Thinking and Learning: From Rivendell District’s Founding to Head of Education in Vermont

Sunday, January 19, 2014
When contacted about scheduling an interview, Rebecca Holcombe, Vermont’s new education secretary, emailed back to suggest a visit to a school instead. Arranging the visit took some time, a few weeks, and when her assistant finally sent a message it was to set up a trip to the preschool classrooms at Westshire Elementary School in West Fairlee.

The choice said a lot about Holcombe. It touched on both her role in the founding of the Rivendell Interstate School District and the stubborn task she has accepted in her adopted home state: closing the achievement gap between students in poverty or with educational challenges and their peers from better-off families. Vermont is in as great a state of flux and ferment in education as it is in health care, and Holcombe’s arrival in Montpelier coincides with a dizzying array of initiatives. A look into her work in Rivendell, and at the work happening there now, opens a window on what she has to offer.

For example, her experience as an administrator who helped weld together the four-town Rivendell district, in which Westshire is one of two elementary schools, is something she can draw on as school districts around the state are forced by declining enrollment to consider ways to collaborate and consolidate.

She also will oversee a $37 million federal grant for early education, and if the state Legislature approves a universal preschool bill, her agency will handle that, too. Preschool has been a focus in Rivendell, which comprises Orford, Fairlee, West Fairlee and Vershire, since the district was founded 15 years ago.

Maybe the most important thing about Holcombe’s decision to visit Westshire was that it showed that she connects. People who have worked with Holcombe noted this quality again and again, that her knowledge and enthusiasm break down barriers between disparate things — ideas, research, teachers, students, parents, politics — and puts them in service of her guiding principle: What’s best for children.

Holcombe has “a very unusual ability to bring together diverse viewpoints” and bring back results, Gov. Peter Shumlin said.

“Rebecca’s a very rounded person,” said Sally Tomlinson, who was chairwoman of the Orford School Board before Rivendell was formed and continued on the Rivendell board.

Although Holcombe left after three years as principal of Fairlee Elementary School and half a year as Rivendell’s curriculum coordinator, her visit to Westshire was like an old home day as former colleagues and students greeted her with hugs.

“You can tell I’m partial to this place,” Holcombe said in the school’s lobby. Gail Keiling, who started as a teacher at Fairlee the same time as Holcombe and is now head of elementary schools for Rivendell, pulled her visitor into the library to see a mural.

Holcombe, 47, has a persistent and almost nervous energy when talking to adults. In conversation about education issues, her sentence clauses tend to overrun each other and ideas pile up before she straightens them out.

But among the preschool children at Westshire she settled into a calm alertness. A pad of paper on an easel in Kathleen Foltz’ classroom contained an outline of the day’s events, including “The Secretary of Education is visiting today!”

“I can show you around the classroom. I can show you all the kids,” said Charlotte Ditcheos, 4 , who took Holcombe by the hand and led her on a tour of the room’s many activities.

And there was that moment of connection, directly with the children she most wants to help, children age 5 and under, that she wanted the public to see. Later that day, Holcombe would attend Shumlin’s State of the State address, and it’s likely that a lot of her days will be spent bridging the classroom and the corridors of power.

Holcombe came to education gradually, and when she did it was from the perspective of someone who sees public school as both an instrument of democracy and as an anti-poverty program. She grew up mostly overseas, the middle child (she has an older sister and a younger brother) of parents who worked for the United Nations in international development in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Fiji Islands, Sudan and China.

“One of the things that always struck me in so many parts of the world was how when people were poor they saw education as a ticket to a better future,” Holcombe said.

Her parents are still occupied by anti-poverty work. After retirement, her father, Arthur Holcombe, founded The Poverty Alleviation Fund, a Cambridge, Mass.-based international development nonprofit he still leads. Her mother, Susan Holcombe, teaches international development at Brandeis University.

Holcombe attended Milton Academy in Milton, Mass., and Brown University, where she majored in history. While she was in college, she had a summer job with the New York City Board of Education. She worked with someone in the school chancellor’s office who was trying to bring mobile classrooms to homeless children. There weren’t merely cracks in the system for educating the city’s poorest children, but gaping holes.

