The Burlington and Winooski school districts have won a three-year grant of about $3.5 million designed to help customize the high school experience and allow more young people to succeed in college or the workplace.

The Nellie Mae Education Foundation confirmed Wednesday that the two Chittenden County school districts, which applied jointly for the grant, are winners and would receive an amount close to the $3.5 million they sought in their application, although the precise number won’t be finalized for a week or more.

“It will approach something along those lines,” said Nicholas Donohue, president and chief executive of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation in Quincy, Mass.

The two school systems will share the grant money. Their application was one of four in New England to win awards in this competition. Donohue said the Vermont districts won partly because they are committed to designing the classroom of the future.

“They really want to move to a more personalized approach where students’ needs and interests are taken into account; but standards are still high,” he said.

The money is intended to seed broad and potentially dramatic changes at Burlington High School and Winooski High School, starting with graduation requirements. The idea is that students would “graduate when they’ve learned what they need to, not because they’ve covered a certain amount of hours in a classroom seat,” Donohue said.

Both schools follow the norm in Vermont and the United States of using credit hours and seat time in required courses, along with passing grades, to confer a diploma. The new approach, as proposed in the grant application, would be more flexible and allow students who can demonstrate proficiency in a required subject to move ahead immediately, rather than sit through a year or a semester of a class below their level. It also would mean that students who are struggling to become proficient can take more time if needed. How much more is unclear.

How proficiency would be determined is undecided, but it’s likely to include a variety of measures, not just standardized tests, said Jeanne Collins, superintendent of Burlington Schools.

By moving to a proficiency-based system, high school will be better able to meet the individual needs of each student, she predicted.

Another central tenet of the grant-funded changes is the student learning plan. All high-school students will be required to plot out their academic goals, starting in ninth grade. The intention is to cultivate “more student choice, more student voice and therefore deeper student engagement and involvement in developing their own learning path,” Collins said.

She and Mary Martineau, superintendent of Winooski schools, said the grant was cause for celebration.

 “The Nellie Mae Foundation grant is a wonderful opportunity for the Winooski and Burlington school districts,” Martineau said. “This grant will provide us with an opportunity to be leaders in the state of Vermont in transforming secondary education, and moving in the direction of student centered learning.”

Money from the grant will help fund computers and other classroom technology, including partial funding of a one-to-one computing phase-in at Burlington High School set to start with the freshmen class next year. It also will help pay for teacher training at both high schools and fellowships for a group of lead teachers who focus full time on planning, implementation and professional development.

By applying for the grant together, the two school systems might be able to collaborate on certain programs, especially those designed to help immigrant and refugee students who come to high school with limited English, Collins said. She also said the grant has triggered discussions about a broad school-choice agreement between the neighboring high schools that would be much bigger than the limited choice program currently allowed. But those discussions are in the early stages, Collins said.

At Burlington High School, core requirements in reading, writing and math will remain, but some of the other standard requirements — such as foreign language, gym and other subjects — might look very different, Collins said.

Meanwhile, students would be encouraged to pursue their interests deeply and not just in traditional classroom settings. The new approach would encourage students to take courses at local colleges for credit, take classes online or pursue internships that apply what they are learning, Collins said.

The big changes could take three to five years to phase in, she said. Hundreds of people in Winooski and Burlington have attended forums as part of the grant application. More conversations are planned.

Short-term changes are under way, Collins said. Next year students at Burlington High School will spend the final three weeks of the school year in a mini-course they choose and help design, somewhat similar to an independent study guided by a teacher. Spring finals will be moved up to accommodate the mini-course, and first-semester finals will take place in December, as opposed to the current January timeline.

Standardized test scores at Burlington High School show a yawning achievement gap — with students from low-income families much less likely to meet 11th-grade benchmarks in the core subjects than students from higher-income families. The scenario is persistent throughout Vermont and the nation, despite pressure from education reforms including No Child Left Behind.

Donohue said the grants are about taking a serious look at reshaping education and helping schools “make some significant changes in how they engage learners so that more of them succeed at higher levels.”

For more on grants and grant writing, visit Grant Pros.


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