Danville School receives high national recognition
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.”
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.”
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.