School on a Mission

Danville School receives high national recognition

Meg Pow­den, Co-Principal of Danville School

By Sharon Lakey

8:00 on a Mon­day morn­ing, and the Danville School front desk was hop­ping. Three ele­men­tary school­girls, obvi­ously excited about some­thing, were wait­ing their turn to speak to one of the sec­re­taries. Tow­er­ing above them was a lanky high school boy, ask­ing about tick­ets to the boys’ bas­ket­ball semi-final game at the Aud. “All sold out,” the sec­re­tary said apolo­get­i­cally, “but you can get them over there before the game.” It was pleas­ant, organized-chaos that I remem­bered well from my own children’s school days in Danville. I was on a mis­sion, too, need­ing to sign in with the sec­re­tary before meet­ing with co-principal, Meg Powden.


The mis­sion: get the story behind Danville School’s national recog­ni­tion as a best school. Sur­pris­ingly, it was an honor I had not read about in our own local media; instead, it was men­tioned in con­ver­sa­tions with peo­ple I had out­side of our area, both in and out of state. Hav­ing worked in a pub­lic school in Ver­mont dur­ing the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) high-stakes test­ing years, I knew this des­ig­na­tion was no small feat.

Meg arrived through the maze of stu­dents before a bell sounded and all moved off in the direc­tion of their assigned rooms. She escorted me up the ramp, past the lunch­room, and into her office in the upper hall. It was not an impos­ing office, look­ing like a small con­verted class­room space. After explain­ing my mis­sion, she brought out her lap­top and located the sites where Danville is listed.

For three years run­ning, Danville School has appeared on two national Best Schools lists as a top school in Vermont—one is a list­ing pub­lished by Newsweek, the other is from US News and World Reports. Accord­ing to Meg, who has served as an admin­is­tra­tor for the last ten years, the Newsweek list focuses on the high school alone, using Advanced Place­ment (AP) sta­tis­tics as the basis for their list­ing. US News and World Reports gath­ers infor­ma­tion for the whole school, K-12, using test­ing results from the Ver­mont Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion. “Typ­i­cally, Danville has done very well on stan­dard­ized test­ing,” said Meg.

It is her last year at Danville School. In terms of longevity, she has been at the helm longer than most prin­ci­pals stay at a site. “The job is very com­plex,” she said. “Respon­si­bil­i­ties are numer­ous, and it is dif­fi­cult to man­age. Since the advent of the NCLB, it has become even more so. Principal’s have been asked to become instruc­tional lead­ers as well as man­age the day-to-day operations.”

Con­sid­er­ing NCLB, cur­rently under call for revi­sion by Pres­i­dent Obama, she said, “There are pos­i­tive things about it, because it makes us look at stu­dent achieve­ment more thought­fully. But we are being asked to move our schools for­ward, even though this law isn’t based on a growth-model. It is just one assess­ment, not the whole picture.”

To get to that whole pic­ture, Meg says there is more work to do. On prepar­ing stu­dents to keep pace with this fast-changing world, she said, “We need to move from content-based to skill-based instruc­tion. The ground­work has been laid and there is some great work being done here in that direction.”

As long as one has access to the Inter­net, an answer to a content-based ques­tion can be retrieved in a mat­ter of sec­onds. What one does with that answer becomes more impor­tant than the con­tent. “Skills we need to focus on are the trans­ferrable ones—writing, prob­lem solv­ing and crit­i­cal think­ing. We must edu­cate stu­dents to be global cit­i­zens. It is going to take time, but we’re get­ting there,” she said.

She is proud of Danville’s suc­cess. “The fac­ulty and staff are ded­i­cated to stu­dents with a desire to help all stu­dents learn. It is a car­ing atmos­phere,” she said. “Chil­dren can come here at three-years-old and grad­u­ate at 18, all work­ing together in the same com­mu­nity. The older stu­dents are good mod­els for the chil­dren. Tonight the boys’ bas­ket­ball team will play in the Aud, and there will be all ages there sup­port­ing their team.”

Lara Norheim, Danville high school math teacher, and Karen Budde, Latin and Span­ish teacher K-12

The next day, I was back at school to inter­view two fac­ulty mem­bers: Lara Norheim, who teaches high school math and Karen Budde, who teaches Latin and Span­ish K-12. I asked the ques­tion: Why do you think Danville received this recognition?

