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Sunday, October 21, 2018

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News from Keri Gelenian, Head of Schools / RA Principal

August 3, 2015
 
Dear Rivendell Families and Staff,
 
Rivendell Academy, and the district in general, are poised to have a very exciting year. At the Academy we will continue to focus on supporting our students to develop as critical and flexible thinkers who successfully navigate the world.
 
Highlights of last year include the Vex robotics championship, packed houses in our fall play and spring musical, yet another trip to Barre to try to beat the seemingly invincible Williamstown, state records in track, a fantastic Raptor Run organized by our Athletic Leadership Council, artists selected for the AVA Gallery show, participants in St. Paul’s Summer Academy, trips to visit Noam Chomsky and Amy Goodman, many technical award recipients, speakers from the front lines of Afghanistan, and a high school (paid) internship recipient at Hypertherm. We have been making steady progress academically as well in our work to expand the possibilities for students.
 
We will do our best to continue to ask, offer, cajole, and push our students to look for new experiences and reasonable challenges that help them learn and grow. Visit the Academic Enrichment section of our web page for a partial list of opportunities available to students. http://www.rivendellschool.org/schools/rivendell-academy/guidance/academic-opportunites. We will be doing more to get students involved with our Choose Your Own Adventure program started last year.
 
Summer Reading—Ideas, Events and People that Changed the World/BBQ and Speaker
We have an exciting agenda of activities planned for students during the first week of school. On Tuesday, August 25th at 5:30 p.m. we will hold our annual Pot Luck BBQ. We will try something new by having everyone eat together in advisories at various locations. At 6:30 p.m. we have a guest speaker, Dr. Yolanda Sanchez, who will discuss breakthrough cancer research. She is an example of someone working with others to try to change our world.
 
Yolanda Sanchez
 
If your Rivendell student has procrastinated finishing his or her summer reading and writing, time is running out. They should have it done by the time school starts. Our slightly new schedule allows us to start classes without much interruption from summer reading activities as has happened in the past.
 
Advisory, Rivendell Curriculum and Learning Expectations
For the past two years we have been developing our advisory program and our curriculum. We want advisors to be true mentors to our students, guiding them to figure out who they are, keeping them on track while in school, and helping them figure out (even tentatively) what direction they might be moving after Rivendell. If students were rockets, advisory would be their launch pad, and advisors would be ground control.
 
The curriculum in advisory is designed to help advisors and advisees get to know one another well, work out any differences (an important life skill) and be successful individually and as a group.
For the past year the Academy curriculum committee (Scott Riess, Kirsten Surprenant, Laszlo Bardos, Gary Ackerman, Keri Gelenian) has been working to restructure curriculum documents in a way that explicitly reflects a philosophy that emphasizes deep understanding over facts, broad skills in the areas of our specific learning expectations, and the ability to think across disciplines through the exploration of four themes: Truth, Choice, Change and Systems. One of my proudest moments at Rivendell occurred on the last staff day of school last year when each faculty member presented a 10-minute overview of the curriculum in one year long class. The aspects of curriculum that I just described came though very clearly in all the courses. This was the first time Rivendell Academy teachers had heard, in a very focused presentation, what colleagues were teaching across the school. I think we were all ready to enroll! Our work this year is to move on to complete curriculum documents across all or most of the remaining classes.
 
With the support of our digital project leader, Gary Ackerman, we are moving to further the digital integration of our curriculum documents and teacher course web pages that will be fully accessible to students, teachers and community members.
 
After-School Programming
Last year was the final year of funding for the Visions Program. At the Academy this means that the structure and purpose of our programming will change. The Federal Title I program will fund much of the afterschool program. The program targets students with identifiable needs for extra support in literacy and math, based on three criteria established by the school. These criteria will likely be grades, standardized test scores, and teacher recommendations.
 
Students will receive targeted assistance in areas of need provided by teachers and classroom assistants in small groups. We hope to also provide ongoing assessment by a reading specialist and math specialist. This will not be time for homework help. The targeted instruction will run from 3:00-4:30 p.m. with a snack break. From 4:30-5:30 p.m. we will have time for a planned activity or time for students to complete homework with help.
 
We will have a parent meeting to introduce the program and hold periodic meetings for parent feedback and suggestions for program improvement.
 
The Larger Context of Education
Testing and Standards
Last October I sent a lengthy letter about standardized testing, and we hosted an information night about testing issues. North Country Schools’ Superintendent, John Castle, and I voiced our concerns about standardized testing (time, money, lack of useful information) at the Vermont State Board meeting last February. Currently, the U.S. Senate and House are trying to resolve differences in their versions of the new education law that is intended to replace the No Child Left Behind Act that began the standardized testing movement approximately 14 years ago. NCLB expired four years ago without being reauthorized.
 
The new education bill will likely turn the use of testing back to states. The states are still required to put together some type of accountability system. Both bills eliminate the Common Core Standards mandate, but states must have some standards in place. The bottom line, after about four years of build up to the Common Core Standards and the new testing system, the pendulum swings back to where it was with other various political twists and turns. That is, if the two houses can reconcile the differences in their bills. (My approach over the last four years has been to ignore the mandates and buzz words and focus on student learning, high expectations, teachers, teaching, and innovation).
 
The federal government is backtracking, only because of political backlash, but they are not proposing federal initiatives that in the long run will help state use and allocate resources to have more impact. The sad ending to the likely federal legislative changes is that state will likely stay on their current course.
 
Vermont has more freedom because it did not buy into the entire package of federal “incentives” that were used to push a much larger testing agenda in most other state. The new bill will likely allow the Vermont legislature, under the guidance of the Secretary of Education and Governor, to create standards and assessment structures that are more educative and appropriate than what we are currently left with. We can hope.
 
Until the NCLB Act is changed under new legislation Rivendell Academy is still designated as a school in need of improvement in math despite several years of solid test scores in math. (I am required to report this to you by Federal law).
 
Some links about testing:
 
School Consolidation
Closer to home Vermont has implemented new legislation (Act 46) designed to move schools toward consolidation. The issues around this legislation have led the American Civil Liberties Union to threaten to take Vermont to court if a district makes a request. Simply put, the ACLU
sees that funding caps (designed to limit spending increases and force consolidation) as a violation of the state constitution.
 
 
The Governor, Secretary of Education, and legislature currently believe that consolidation will: 1) reduce education costs for taxpayers, and 2) increase the educational opportunities for students in very small schools. The following two articles state opposing opinions on this issue.
 
 
The complexity lies in our social values around taxes, education, and community, as well as what consolidation means. Does it mean increasing class size, closing schools, sharing administrative costs, all these things, or some of them? The devil is in the details. Making the right decisions will depend on getting the facts straight. For example, would closing one school result in overcrowding in another and an eventual call for construction?
 
One issue often not discussed is that Vermont often rates very highly in terms of educational achievement in its K-12 system. Another is that it might be that small schools can’t offer the same opportunities as larger schools, but what they do offer might reach more kids at a deeper level.
It is important to note that Rivendell is not required to consolidate because of our unique status as an interstate district. The question of whether or not Rivendell consolidates by bringing in other districts isn’t easy to answer. What is important is that the issue is brought forth in an open and inclusive way so all perspectives and ideas on this issue can be examined. It was this type of process that led to the creation of our unique district in the first place.
 
I am very excited to start the new school year.
 
Best,
Keri Gelenian
Head of Schools/RA Principal