“One of the things that was just so stunning to me was that there was a 50 percent mismatch between the homeless files on children and the board of education’s files, which means 50 percent of homeless children, they didn’t even know where they were,” Holcombe said. “When you think about that kind of mobility and that kind of disruption in children’s lives, the cost of that, the human cost to those families and then the long-term cost to society of failing to provide adequately for our most vulnerable members, I think it’s hard not to be compelled by that situation.”

Her own family was touched by poverty. While her father was raised in a well-off family near Boston, her mother grew up poor in the Pittsburgh area. She was fortunate to get a scholarship to a private school and a full scholarship to college.

“Thurgood Marshall said something,” Holcombe said, “that nobody got where we did by accident, that someone helped us, handed us our boots. People have handed my family our boots.”

Public school is the way most kids get those metaphorical boots.

“What we’re trying to do in school is to make sure that every kid has the opportunity to learn and to take advantage so that they can actually grow up and develop the skills they need and be prepared for the changing economic demands of our time so that no matter what happens in the future they’ll be able to land on their feet and provide for themselves and their families. I think that is the foundation of civil society,” Holcombe said.

She already had a master’s degree in education from Harvard, but moved to the area to go through what was then called the Upper Valley Teacher Training Program (now known as the Upper Valley Educators Institute). Her husband, James Bandler, took a reporting job at the Rutland Herald, and the couple were caretakers at the Hartland farm of Faith Dunne, a school reform pioneer then working in Cambridge, Mass.

Holcombe took her first teaching job at Mascoma Valley Regional High School and, as so often happens here with the best and brightest teachers, after a couple of years the Dresden School District’s Richmond Middle School hired her away.

“Faith Dunne ... called me and said hire her, no matter what she teaches,” said Susan Finer, former longtime principal at Richmond.

Holcombe taught social studies and science, and after a couple of years took on the job of coordinating curriculum at Richmond. With all the talk about standards and curriculum it sounds amazing, but 20 years ago Richmond School didn’t have a written curriculum.

“It was the first time we actually wrote it down,” Finer said. Previously, teachers crafted lessons and the school had a program of studies, but didn’t have a full record of what teachers presented in the classroom. “Every year under her we revised that document,” Finer said. About 20 percent would change from one year to the next.

Fairlee Elementary hired Holcombe in 1996. The late Allen Avery, then chairman of the Fairlee School Board, called Holcombe to urge her to become the school’s next principal. Holcombe said she had seen the influence a principal can have over teaching and learning and the job in Fairlee was an opportunity to do that.

At the time, Fairlee’s small K-8 school was facing many of the challenges small schools are struggling with now. Staff turnover made it hard to improve teaching. Rising high school tuition sapped the elementary school’s resources, limiting what it could offer students.

Holcombe turned to Orford, which had robust programs in art, music, technology and industrial arts. Fairlee bused its middle school students to Orford for one class a day to take advantage of the enrichment opportunities. At the same time, Holcombe administered a grant program that paid for summer math enrichment programs for students in West Fairlee and Vershire. Kids from Fairlee participated too, and some of them paid tuition to help finance the program.

“When you look at the research on the achievement gap, we know that a lot of it is attributable to out-of-school time,” Holcombe said. “So I think it’s really important to communities to have those kinds of opportunities available to all kids.”

More important, it encouraged people to think more about the opportunities available in collaboration than about town borders.

“I think that led us to begin to think on the Vermont side of the river about how teaming up could actually allow us to create some new opportunities for kids that we knew were critical but that none of us could have provided individually as a school district,” Holcombe said.

Orford had been reaching out for partnerships with other area school districts, and with Avery leading the way and Holcombe articulating the educational benefits, Fairlee was a willing partner, said Tomlinson, the former member of the Orford and Rivendell school boards.

“Allen was the driver,” Tomlinson said. “He was the one who could make it happen. Rebecca was the one who could reinforce all the educational ideas.”

After Orford and Fairlee had begun to discuss a partnership, West Fairlee and Vershire, which each had small primary schools that were struggling to retain faculty and to maintain aging, substandard buildings, asked to join the discussion, Tomlinson said.

All four towns voted to create the Rivendell Interstate School District, the first K-12 interstate district in the country, in October 1998.

