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At White River Valley Middle School, Staff Works to Develop a Culture for Students

  • White River Valley Middle School eighth-grade students Noah Burbank, left, Danny Smith, and Luke Durkee work together to record information while running a simulation on a laptop during a science class on Oct. 29, 2018 in Bethel, Vt., Students were learning about weather. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

  • White River Valley Middle School teacher Emily Miller looks over work done by seventh-grader Logan DeCoteau during science class on Oct. 29, 2018 in Bethel, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Jennifer Hauck

  • White River Valley Middle School teacher Emily Miller holds the door for seventh-grader, Jackson Rule after a five minute break during her science class on Oct. 29, 2018 in Bethel, Vt. Students spent a few minutes outside getting some of their energy out. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • White River Valley Middle School teacher Holly Williams answers a question of eighth-graders Maria Gray, left, and Avery Gifford during a science class on Oct. 29, 2018 in Bethel, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • A White River Valley Middle School seventh-grader looks over his diagram charting animal and plant cells in class on Oct. 29, 2018 in Bethel, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Jennifer Hauck

  • White River Valley Middle School seventh-grader, Estelle Kokernot cuts a work sheet out on cells during her science class on Oct. 29, 2018 in Bethel, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/3/2018 11:29:05 PM
Modified: 11/4/2018 6:33:09 PM

Bethel — The principal’s words ground to a halt, his eyes moist.

“And now,” he said, gently, “I’m crying in front of one of my students.”

Owen Bradley was sitting in his office, taking a break from a student conference to answer questions about what it was like to be the principal of the White River Valley Middle School, the sixth- through eighth-grade school that opened in September after the Bethel and Royalton districts merged.

A moment later, after regaining his composure, Bradley tried to explain what had so moved him.

“Years ago,” he said, “I dreamed of making my school. ... To do it in a public school setting is just, like an exceptional moment in my career and, I think, in this community. I don’t even truly know if the community knows what’s happening. It’s like, something amazing is happening.”

Bradley’s vision draws from a wide variety of sources, including 20th-century education philosopher John Dewey’s belief that education be used as a platform for democracy and the fictional world of Harry Potter, which depicted the community-building power of shared meals with real silverware and napkins at the Hogwarts school.

Translating those abstractions into changes that will show up on measures by which schools are evaluated — including standardized test scores, graduation rates, academic performance and post-secondary achievements — depends largely on what happens in the classroom. And with the blank slate they were handed when the former Whitcomb Junior-Senior High School was made available for a new middle school, Bradley and other school staff have the freedom to rethink how the school handles such things as curriculum, pedagogy, educational structure and the incorporation of technology.

During these first few months of operation, much of the focus has been on creating a culture that allows for positive changes in the classroom.

One of the early signs of what Bradley had in mind came over the summer, when 10 teachers — two each from science, global studies, English language arts, mathematics and music — spent an entire 40-hour week in a single workspace. They were told that their task was to build an education system that encompassed everything from scheduling snack breaks to coordinating curriculum, but Bradley said there was an even more important imperative in play — building a core group of teachers who would actually function as a team.

He’s continued to invest staff resources into building a more intimate relationship among the eight teachers who handle the school’s core curriculum.

“They have dedicated time where they can spend time together every day,” he said.

He said the resultant level of staff cohesion has drawn favorable reviews from everyone involved, including education experts from the University of Vermont’s Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education, which is under a three-year contract of helping to build the program.

“It’s like a root system. It’s like a score,” Bradley said. “Everybody knows the same language. Everybody knows the notes and everybody appreciates everybody else’s part and awaits their moment to come in, and it comes across as beautiful music. At times it’s out of key, where they have to work at it. At times, it’s jazz and they have to improvise.”

Learning Organelles

The two science teachers on the team are Holly Williams and Emily Miller, who instruct different groups of middle schoolers in neighboring classrooms at the end of the hall.

Miller, 41, recently was lecturing a late-morning class on organelles, small biological units that perform various functions inside the cells of plants and animals. As it turns out, the teaching of that particular subject offers an instructive example of how a new school can invite teachers to collaboratively rethink their classroom approach.

Miller, who left a job with the White River Partnership, a South Royalton conservation group, four years ago to become a certified science teacher, has taught organelles before, and she said it can be a somewhat dry topic.

But this year, she said, kids had a subtly different classroom experience.

As early as last winter, long before the summer week-long workshop, she and Williams (who was then teaching in Royalton) were having one-on-one meetings, working to ensure that the students in this year’s separate seventh-grade sections would be learning the same material, at the same speed.

One thing they talked about was organelles.

Miller had always taught organelles as they came up in other lessons — one organelle is a small piece of the lesson on photosynthesis, while another, which regulates cell duplication, is covered during a lesson about cell division and cancer.

