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Wilmington and Whitingham eye core school values

Community members plan a 21st-century school

WILMINGTON—What will education look like in 20 years?

No one knows for sure, members of the Twin Valley Academic Committee told an audience of about 20 teachers, parents, and community members on Sept. 25.

Undaunted, the committee wanted to prepare for the future by collecting examples of core values the audience held for students of the Twin Valley schools in Wilmington and Whitingham.

Wilmington and Whitingham residents voted last summer to consolidate their school systems into the one, Twin Valley. The towns, which maintain three school facilities, two in Wilmington and one in Whitingham, will change to operating an elementary school in Wilmington and a middle/high school in Whitingham.

Cost estimates for the facilities project are about $13 million.

The former Wilmington high school will be decommissioned.

The towns combined their middle and high schools 10 years ago, forming the Twin Valley school system.

Pressure from the state to make small schools more cost effective and to make needed upgrades to the towns’ three buildings prompted consolidation.

Committee and school board member John Doty opened the meeting by presenting statistics from the International Center for Leadership in Education. According to data from 2009, on an international playing field, the United States ranked average in reading and science, and below average in math.

By 2018, he said, 62 percent of Vermont jobs will require a post-secondary education. Right now, Vermont ranks 23rd in the country.

Doty, a former principal in Whitingham, and committee member Philip Taylor asked the audience to write down its top three values for the future Twin Valley. He said the evening’s focus was not about finding consensus but about identifying key ideas.

The Twin Valley academic committee was looking for common threads or values to include in planning, he added, and the community can create its vision for the school.

Schools are improving, but not keeping pace with a rapidly changing, and often uncertain, world, Doty said. Educators must close this gap.

Parents and schools must also face the challenge of creating a school system beyond what they knew as kids, he said.

According to Doty, schools of today are based on a structure created in 1895.

Schools can no longer simply train students for the workforce, he said. Graduating seniors must be flexible thinkers, able to quickly absorb new information and express themselves effectively. They must also remain “brave and resourceful when confronted with the unknown.”

Instead, schools need to transition from horses to automobiles, he said.

To illustrate his point, Doty quoted auto baron Henry Ford as saying, “If I’d asked the public what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse.”

’World-class school system’

Doty added that one of the economic development goals for the Deerfield Valley included creating a “world-class school system” able to attract new families to the area.

Audience members were asked to respond to these questions:

• The school: What are the key values or characteristics that describe a great school as a place?

• The learning: What skills, virtues, abilities, or training should every child master before completing high school?

• The teachers: What are the characteristics that define an outstanding teacher?

• The parents and community: What characteristics indicate strong parent and community relationships with our schools and our children’s education?

During group discussions, phrases such as “welcoming,” “respect,” “a place and teachers that inspire learning,” “access to technology,” “citizenship,” “real world math and literacy skills,” and “problem solving,” came up frequently.

Under motivational posters taped to the classroom walls — “Attitude plus Ability = Success,” “Showing respect to others shows respect for yourself, Learn from the past, plan for the future, live in the present,” and “You are responsible for your own actions” — audience members also debated their assumptions and refined their definitions of key concepts.

“Some of this [response] assumes a classroom and as we go into the 21st century, that may not be the case,” said Rep. Ann Manwaring, D-Wilmington.

“Confidence is overrated,” said one parent. “There’s so much false confidence out there.”

“[Then] don’t fill them [kids] full of shit,” responded another parent.

A community member questioned if the group was focusing too much on “the warm and fuzzies” and not enough on creating an environment that said to students, “here is your chance to learn.”

The responses will be recorded in a spreadsheet and then reported back to the community, said Doty.

The feedback from the night’s meeting, and informational meeting in Whitingham, a faculty meeting, and a future school board meeting will help form the Twin Valley school board’s mission statement.

Taylor, who is also a School Board member, added that the committee will seek additional input via a survey. The School Board and Twin Valley Academic Committee are focused on shifting to the consolidated school system. The next phase will encompass strategic planning for the academic programs.

Taylor said he felt the community discussions provided valuable information. He has seen some “amazing” common threads emerge through the meetings that speak to “common human values,” he said.

“That shouldn’t be a surprise,” he said. “For this process to be successful, we need to capture aspects about education that are perennial.”

Twin Valley will need to identify the values that in 20 years will still be respected by the community, he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #172 (Wednesday, October 3, 2012).

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