White River Valley Middle School reflects on first year after district merger

  • On the last day of school, White River Valley Middle School students are out of the classroom playing a game of kickball on Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Bethel, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • White River Valley Middle School eight-graders line up before the start of their graduation ceremony on Friday, June 14, 2019, in Bethel, Vt. Science teacher Holly Williams was checking in with students Jillian Barry, of South Royalton, Vt., Grace Collins, of South Royalton, Alassandra Marshall, of Bethel, and Hannah Vanesse,of Royalton, before the start of the ceremony. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

  • Outdoor education teacher Bonna Wieler, middle, works with White River Valley Middle School seventh-graders Amara Calhum-Flowers, left, Sauntie White and Lily Merrill during an orienteering class on Wednesday, June 5, 2019 in Bethel, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • White River Valley Middle School sixth-grader Nevaeh Richards, left, of Bethel, Vt., cleans out her locker on the last day of school with the help of classmate Nola Baslow, of South Royalton, Vt. on Tuesday, June, 18, 2019. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • With one minute to go in the school year White River Valley Middle School, seventh-grader Logan DeCoteau, of South Royalton, Vt., watches the clock to strike noon on Tuesday, June, 18, 2019. Students had a half day of classes before heading home for the summer. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • During their eight-grade graduation ceremony, White River Valley Middle School graduates Lexis Grant, of Bethel, Vt., Carlie Robinson, of South Royalton, Vt., and Natalie Kelley, of South Royalton, react to photographs from the past school year in Bethel, on Friday, June 14, 2019. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

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    White River Valley Middle School graduating eighth-graders perform "Seven Nation Army" during their graduation at the school in Bethel, Vt., on Friday, June 14, 2019. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Katrena Ramirez, of Bethel, Vt., gives her daughter Asia Sheldon a hug on graduation night at the White River Valley Middle School on Friday, June 14, 2019. Asia is staying at the school for the semi-formal dance. Custodian Wendell Wills on the right vacuums the entry way of the school-- he has worked at the school for ten years. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • Claire Allen, of Bethel, Vt., dances with Danny Smith, of South Royalton, Vt., at the White River Valley Middle School semi-formal dance on Friday, June, 14, 2019. Both students are in eighth grade. Allen is home-schooled but takes a class at the school. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • White River Valley Middle school staff members call out to students to have a good summer as the final bus pulls away on the last day of the school year on Tuesday, June, 18, 2019, in Bethel, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/22/2019 9:55:25 PM
Modified: 6/25/2019 6:15:59 PM

Monday morning. June. Elsewhere in the building, the restless buzz of pending summer was becoming palpable, but here, aside from a bit of banter about mismatched outfits for Spirit Week, the mood was all business.

Like a sports team performing a familiar drill, the dozen teachers assembled in one of the classrooms at White River Valley Middle School, clicking on laptops and sipping from water bottles, and ticked through a list of items in need of attention: which students had turned in speeches for eighth-grade graduation, who would make announcements at the school assembly that afternoon, what to do on the last day of school.

Nothing remarkable happened and there were no students in sight, but this 45-minute period, carved out of the overstuffed schedule that’s typical of today’s public schools, represented a key component of student success. At least that’s what the latest research indicates.

It’s been nearly a year since White River Valley Middle School came into existence, following the merger of Bethel and Royalton schools into one district, in response to school consolidation legislation passed in 2015. In that year, school staff and students have endured all the logistical challenges that come with turning two schools into one, created a new school culture out of two sometimes rivalrous school communities, built and tested an expanded curriculum and pursued both specific goals laid out in the district’s Articles of Agreement and personalized goals they set for themselves.

Almost none of it happened by accident. Many of the activities that take place on a typical day at the school — from teachers sharing ideas around a table to students cooking over campfires in the woods near the school — are guided by data and research on best educational practices and, specifically, the middle school experience. As they closed out their first year last week, staff members even had data to help gauge their success: a survey of students, parents and teachers, commissioned by Principal Owen Bradley in conjunction with the University of Vermont’s Tarrant Institute for eInnovative Education.

“He’s always asking really good questions about how we’re doing. … What are we doing well? What do we need to do better?” said Scott Thompson, a professional development coordinator for the Tarrant Institute. “It takes a lot of guts to ask that question.”

Partnering with the Tarrant Institute, a grant-funded organization that specializes in creating professional development and implementing research and technology in middle schools, was one of the first big steps the middle school took after forming last July. Many of the new initiatives at the school sprang from that three-year partnership.

