Vermont Law Launches Personal Learning Plans for All

  • Guidance counselor Katherine Chobanian explains the next step in an online activity to gauge career interests to a group of ninth-graders at Oxbow High School in Bradford, Vt., on April 14, 2016. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Katherine Chobanian, left, a guidance counselor at Oxbow High School, helps ninth-grader Zoe Barton begin a quiz aimed to help identify a student's possible career interests during a personalized learning plan session at Oxbow High School on April 14, 2016. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Ninth-grader Maria Reger listens as guidance counselor Katherine Chobanian describes the online activity designed to help students gauge possible career interests at Oxbow High School in Bradford, Vt., on April 14, 2016. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer 
Monday, April 18, 2016

“There may be as many unique pathways as there are students. Such flexibility in students’ experiences will require that school personnel, students and parents are familiar with school-based offerings, virtual learning opportunities, community work-based learning opportunities and dual enrollment options.”

— From the Vermont Agency of Education’s introductory outline to Act 77, the 2013 law that requires schools to develop personalized learning plans for students.


Guidance counselor Katherine Chobanian welcomed a parade of freshmen into the computer lab at Oxbow High School last Thursday to update and review their personalized learning plans (PLPs).

Her spiel to the fourth group of the day has become a sort of refrain in Vermont’s public schools: Time to take charge of your education.

“This covers your goals for life and your future,” Chobanian told the ninth-graders after they’d logged into the program that stores their PLPs. “Your interests. . . .  What are some of the subjects you enjoy in school?

“Also to keep in mind: If you put down that you like everything or nothing, they’re not going to be able to match you successfully, so you really need to be honest.”

Scrolling through the clusters of career options and other data that the program has been building in her PLP, aspiring forensic anthropologist Izzy Yelle turned to a classmate and asked, with one eyebrow raised, “What if we were correctional officers?” That raised questions such as:

What if?

Why not?

Where at?

Who can show me how to get there?

So go just a few of the questions that seventh-graders, ninth-graders and their counselors, teachers, principals and parents all over Vermont are asking of themselves and each other under Act 77. The state Legislature enacted the law in 2013 and it went into effect this year, with the aim of pulling together existing programs into a system of PLPs to shift the emphasis of public education toward “proficiency-based” diplomas.

“It’s really putting kids in the driver’s seat of their own education,” Hartford High School Assistant Principal Nelson Fogg said last week. “At its heart, (Act 77) recognizes things we maybe didn’t know when I started teaching 28 years ago — how students learn, how the brain works.

“We’ve become partners with students as opposed to directors of students.”

Part of that evolution was already taking place before the enactment of Act 77. Some school districts had established relationships with nearby employers, regional centers for career and technical education, and nearby state and private colleges to offer students options for earning high school and post-secondary credits, among them work-based learning, virtual and “blended” learning, online courses, dual enrollment and early-college arrangements.

“All those pieces are part of the PLP,” Heather Bouchey, deputy secretary of the Vermont Agency of Education, said recently. “Some schools have been doing these kinds of things for a while. This legislation opens up the opportunity to all students.

“Our next step is to figure out, how do all these elements help them map out the proficiencies that they’re required to show, to demonstrate, in order to graduate?”

The evolving process, which the Agency of Education is helping school districts build over several years, is a far cry from the alternatives that Doug Heavisides saw ahead of him at Hartford High School during the late 1980s.

“I didn’t start thinking about it until I was a third of the way through my senior year,” said Heavisides, who taught English at his alma mater for 16 years before becoming director of the Hartford Area Career and Technology Center four years ago. “This gets students thinking about their future much sooner, recognizing their learning styles and their goals. . . . Back in my day, it was, you either went to college or you went to work.

“There are more pathways now.”

So 2015 Oxbow graduate Noah Burridge discovered before and while spending his senior year taking music courses at Lyndon State College.

“I first heard about the early college program from a family friend, Dan Lemay, who is also a math teacher at Oxbow,” Burridge wrote during a recent exchange of emails. “He knew I was interested in Lyndon and the music business there, so he emailed me one night and told me to look into it. . . . Ever since I was in eighth grade, I knew that I wanted to become a musician, so being at Lyndon and taking classes in the music business and industry department really helped me understand what I wanted to study.”

