Harwood Union High School students continue to participate in a multitude of programs in line with the idea that, as stated on the Vermont Agency of Education’s (AOE) website, “We can no longer view high school as a place – we need to see it as an experience.”
From within the Vermont Flexible Pathways Legislation, or Act 77, which was passed in 2013, Harwood is continuing to implement programs for students that allow for flexibility in curriculum. Students engage in community service learning projects, internships, independent studies and enrollment in college courses within Vermont state colleges.
Students have engaged in some of these opportunities for at least five years, said Harwood co-principal Amy Rex, but with the passing of the law “everything is much more formalized.” Students must document their projects consistently throughout the year and the state has created a set of assessment criteria that reviews students’ projects and outcomes.
While state policies do not always translate into curriculum that is enjoyable for students – such as with preparation for standardized testing – Flexible Pathways is allowing students to earn credit for activities and projects that are of interest to them. Harwood board member Garett McCurtain, in a recent board meeting, said that “it is state statute, but it’s also best for how kids learn.”
Harwood currently has 17 students participating in off-campus internships, ranging from high-level scientific research to political campaigning in Washington, DC, to woodworking and glass blowing. One student, in a video produced for the school, said that he creates glass artworks in a studio for six hours a week and receives course credit.
Rex said that the flexibility in such programs “keeps kids connected and engaged in school” and that all students can benefit – whether students who advance academically or those who have become disenchanted with their high school careers and are on the verge of dropping out. Rex said that there are “structures in place” for all of them.
An internship is just one example of many programs that can fit within a student’s “personalized learning plan,” for which students meet with teachers and counselors to develop their course of study for the year.
A program called Dual Enrollment, which has been in place for over five years, Rex explained, is currently serving 54 students. They can enroll in up to two courses of their choosing at a state college such as Vermont Technical College or Johnson State College at no cost to the student’s family and receive both high school and college credit. And four Harwood seniors are enrolled in college courses full time.
These programs do not come without challenges, Rex said – such as with cost. With Dual Enrollment, the state pays for the student’s first year of tuition and then 50 percent of the second year, requiring schools to pick up the remainder of the bill. This year, the cost for Harwood was $20,000 and although the state funded the amount in full, Rex said that such funding is not guaranteed in future years.
Similarly, as student interest in alternative programming grows, Harwood may need to hire additional staff, such as a coordinator who will help students make connections in the community and source internships. Last year, a part-time position was opened up for someone to support faculty in their additional work with students completing independent work. Rex said that the state “does not anticipate the need for human resources.”
There are also challenges with coordinating transportation – especially for students who must travel to towns like Burlington or Randolph.
But whatever dilemmas come with implementing these programs, the law requires that they are developed in the interest of students as well as the state’s future economic success, according to the AOE’s website. And if students become more inspired to learn through these opportunities, they may be seen as invaluable.