“The Tarrant Institute really sees the whole picture of middle school, nationally, and specifically in Vermont,” said Bradley, who served as principal of Bethel schools before taking the reins at White River Valley Middle School. “A lot of what they do is seen as some of the best research that’s done at the middle school level.”

Working with Thompson, school staff identified key areas they wanted to focus on, including academic rigor, student voice, community engagement and effective support and intervention for students with academic or behavioral needs. Many of their goals dovetailed with Vermont’s Act 77 legislation, which emphasizes personalized learning plans for students. They also wanted to personalize research-based practices to suit the needs of their school.

“We’re really based in data and research, but we’re also really making it our own,” Bradley said.

‘A breath of fresh air’

First thing every morning all year long, students have met in groups of 10, mixed by grade level, for a period known as “advisory.”

Here, they share stories and ideas, play games, take care of housekeeping items and get debriefed on daily and weekly events. The point, along with keeping students in the loop, is giving them a sense of connection and belonging, a critical component of middle school success and a key goal for teachers this year as they melded two school populations into one. Many schools have similar arrangements, but not all of them meet daily or feature mixed age groups.

On a Monday morning earlier this month, math teacher Andrew West’s advisory group started the day with stories about their weekend — camping, four-wheeling, walking a pet chicken — then played a fast-paced game of Pictionary on the white board before hearing the daily announcements.

West said the 15-minute session has had a positive impact on students. “It’s nice to start the day with smaller groups,” he said. “It’s also nice to have the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders together.”

Sadie Kinsley, a seventh-grader from Bethel, and Brookelle Thurston, a sixth-grader from Bethel, said advisory had helped them make new friends in an environment that at first seemed overwhelming. “People stuck to their original friend groups at first,” Kinsley said. “Now it’s a little better.”

Advisory is one of a few research-based practices implemented this year that have had a direct impact on students.

Another is block scheduling that gives students 90 minutes of instruction in core subjects. The jury is still out on how well that has worked out.

“Ninety minutes is a very long time to fill,” said science teacher Holly Williams.

Middle-school students also got their first taste of tech ed, as well as an outdoor learning program that was so important to educators and district officials that they made it part of the district’s Articles of Agreement. Every day in all weather, seventh-graders trekked around the fields and woods surrounding the school, learning things like basic first aid and how to build a campfire.

The program wasn’t without challenges. Sometimes, students tried to weasel their way out of the class by “forgetting” to bring proper clothing, Bradley said. Teachers responded by putting together a stash of warm clothing.

But for the most part, the new class was well-received.

“It’s like a breath of fresh air if you’re in classes all the time,” Kinsley said.

Chaos, managed

On “Mismatch Monday” earlier this month, students and teachers came to school in stripes paired with polka dots, sneakers paired with dress shoes, socks in different wacky prints (rubber chickens, donuts). The fashion pandemonium played up a reality of middle school: A bit of chaos is par for the course.

In contrast with the sometimes zany atmosphere at its surface, the foundations of middle school success lie in the less-flashy stuff of teacher collaboration and professional development.

“Professional development is one of the biggest impacts teachers have on kids,” said Bradley. Not just any professional development: “High-quality, teacher-designed and -driven professional development.”

Last summer, the school sent a team of teachers to a week-long professional development program. Before school started, staff met to design a schedule that would give them abundant common planning time, windows of time during which they could observe one another teaching and regular collaborative sessions known as team time.

“Team time is phenomenal,” Williams said. “It is so great. It allows us to talk about the week and the month.”

“It’s just a great think tank,” said global citizenship teacher Marie Kittel. “We have a nice mix of veteran teachers and young ones. … We’re getting fresh ideas.”

During their first year, teachers focused largely on creating a student-centered curriculum that connects to the real world.

“I think middle school is the best time, if they’re not engaged in school yet, to make it happen. This is the opportunity to hook them,” Thompson said. “Middle schoolers want to make a difference in the world. How are we going to make that happen? … How do we make learning more relevant, more meaningful, more powerful?”

After tackling those big questions this year, staff plan to spend next year on the more granular work of integrated instructional units and proficiency-based assessments and report cards. “It will require a lot of community conversation,” Thompson said. “(Proficiency-based strategies) paint a much broader picture of the learner. They don’t just throw everything into a blender and average it out.”

Such initiatives can and do happen without the luxury of regular face time, especially in our technology-driven era. But Thompson believes that, second only to a genuine love for students, the successes of White River Valley Middle School’s inaugural year lie squarely within the collaborative structure staff members crafted for themselves.

“I think the educators here have embraced the challenges, and there’s been this real creative synergy,” he said.

Survey says

Last week, as the school year barreled toward its end, Bradley got the results of the survey he’d developed with the help of the Tarrant Institute.

The colored pie charts offered more positive feedback than negative, but suggested there was room improvement. A total of 112 people — 73 students, 23 parents and 16 educators — completed the survey, and a large majority rated the year as good, above average or excellent. Educators had the rosiest responses, with about 75% rating the year good, above average or excellent. Parents had the most negative outlook, with about 35% rating their children’s year as so-so and about 17% rating it as poor.

“I’m a little disappointed that it’s not as positive for parents,” said Bradley, who said he will look more closely at the data and accompanying comments over the summer. “I want everybody to be incredibly happy.”

The survey also asked people how successful they believed the merger had been. Educators rated the merger positively, with 100% calling it moderately, very or extremely successful. Among students and parents, the most popular answer was “moderately successful,” and a full 17% of parents said that it was “not at all successful.”

Bradley suspects those responses came from families who were against the merger to begin with. He also knows the merger was frustrating for some families of South Royalton eighth-graders, who had to adjust to a new school for just one year before returning to their hometown for high school.

There are other challenges to overcome as well. The nine goals laid out in the district’s Articles of Agreement didn’t all come to fruition. For example, the articles included an estimated savings on tax rates due to the merger. Although it’s difficult to tease out merger-related numbers from the overall budget, those savings don’t appear imminent. At the March school district meeting, some voters balked at a $200,000 budget increase and called for a reconsideration of the budget. Voters overwhelmingly approved the budget at a special meeting later that month.

Busing remains a problem as well, Bradley said. Some students have to transfer buses in Royalton, making for a difficult commute.

And discipline problems continue to erupt here and there — in school assemblies, in classes, in the cafeteria.

“I was frustrated with it all year,” Bradley said. “We were working more reactively than proactively.”

The staff is working on implementing a model known as Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), which emphasizes getting to the root of behavioral problems.

“It’s about teaching,” Bradley said. “What are we doing if we’re not teaching kids to be kind and caring?”

Such goals take time though, he said. The staff plans to focus on PBIS over the summer and roll it out in earnest next year.

Overall, Bradley is pleased with how the year went. He counts the knew tech ed and outdoor ed classes, the advisory groups and the overall culture of the school as major accomplishments.

“We built a new model school. … It’s been a great year. Not perfect, but great,” he said. “I really appreciate the greater community for making this happen. The school board, teachers, staff, all these people have done incredible work.”

Sitting in green plastic folding chairs in the school gym on a warm Friday evening, parents, grandparents and siblings watched the first eighth-grade class graduate from White River Valley Middle School. Following performances of Don’t Stop Believin’ and Seven Nation Army by the school band and chorus, student speakers shared some parting thoughts:

“When I heard that our two schools were going to merge, I was hesitant about what was to come, like anyone who faces change,” said Grace Collins, of South Royalton. “I would … like to thank all Bethel students for making sure that I was welcome in a school I knew nothing about. … This year has been full of ups and downs, like any middle-school year, but with the help of new and old friends and teachers, this has been a heck of a year.”

Afterward, memories of the school year flashed by on a slideshow, then the eighth-graders dispersed into the audience to present carnations to people who had made a difference in their lives.

Clutching one of those carnations in the back of the gym, Theresa Khan, of South Royalton, reflected on the year.

“I feel like it went really smoothly. I feel like everybody came together really nicely,” said Khan, who graduated from the school when it was Whitcomb Jr.-Sr. High School and whose son, Logan McCullough, had just graduated from eighth grade.

Both Khan and McCullough praised the school’s friendly atmosphere, expanded course offerings and extracurricular opportunities and good communication with families.

“Everybody was really accepting of the merger,” McCullough said. “I got to meet a lot of new friends. It was a great experience.”

On the last day of school, with boxes of books stacked in the hallways, the smell of pancakes from one advisory group’s party wafting through the building and students all but lifting off the ground with excitement, White River Valley Middle School teachers arranged themselves around the entrance of the school to bid farewell to students one by one as they left the building. Then, as they’ve done every year for as long as they can remember, they stationed themselves on the sidewalk outside the school. Buses heaved their familiar sighs as they pulled away from the curve, and teachers shouted and waved with the enthusiasm of fans at a concert. As though launched by some mechanism, an assortment of arms — skinny, plump, suntanned, pale — extended from the bus windows. “Bye!” “Bye!”

High voices collided with low ones and then faded away as the bus drove out of sight.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com or 603-727-3268.




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