with the community, the two school districts envision moving away from a one-size-fits-all model of education that reaches only some students to a more personalized environment that puts all students at the center of their own learning. The Partnership for Change, which sponsored the joint school board retreat, was created by the districts to support this work.

Burlington Superintendent Jeanne Collins and Winooski Superintendent Sean McMannon kicked off the morning by presenting their shared vision for the two districts. Next, John Fischer, Deputy Commissioner of Transformation and Innovation for the Vermont Agency of Education, discussed work being done at the state-level to support student-centered policies such as personal learning plans and dual enrollment opportunities for all Vermont students.

“The retreat provided a unique opportunity for two school boards to jointly discuss some of the critical development issues of remodeling the regions’ school systems. The discussions align well with the past decade of school change work in Vermont. These two district are doing the hard work now by creating the scalable implementation models.  It is an exciting time for these schools, boards and students as we move towards a student-centered system of learning,” Fischer said.

A portion of the meeting was then devoted to breakout sessions, led by students and teachers, on a number of innovative approaches to teaching and learning at Burlington High School and Winooski Middle/High School. Among other options, board members learned about the School Innovation Seminar, a new course at BHS in which students learn how people learn and bring their own voice to school change, and the iLab, an innovative classroom within WMHS where students take ownership of the learning process through independent, self-selected, instructor-supported projects.

“Student voice is essential to moving forward in education,” shared Winooski Board Member Tori Cleiland. “I greatly appreciated the opportunity to come together to learn and share and hear from our students about what matters most to them about their education.”

Afterwards, student presenters led the adults in an exercise called the KIVA process. With a captive audience of decision-makers, students, acting as “elders”, answered questions about what changes need to be made and why learning should be more student-centered at both schools.

Burlington High School junior, Xander Long told the group, “If you give students an opportunity for self-reflection and self-advocacy and allow them to pick the direction they want to go with their learning it creates engagement and opportunity for skill building which is important in terms of creating students who are engaged in their schools and communities and have a sense of pride in their own education.”

The meeting concluded with time for the boards to think deeply about their role in shifting to student-centered learning and how policy governance can support this work.

“It is true commitment when you have boards, superintendents, students and teachers all together on a cold Saturday morning working to remodel our schools so that young people will be fully equipped to maintain and enhance the quality of life in our two communities,” said Collins. “Kudos to all who participated and committed to this work!”