Lara began. “We offer a lot of AP courses, and I think the size of the stu­dent body has a lot to do with our suc­cess. It is big enough to offer choices but small enough to know all the kids. Because of its size, we can be student-centered.”

Karen agreed, adding, “There is so much teacher col­lab­o­ra­tion here.” She went on to give an exam­ple of col­lab­o­ra­tion by using one of her high school Latin student’s projects. “We were study­ing Carthage, and this stu­dent chose to deter­mine how large the city was by how many ox-hides, cut into one-inch strips, it would take to cover the city area. I was able to take his results to Lara to check his work.”

He was real close,” said Lara, nodding.

One of our meth­ods of assess­ment in math includes writ­ing,” explained Lara. The stu­dent must explain in words why they chose a par­tic­u­lar method and how they car­ried it out. By writ­ing, the stu­dent ana­lyzes what they are think­ing on a dif­fer­ent level. We make a con­scious effort to get to the think­ing behind the way a stu­dent works.”

To that end, both teach­ers uti­lize port­fo­lios. Stu­dents prove their under­stand­ing of a prob­lem through writ­ing. These proofs are col­lected in port­fo­lios for assess­ment pur­poses. Karen now does this elec­tron­i­cally, which makes it phys­i­cally eas­ier to keep track of student’s work. Lara is still doing this in hard copy, but regard­less of col­lec­tion method, it is a con­crete way for a teacher to deter­mine the level of under­stand­ing and achieve­ment a stu­dent has reached.

Until they take an AP course, our cur­ricu­lum is strictly problem-solving,” said Lara. None of my Inte­grated Math stu­dents carry around books.” She and math col­league, Mike Chad­burn, rewrote the math cur­ricu­lum after they became aware that ques­tions on national tests didn’t always match-up with how stu­dents were being taught. “The tests ask ques­tions in all math areas, like alge­bra, geom­e­try, and trigonom­e­try. If a stu­dent hadn’t had the class that cov­ered those areas yet, they wouldn’t b e able to answer the ques­tion. Thus, the new cur­ricu­lum now includes instruc­tion and prob­lems in all math areas.

Karen’s answer to my “Why Latin?” ques­tion falls in line with this think­ing. “Latin is ubiq­ui­tous,” she answered with­out a pause. ( I had to look that up when I got home, one of those eas­ily retrieved content-based ques­tions Meg spoke of from Mer­riam Web­ster online: “ubiq­ui­tous : exist­ing or being every­where at the same time.”) Karen’s job matches her def­i­n­i­tion of Latin as well. She cov­ers the grade gamut, teach­ing two high school classes as well as K-6 and mid­dle school instruc­tion. Danville is the first pub­lic school in which she has taught, and she says she “loves it!” Besides port­fo­lio assess­ment, she gives the National Latin Exam.

Because the Newsweek poll focuses on the AP classes, I asked about Danville’s phi­los­o­phy regard­ing course offer­ings. “Any stu­dent who wishes to attempt an AP class is allowed to in Danville,” said Lara. Cur­rently, the school offers AP courses in Lan­guage and Lit­er­a­ture, Chem­istry, US His­tory, and AB and BC Cal­cu­lus. If a stu­dent makes a score between a three and five (on a five-point scale), they may receive col­lege credit for the course. “There are stu­dents who do not make that grade,” said Lara, but even if they don’t receive col­lege credit, I believe they have ben­e­fit­ted from work­ing with the sub­ject matter.”

If we lim­ited the stu­dent enroll­ment in AP course­work, because we don’t think they can make the grade,” said Karen, “it would send the wrong mes­sage. It’s like Trem (Patri­cia Nut­brown, one of the vet­eran Eng­lish teach­ers at Danville) always says, ‘We try to be all things to all stu­dents.’ We aim to match the readi­ness of a stu­dent to their inter­ests and make adjust­ments to match their needs.”

Lau­ren Peter­son, junior at Danville High School, and Den­ver DeShone, sophomore

Day three mis­sion: What do stu­dents think about their school? Lau­ren Peter­son, a junior, and sopho­more Den­ver DeShone met me in a con­fer­ence room in the pres­ence of Lara. I asked them what they thought of Danville School appear­ing on the two national Best Schools lists. Both had only vaguely heard of the des­ig­na­tion, but didn’t seem sur­prised by it, either. I had inter­viewed Lau­ren pre­vi­ously as a freshman.