School districts around Vermont are facing the same challenges that brought Rivendell together. Enrollment has been declining statewide, while costs continue to rise. State lawmakers and state education officials, including Holcombe’s predecessor, Armando Vilaseca, have been urging schools and supervisory unions to consolidate. Holcombe’s emphasis on finding areas in which schools can collaborate on programs that provide greater opportunities for students while also cutting costs might provide a more welcoming way forward for small districts to consider consolidation. So far, the state has had little success in encouraging consolidation from the top down.

For example, last Tuesday voters in Rochester, Vt., approved of keeping their small high school open in an advisory vote. Rochester and other towns in the Windsor Northwest Supervisory Union balked last month at the state Board of Education’s plan to carve up the supervisory union and distribute its six school districts, including Bethel’s, among three neighboring supervisory unions.

Holcombe was at the meeting when the state board put off its decision on Windsor Northwest until June 1. Asked about the proposal before the board she said, “I think the starting point for the conversation has to be what are the opportunities to provide for children.” What made Rivendell work, she added “was very high levels of community engagement about what’s best for our children.”

While there might be a few districts around the state that are considering collaboration, that’s just the start of a long hard process.

“I think there are districts that are beginning conversations and I think it’s important to be mindful of the fact that Rivendell didn’t happen overnight,” Holcombe said. “What we did was we tried a few pilot collaborations, so that by the time we moved into the new district people knew there was something in it for them. I mean, everyone understood that this collaboration would give something good to everybody, and I think that’s really critical.”

If Holcombe’s appointment as education secretary brings new scrutiny of Rivendell, people will find that while many feel the district has been successful in providing better opportunities to students, it also has had to deal with some of the same issues that led to the district’s formation: declining enrollment, rising per pupil cost, fluctuating class sizes.

After three years as principal at Fairlee Elementary, Holcombe served as curriculum coordinator for Rivendell for half a year, leaving at the end of 1999 to join her husband, who was then working for The Wall Street Journal in Boston. Holcombe took that time in Massachusetts to earn a master’s degree in business administration from Simmons School of Management and start a doctorate in education at Harvard University. She has written a draft of her dissertation, the last requirement for the degree.

She and Bandler returned to the Upper Valley about 31/2 years ago, settling in Norwich. Their two children, ages 13 and 11, are at Richmond Middle School and Marion Cross School, respectively.

Holcombe went to work as director of Dartmouth’s teacher education program, where she taught courses in education policy and secondary school teaching. Her work at Dartmouth exposed her to research into how education shapes students’ brains.

“Donna Coch, the professor, the head of the department over there, she talks about teachers really being sculptors of the brain,” Holcombe said.

Shumlin said he chose Holcombe to be the state’s first education secretary for a number of reasons.

“Obviously she’s very bright and passionate and visionary about public education and the need to get it right,” he said. Also, “she shares the same goals and values that we’re trying to capture in Vermont.”

Public education, he added, “is about reaching every student’s potential.”

While falling enrollment and rising costs are major structural challenges for public education in Vermont, the state has had a great deal of success. It ranked near the top in a recent comparison of test scores with other states and countries around the world.

“We’ve got a lot to be proud of here,” Shumlin said. Thanks to Act 60 and Act 68, the state’s landmark school funding law and its successor, Vermont is doing more than most states to ensure that all public school students have the same opportunities.

Over the past couple of years, a new push has gotten underway. A year ago, Shumlin dedicated his State of the State speech to education, and a year prior to that, state lawmakers approved turning the state Department of Education into the Agency of Education, granting the governor power to appoint the secretary. Shumlin has touted education as a way to move families out of poverty.

“Our challenge,” Shumlin said, “is that we’re not moving enough Vermont students who are living in poverty beyond high school.”

The proposals to meet this challenge are manifold. One task force, the PreK-16 Council, has been examining the state’s entire education system from age 3 to 22 since 2010. Under Act 77, approved by the Legislature last year, the Agency of Education formed a panel to study how to implement personalized learning plans in more schools. The aim is to put students in charge of their own educations.

But the chief goal is the expansion of early education. Research suggests that improving services for children from birth to age 5 could have a profound influence on closing the achievement gap.

Over the years, Vermont student test scores have risen at a steady pace. But students who receive free and reduced price lunch, a widely accepted measure of financial stress, lag behind their better-off peers by roughly the same margin as a decade ago.

The answer, educators believe, is greater stimulation for children and support for children and parents at the earliest ages.