Under Act 77, educators hope to encourage students who haven’t planned that far ahead to at least explore what resources are available, as much as to settle on a particular direction.

“At this point, we’re trying to get them to identify their interests, not necessarily careers but career areas,” said South Royalton Principal Dean Stearns, who previously directed technical education at Oxbow’s River Bend Career and Technical Center in Bradford, Vt., and coordinated cooperative work experiences for students at the Hartford Area Career and Technology Center. “It’s more discussion than anything else. . . . Before now, there wasn’t a formal process, other than an advisory one.”

In addition to PLPs for seventh- and ninth-graders, schools must develop them for juniors and seniors planning to enroll in more than one school and for seniors planning to spend their senior year in a college program. In 2016-2017, the process will continue with the next crop of seventh- and ninth-graders, while educators and counselors must continue to guide eighth-graders and sophomores through the process.

The Agency of Education is monitoring each school system’s progress toward those ends, but “we have not set a timeline,” Bouchey said. “It’s pretty fluid. We haven’t heard of any major gaps.”

Even in school systems, such as Hartford, that already were moving toward proficiency-based processes, the gaps are more philosophical than technical.

“It’s hard for some students who are used to being fed knowledge and then expected to repeat it back,” said Fogg, who will become principal at Hartford High on July 1. “And it’s very different from the way most parents were taught, the way we learned. Most of them had a positive experience and don’t see a need for change, but we have to take into account that there were students in class for whom the experience wasn’t as positive.”

Veteran teachers also are adjusting to the idea of becoming more directly involved in the process of advising students to follow alternative pathways, even if that means fewer students attending traditional lectures, or at least attending less often.

“There is some talk of doing away with at least some regular classes in the future and replacing them with more individual pathways work,” veteran Oxbow English teacher Sharon Harkay said after watching Katharine Chobanian’s session with Harkay’s students last Thursday. “I must be honest that I can’t picture it all yet. So at this point, I’m at the wait-and-see stage until I learn more.”

At Oxbow, Izzy Yelle is trying to process one more level of learning.

“A lot of it is almost too much information,” Yelle said after the PLP session. “But seeing the general areas we can go into, and the ways we can get there, is good to know.”

Oxbow senior Wren Smith can attest to the value of learning about choices early. This year, she’s taking an online course in accounting at Community College of Vermont while still spending her days among her peers both in class and in extra-curricular activities.

“I think there are a lot of programs right now for students to take advantage of,” Smith wrote in an exchange of emails. “I think it will help them stay motivated with school or help them figure out what they want to study after high school.”

At South Royalton School, Principal Stearns hopes that educators and parents stay patient with the evolution of personalized learning.

“The shifts will be pretty dramatic for some people to swallow,” Stearns said. “It’s going to take some time for a really solid model to emerge. The kids will buy into it quicker and easier than adults. Parents are still expecting a traditional report card. I don’t know if I’m going to be around long enough to see that change. I would hope that we can transition there in eight to 10 years.  It might take longer.”

To learn more about the changes Vermont schools are making under Act 77, visit education.vermont.gov/flexible-pathways.

College Recognition

Marquette University in Milwaukee has named Molly Meade, of White River Junction, to its dean’s list for her academic performance during the fall 2015 semester in her studies with the College of Education. She is a 2012 graduate of Hartford High School.

Kyra Taylor of Lebanon earned a berth on the dean’s list at the University of New England, for her academic performance during the first semester of her freshman year at the Biddeford, Maine, institution. In addition to making the grade in the classroom as a nursing major, Taylor has been starting regularly for UNE’s women’s lacrosse team.

Educator Education

The Flow of History education network is inviting science and history teachers from schools in the watershed of the Connecticut River to a seminar on “The Power of Water, the Power of Place,” during the first weekend of July in Windsor.

The American Precision Museum in Windsor and Valley Quest are joining forces with the network to put on the summer institute from July 6 to 8, during which participants will explore the Mill Brook watershed. To learn more and to register, visit flowofhistory.org/site and click on 2016 Summer Institute Information.

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304. Education-related items also can be sent to schoolnotes@vnews.com.