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A revolution in rural Vermont classrooms - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

A revolution in rural Vermont classrooms

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HIGHGATE, Vt. - Morning means the Choiniere farm comes back to life. Hens and dogs and people start the routines of another day. For 17-year-old Hannah, that means chores.

"My dad always finds something for me to do," she said.

On this day, it's helping milk the family's hundred cows.

Hannah's routine is par for the course for most Highgate teens.

"Most of our population of students either live on a farm, help on a farm or work on a farm," she said.

Hannah says the need for help at home on the farm often means early mornings and late nights for many kids in Franklin County.

"As soon as I get home from practice, finish my homework, I go out and help my dad milk and feed the cows, do tractor work-- pretty much anything," she said.

Sometimes school can even take a back seat. Now more so-- it's the busy season. And more often for the boys.

"Especially if you're the farmer's kid," Hannah said. "Busy day in the field, nice day-- they're probably going to pull you from school to plow or wrap hay bales because you can't find many people who want to do it."

Hannah's family has made it clear her focus is her schoolwork. It shows; she's vice president of the senior class, a National Honor Society student and on the softball team.

Now, there's a transformation taking place at Missisquoi Valley Union High School to push her peers in the same direction.

"We're really saying to kids it's no longer optional to care about your learning," Principal Dennis Hill said.

The school was one of the first in the state identified for needing improvements under No Child Left Behind. Most of the others in the first batch were also in rural and lower-income areas. Teachers like Alan Crowley say that sparked a revolution in the classrooms.

"Because of some of the struggles of our kids and the struggles of our community, we needed to change; we needed to pay attention," Crowley said.

Those changes are rewriting how school is taught and graded. Each class now has what are called essential learning outcomes. They are concrete goals students must reach in order to pass.

"Like instead of saying I got a 65 because I got 35 out of 100 wrong, you say you need to be able to support a thesis statement with evidence," Crowley explained.

With these new objectives come new styles of teaching. Gone are the days of hourlong lectures. Class time focuses on students doing the work and more one-on-one interaction.

"I used to think I was a really great teacher-- I've been teaching for more than 30 years. But I'm as happy and as better of a teacher than I've ever been," Crowley said.

Grading looks radically different, too. The new tool in teacher's arsenal is the incomplete.

"The incomplete says to kids you're not done yet. We're not done with you. You haven't learned this," Hill said.

If students don't meet those concrete objectives, they no longer get an F. They get an I. And then they have time to work on that skill.

"If you were teaching a little brother or child how to ski and they fell down on the first day, you wouldn't say, 'You're a failure go home,'" Crowley said. "The old style of grading tended to weed kids out."

The school gave out 168 incompletes last semester. They hope to add a full-time staff member to help kids finish what they're missing during their study halls.

Principal Hill says the goal of the new grading is to not let failure be an easy out.

"We've taken away from kids the opportunity to say, 'Eh, I'm good with that. I'll take the D,'" Hill said.

In fact, the D may be as low as grades go eventually.

"My goal would be in three years-- with the use of our essential learnings and incompletes-- that in three years no kids will fail classes at MVU," Hill said.

It makes sense to students like 16-year-old Brooke Bessette.

"You're not putting an F. You're not saying you got a zero on this. You're saying, 'OK, you learned the stuff. Now demonstrate it to me, complete this project, complete this test. Show me you've been learning in class," Brooke said.

Like Hannah, Brooke is a stellar student who also grew up on a family farm. She says she thinks the changes could help those students only interested in ag stay interested in school.

"I think that people are realizing maybe the farm isn't all there is in life," Brooke said, "and that's not a bad thing."

Similar curriculum changes are taking place across the country. But administrators say the farm-based community in particular may benefit from them.

"We're seeing a lot of students who have a traditional agriculture background in the families, or whether they're working on farms or small family farms, but those students are recognizing the opportunities for college or career readiness is directly related to their performance in school," Hill said.

Kids like Brooke and Hannah have already figured that out. Both plan on heading to college after they graduate from MVU. They're two students setting the example at a school trying to send a message.

"That teachers understand, that families understand that it's no longer OK not to care about kids who don't care about their learning," Hill said.

The school says there have been some growing pains, but since the push to this new system for teaching and grading, they are seeing gains on state testing. In fact, they say this year their students' writing scores went up the highest levels they ever have, now around 10-percent higher than the state average.

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