“We do know that that early window is absolutely critical in terms of building foundational social skills, self-regulation skills and sort of early pre-academic skills, basic concepts of literacy and numeracy and language that really lay a solid foundation,” Holcombe said. “We also know that for children to thrive in school they need to have their basic needs met. … We know that stress impairs working memory and that when working memory is impaired it interferes with children’s capacity to learn.”

Children who arrive at school without having been read to or who haven’t had opportunities for structured play or social engagement start in the classroom at a deficit, and years of test results show that that deficit is difficult, at best, to make up. And for students in homes with more severe challenges — extreme poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, food insecurity — the deficit is deeper still.

It’s telling that, in talking about how to address this issue, Holcombe couldn’t give definitive answers. The agencies of Education and Human Services are working together to implement the $37 million Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant. The federal Department of Education last year furnished money to six states in the latest round of grants for programs to deploy early learning in ways that improve student outcomes.

While other states have instituted universal preschool, notably Georgia and Oklahoma, none have developed comprehensive supports that reach from birth to kindergarten. While studies have demonstrated life long benefits, early learning, and efforts to help parents support that learning, haven’t been rolled out more broadly.

“Another piece of it is figuring out more effective, strategic ways to build on the resources that are already in the state, both public and private, to support parents as really the first teachers of their children,” she said.

While standardized testing has been instrumental in illuminating the achievement gap, the state needs to find better measures to evaluate schools, teachers and student learning, Holcombe said. The tests don’t capture everything that’s important for school performance, she said.

“I think the answer is we need a much more comprehensive, multi-measure approach to assessing schools and learning that includes not just test scores but also a much more systematic and rigorous evaluation of teachers,” Holcombe said.

“I would love to see schools using surveys of parents and students much more broadly. I think there are a whole bunch of things like that that we could incorporate and then go back to the fact that they all need to be mediated by professionals using professional judgment to interpret the scores.”

The stakes are very high. With the pace of economic change, jobs that don’t require solving what Holcombe called “ill-structured problems,” something a computer can’t do, are going to be scarce.

Holcombe sounds hopeful that enough interests in the state, from businesses in need of skilled workers to parents who want more for their children, are ready for transformation.

“I actually think that we’re at an unusual moment in that there’s a high degree of alignment in terms of priorities for education,” she said. “So my hope is this is the moment where we can actually get some traction on some these intractable issues. I feel like there are issues that I care passionately about that the governor also cares passionately about, so I feel a lot of support in that direction.”

In early education, Rivendell might show the way. The district has 45 children in three preschool classrooms. Two of those rooms are at Westshire, and one of them is overseen by Kathleen Foltz, the lead teacher of Rivendell’s early childhood program.

“I love that the kids just take over,” Foltz said as she watched the children lead Holcombe around the room. While the preschool program lasts only a few hours a day, the school also provides care from 7:30 a.m.-5 p.m., for which parents pay on a sliding scale based on income.

“This program is interesting because what they do have is a child care program until 5,” Holcombe said in the car on the way up to Westshire. “If you’re a single parent or a two-working-parent family, if it isn’t until 5 you can’t do it. So all the talk about high quality in the end it’s not accessible.”

What was clear during the visit to Rivendell was that the staff turnover that had plagued the district had been arrested by the sense that educators were enjoined in a vigorous and innovative enterprise, less a traditional school than a bustling startup company.

“I think one of her major accomplishments in coming here was developing a professional learning community,” said Keiling, the head of elementary schools.

In the preschool classroom, the children and Holcombe stopped for a while at “The Rainbow,” a row of bottles filled with water, each one a color of the rainbow. The level of the water in the bottles ran from full, down to around half full, and next to each bottle was a row of colored plastic snap-together blocks the same height as the water of the corresponding color. For a preschool this is a classic learning exercise. The youngest children can shake the bottles and name the colors. Older or more advanced kids can see the graduated water levels and count the blocks next to the bottles.

“We feel that they really learn the best through play,” Foltz said. As they played, the children wore masks of concentration, and it was easy to see that structured play is the beginning of thinking and learning.

In the long run, Holcombe, and the agency she now leads, wants to see that look on every child’s face.

Alex Hanson can be reached at or 603-727-3219.

Valley News

24 Interchange Drive
West Lebanon, NH 03784


© 2021 Valley News
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy