New Class Aims to Explain Education Clearly

Communicating+School+Redesign%3A+Upstitute

Communicating School Redesign: Upstitute

Miranda Orso, Reporter, Waterbury Record

Publish in the Waterbury Record on Thursday, October 30, 2014, by Miranda Orso

Dual enrollment. Personalized learning plans. Work-based learning. Any idea what any of this education gobbledygook actually means?

It’s easy to get bogged down in confusing terminology when talking about education reform in Vermont.

The Flexible Pathways bill, otherwise known as Act 77, was signed into law in June 2013; its goal is to make Vermont schools more efficient places to learn, with new opportunities for students to achieve academic success.

But, to make that happen, administrators, students and parents have to put plans into motion so the fancy education jargon actually has meaning.

That’s why a group of administrators, teachers and students at Harwood Union High School have enrolled in a specialized college-level course.

It’s designed to determine the best way to communicate effectively why all the educational terminology is important, and why everyone must be on the same page for it to work.

The class, called Communicating School Redesign, offers tools to help adults and kids build better public understanding and support for the changes occurring in schools across the state.

The course is centered on an approach to communications known as “strategic framing”; it relies on research and public opinion to develop a framework where students and teachers can better explain the complicated changes.

Harwood Co-Principal Amy Rex is taking the course along with two teachers, Marcus Grace and Ellen Berrings.

Students Cole Lavoie, Sophia Minter, Asah Whalen and Alexa Widschwenter also volunteered for the class.

Right now, the group is knee-deep in research, collecting information from faculty, students and community members about the best way to talk effectively about changes that are happening at the school.

Rex said the idea is to “create a campaign based on the needs of the community and its constituents,” and tailored to address specific questions and possible misconceptions.

“It’s something that will be used through next year. This type of communication is really designed to help the community and to help students understand how teaching and learning is changing,” she said. “It’s meant to be a tool that the whole school can utilize.”

The course is offered through a partnership among the Vermont Agency of Education, Up For Learning and two universities.

St. Michael’s College in Colchester is providing three graduate credits to the administrators taking the course, and students taking the course are rewarded with college credits through Vermont Community College.

Harwood is one of six schools to receive a grant through the Vermont Agency of Education to be used toward enrollment.

Rex said the course requires a lot of time and effort, including intensive two-day meetings, web seminars and regular weekly meetings at Harwood to discuss the participants’ progress.

The group is gauging public awareness through an anonymous survey on how Harwood teachers, staff, students and residents feel about different approaches to learning.

Each school in the project is collecting its own information, with an eye toward “understanding the needs of their community and being able to respond appropriately and come up with a solution,” Rex said. “It’s about understanding the shifts and changes in education so that people’s beliefs and attitudes can better adjust to the changes. They see them in a way that they not only understand, but they can embrace.”

Rex noted that education has developed its own terminology, and it tends to exclude ordinary people.

“Probably the biggest complaint I hear is, ‘You talk like an expert and we don’t understand,’” she said. “That’s why I love working with kids. They can put it in a more kid-friendly, understandable language.”

The course runs until April, and Rex hopes a cohesive communications campaign will be solidified by February or March.

The public survey will wrap up within the next week or so, but anyone interested in sharing an opinion can email Amy Rex at arex@wwsu.org for a link to the online Google document.