Danville’s come far with block sched­ul­ing and AP level courses,” said Lau­ren. She feels learn­ing has become more per­son­al­ized as she has pro­gressed through the grades. Cur­rently she is tak­ing an Advanced Chem­istry class. “If I do well in that,” she said, “I will con­sider tak­ing the AP course next year.”

Both she and Den­ver like the idea of AP courses being offered to any stu­dent who wants to accept the chal­lenge. Even though Den­ver isn’t old enough to take an AP course yet, he under­stands the con­cept of chal­leng­ing him­self. Rec­og­niz­ing a per­sonal weak­ness in math he has given seri­ous effort to change that. “I used to be a B/C stu­dent, but I’ve worked my way up to become an A/B stu­dent,” he said with pride. He also men­tioned he presently is shar­ing a math class­room with an 8th grader, who is accept­ing the chal­lenge of work­ing on the high school level.

Teach­ers don’t want you to fail here,” said Lau­ren. “They do not feel put out if you ask ques­tions about some­thing you don’t under­stand.” This per­sonal inter­est an impor­tant point with Lau­ren. “In big­ger schools, teach­ers may not have the con­nec­tion to stu­dents. I have a friend in a school where one class is as big as our whole stu­dent body. She told me some of the teach­ers don’t even know her name!”

Again, she reit­er­ates. “Get­ting help aca­d­e­m­i­cally is never a prob­lem. They will push you. If the school doesn’t offer a class that you want, they will pay for you to take a class out­side of the school.” Lau­ren took a busi­ness class offered at the Acad­emy. Extra course­work is also offered at Lyn­don State. “There is a lot of prep here for col­lege or fur­ther­ing your edu­ca­tion in some way after high school,” adds Lauren.

Both stu­dents were in total agree­ment over the national NECAP test­ing, given to com­ply with the NCLB law, call­ing them bor­ing and exhaust­ing. “Why are they so long!” exclaims Lau­ren. The tests are given in six ses­sions over a three-day period. “By the time you get to the end,” she said, “you don’t care anymore.”

As far as sug­ges­tions for improve­ment, Lau­ren and Den­ver would like to see more elec­tives offered, but it was pretty obvi­ous to see that both were thriv­ing in the school. They feel the com­mu­nity sup­port, too. “Even in the tough times we have had,” said Den­ver, “we feel the com­mu­nity is behind us.”

But the com­mu­nity isn’t over-present,” adds Lau­ren. “The strate­gic plan­ning done last year is a good exam­ple. Com­mu­nity mem­bers came into the school to work with stu­dents and fac­ulty on that, but then they left us to do our work.”

Our time was up. I was back at the secretary’s desk to sign out where I hap­pened to meet up with Trem Nut­brown. Want­ing to make sure I would be quot­ing her cor­rectly, I asked her about what Karen Budde had related. “Do you agree that Danville School tries to be all things to all students?”

She looked a lit­tle taken aback by the ques­tion, com­ing out of the blue like that, but then she nod­ded and repeated with con­vic­tion: “All things to all stu­dents. That’s our tacit mission.”

Content-based ques­tion, Merriam-Webster online: “tacit: implied or indi­cated (as by an act or by silence) but not actu­ally expressed.”

This arti­cle was first pub­lished in the April, 2011, issue of the North Star Monthly.



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One Response to School on a Mission

  1. Gail Hare says:

    **We need to move from content-based to skill-based instruc­tion. The ground­work has been laid and there is some great work being done here in that direc­tion.” As long as one has access to the Inter­net, an answer to a content-based ques­tion can be retrieved in a mat­ter of seconds. **

    I dis­agree with that. While much infor­ma­tion is avail­able on the Inter­net, I still think it’s use­ful for stu­dents to actu­ally be required to know things by the time they grad­u­ate. Spelling, punc­tu­a­tion, gram­mar, sen­tence struc­ture, read­ing skills, civics, basic math (such as mul­ti­pli­ca­tion tables), and basic sci­ence con­cepts are all use­ful and con­tribute to a per­son actu­ally being edu­cated, as opposed to hav­ing just sur­vived their schooling.

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