But Miller learned that Williams, who has been teaching longer, had a different approach to teaching organelles: She handled them through a separate dedicated lesson plan.

“That was an approach that had been really successful for her,” said Miller. “So I decided to try it.”

To help get the idea across, Miller took advantage of another change at White River Middle School — universal laptop access, which allows her to quickly and easily use educational videos to communicate a concept.

At the beginning of the organelle lesson, she had the kids watch a computer animation that depicts the complex and busy landscape of the interior of a cell, with so many odd-shaped bodies performing so many odd functions that it looks like it came from the pages of a Dr. Seuss book.

“It’s a really awesome animation,” she said. “That gets the kids excited. They don’t think about that, you have billions of cells in your body, and there’s all this stuff going on in every single one.”

Student Experience

Later, outside of the classroom, the video was the first thing that Miller’s students mentioned when asked about how cells work.

“They travel and stuff,” said seventh-grader Finn Bailey, 12, of South Royalton, explaining earnestly how the inner bits of a cell work. “There were these little guys walking up this big steep hill, pulling different things. They all have a part to do to make the cell work. It’s pretty cool. They do a lot of transferring. They become smaller and then they become bigger. They duplicate and turn into more.”

Bailey, who would like to work outdoors one day (snow plow driver, logger and game warden are all on the table), said science has become his favorite subject. Access to technology, like the video and microscopes that he’s now trained on, are exciting to him.

Bailey’s mother, Kerri Rogers, said she was happy with the changes in the classroom.

“He is absolutely loving science,” she said. “He’s doing very well in it. It’s very hands-on.”

Rogers, who is a paraeducator at Royalton’s elementary school, said most of her concerns lie outside of the classroom. The transportation system, which has been dogged by challenging geography and a regional bus driver shortage, has given parents continued headaches. Rogers said that lengthier commute times, sometimes involving a bus transfer, have been difficult to adjust to and created safety concerns.

But she also praised Bradley’s campus-wide ban on student cellphones, which she said has led to a positive contrast to what she saw with her son last year in South Royalton.

“It was a big pet peeve of mine because I would pop in during his lunch time and all of the kids would just be staring at screens,” she said. “I feel like we’re losing that connection. Kidd are losing eye contact and body language and having conversations about stuff, as opposed to just sitting there watching YouTube videos.”

Another one of Miller’s seventh-grade science students is Estelle Kokernot, 12, who usually has information speeding into and out of her head at 100 miles an hour. Kokernot gave Miller high marks for handling her own brand of high energy.

“She’s very good at answering my questions. And I have a lot of questions,” Kokernot said. “Lots of qualifying questions. I like get — have to double check myself. I’m not sure. I over-complicate things. I’ve done that since second grade.”

Kokernot is unusual in that she can compare White River’s classrooms to South Royalton, which she attended last year, and to Chelsea Public School, a K-12 she attended the year before that.

“My class in Chelsea had eight kids. Including me,” she said. “Five of them were boys. So it was just hard to get work done.”

At White River, said Kokernot, teachers like Miller are more tuned in with interactive lessons that engage her restless peers.

Korkernot’s not imagining things.

For at least 60 years, educators have been pushing a middle-school structure as having significant advantages over K-12, or other broader groupings.

“Developmentally, middle school students are at a different place than other students,” said Mary Ellen Simmons, the director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for the White River Valley Supervisory Union, which includes the district.

And Miller who also is the mother of a seventh-grader and a fifth-grader in the district, said she finds it easier to teach to middle schoolers when she doesn’t have to constantly transition between age groups, as she did last year at Whitcomb.

“As a parent, I really like it,” she said. “It feels different here. It’s nice to not have the high schoolers here because they can get grumpier. I don’t know. It’s like, real life is impending more with them. (Middle schoolers) are still pretty happy. They’re still kids. It’s fun to have that energy.”

The district does have work to do — eighth-grade science students in both Bethel and Royalton have struggled to score well on standardized tests, with about a third of students classified as “substantially below proficient” last year, as compared with a quarter of students statewide.

Until new numbers are released, district administrators are trusting their instincts, and moving forward in the best way they can, with each community component — teacher, principal, parent and student — doing their part, like organelles performing specialized functions to help the collective thrive.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at or 603-727-3211.

Not too long ago, student Grace Collins, 13, expected that she would attend South Royalton School through the end of her public schooling. But because of the merger, the South Royalton resident started eighth grade in August in Bethel. Grace has agreed to share her thoughts about the school year in a series of vlogs (short for video logs, or video diaries). You can watch her first three submissions here.

In this fourth vlog submission, recorded Nov. 1, Grace shares the pros and cons of attending a smaller school, and the quality of the education at White River Valley.

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