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Foundation aims to empower Vt. teachers, students - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Foundation aims to empower Vt. teachers, students

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RUTLAND, Vt. -

There are a lot of pressures on schools. Innovate, generate better student outcomes and cut your budget and there are a couple of retirees who are trying to help and Rutland High School is benefiting.

Rutland High School has 862 students, 79 teachers and counselors and a $10.2 million budget. And the principal says the school is able to meet new state education standards thanks to hard work and a big investment from the Rowland Foundation.

Ms. Cassel's French class seems pretty traditional on the first day of the new semester, but there is innovation happening here.

"I'm able to look at how I can change or influence kids," said Marsha Cassel, Rutland High School teacher.

Cassel is one of four teacher leaders at Rutland High School given special time and money to research new approaches to teaching with a goal of giving kids more say in what they study.

"They're not just consumers, they are driving the education," said Cassel.

"So now kids are learning in a different way, and so it really starts to spread out bit by bit, the whole culture changes, the way, the way we practice changes," said Bill Olsen, Rutland High School principal.

Rutland High has been working to shift how and what students learn for several years.

Stretching to meet new state education quality standards for student driven learning and higher level critical thinking skills. Rutland's teacher-leaders are using their research to teach their peers a new approach.

"What schools are being asked to do right now is really completely overhaul how they approach learning. That takes a lot of learning on the part of adults in the schools, and then time for planning and changing your systems," said Olsen.

But a critical piece of the innovation that's happening at Rutland High School doesn't come from Rutland, it comes from a farm in South Londonderry.

"I mean, witness what we did here, we saved a dairy farm," said Barry Rowland, Rowland Foundation

Barry and Wendy Rowland are not typical dairy farmers. They are part time Vermonters who did save a 'farm on the brink' from developers. West River Creamery now not only makes milk, but cheese too. It's one of their retirement projects.

Another is funding the Rowland Foundation.

"We are really empowering the teachers to, I think, empower the students, which is where we want to see the change come, have them have some input into their education," said Wendy.

The foundation grants half a million dollars a year to teachers at five Vermont high schools. The fellowships give teachers the time and money to do the travel, research and planning needed to then guide their schools through curriculum changes. So far, the foundation has funded 37 fellowships around the state, from creating a new approach to teaching low income students to launching farm-to-table programs before they became cool.

"That group of people is now making a very huge difference. I think in being able to make good things happen, whereas one individual teacher can't do it alone," said Barry.

Wendy's dad was an educator. Barry led a successful investment firm in Massachusetts. The family had a vacation home in Vermont for decades before they decided to invest in teachers here.

"Clearly we got a much bigger bang for our buck by doing it in Vermont, a small state, than trying to do it in Massachusetts, which is so full of graft and everything else," said Barry.

They say shifting educational practices will only stick if everyone in the school is invested in making it happen.

"Do it from the bottom up, not the Montpelier way which might be top down," said Barry.

The Rowlands say the key to the foundation's success so far is a rigorous grant application and interview process and selecting can-do teachers who have the backing of a can-do principal. Chuck Scranton is the former headmaster at Burr and Burton and now serves as the foundation's executive director. He says principals need to back teachers with good ideas.

"I don't think it has anything to do with the principal being there one year or 21 years, it's really about are you willing to roll up your sleeves and do what it takes to educate today's kid," said Scranton.

"That gives me a great perspective," said Phoebe Sargent, Rutland High School sophomore.

Phoebe is only in her second year of high school, but she's helping to plan a major international conference at the school and has already traveled to Lima, Peru with Rowland Fellow and world language teacher Marsha Cassel.

"It made me think that maybe I want to study science internationally," said Phoebe.

"I think part of the beauty of the Rutland program is each fellow built on the work of the fellow before," said Cassel.

Rutland is the only high school to win three $100,000 Rowland grants. The first helped integrate the ninth-grade curriculum, bringing in a team approach. The second helped create the global studies concentration. Now, Cassel and science teacher Erica Wallstom are working to integrate global studies and stem science, technology, engineering and math.

"It empowers us to do the work that we're passionate about," said Cassel.

Cassel traveled to Qatar with social studies teacher and another Rowland Fellow Jennifer Kravitz last year where they learned from top education researchers from around the world.

"They turn into consultants for the building," said Olsen.

Olsen says he relies on the expertise of his Rowland fellows. And without their work and the foundation grants, the school would likely not be meeting state standards now for student driven learning experiences and problem-solving opportunities.

"It allowed us to do the things you really wish you could do," said Olsen.

The Rowlands say they've run into an unexpected challenge: some schools have never applied for the money. They say they'd love to spread the investment around, but school leaders need to be ready to support teachers who have innovative ideas.

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