by Virginia Burley
Back in 1992, East Montpelier resident Sue Clayton had the great idea of writing a newsletter to inform the residents of the five Washington Central Unified Union School District (WCUUSD) towns about what’s going on in our schools. People who never had children in our schools, or whose children have long since graduated, still pay taxes to support these schools. Sue reasoned that these people might be willing to support the schools in additional ways if they knew what the need was. Without a child or grandchild in the schools, citizens had no way to be connected to the schools, understand what was happening in them, or feel involved and supportive. The first issue of Bus Stop Conversations was published on Nov. 17, 1992. For 26 years, Bus Stop Conversations was produced twice a month during the school year with stories, highlights, and events from our six schools. Much has happened in that time.
Bus Stop Conversations is one of the signature projects of the community-based non-profit organization, Washington Central Friends of Education (WCFE), but not the only one. Over 19 years ago, Carolyn Shapiro and Deborah Bogart approached WCFE with their proposal for the Branching Out complementary mentoring program for students who want to expand their learning beyond the classroom. Carolyn and Deborah came to WCFE because we are a non-profit organization that can accept tax-deductible donations from foundations and individuals, and we are flexible and nimble enough to start new projects in a way that just doesn’t work for schools, which move much more slowly.
After over 10 years of support from WCFE, Branching Out is now fully incorporated into U-32 Middle/High School. Fifteen years before Personalized Learning Plans and Flexible Pathways made their way into legislation, Branching Out students were using them! (The Vermont legislature actually mandated that all students in grades 7 through 12 would have Personalized Learning Plans beginning in the 2018-19 school year). Branching Out is a great example of WCFE’s goal of bringing the community into the school in a positive way.
Service learning and personal learning plans are a couple of the major trends that have made it into the school district because of WCFE. We are able to apply for and manage grants that the schools just don’t have time or capacity for, bringing innovation and experimentation to the schools.
Another WCFE program is Girls/Boyz First Mentoring, which provides adult mentors to youth ages 8-18 in Montpelier and the Washington Central Supervisory Union. Currently, 38 area children are able to enjoy meeting weekly with their mentors from their communities. For the last 22 years, over 135 community mentors have worked with over 150 children from the age of 8-18. This close, personal involvement of caring adults occurs at a critical time in the lives of young people when they are making decisions and choices that can impact their future.
We also serve as fiscal agent for Central Vermont New Directions Coalition (CVNDC), a community-based prevention coalition whose goal is to increase healthy behavior and decrease substance abuse. Started in 1998, CVNDC was one of the first prevention coalitions in Vermont, and it is currently the only prevention coalition in Washington County. WCFE has managed a variety of state and federal grants to support the Coalition’s work. CVNDC was the first large project that brought Montpelier Public Schools (now Montpelier-Roxbury Public Schools) and Washington Central schools (now WCUUSD) together, proving that great things happen with collaboration.
In 2001, WCFE was a founding partner in the Community Connections afterschool program. For many years we helped build and support the program in all nine WCUUSD and Montpelier schools. This major initiative continued the model of cross-district collaboration that began with CVNDC, and it models a philosophy that education crosses school and town boundaries and schedules.
Our most recent initiative (2019) is the Equity Scholar-in-Residence Pilot Project at U-32. The Equity Scholar Project was started by ChangeMakers Partners to create a culture of equity at U-32 Middle-High School by embedding an equity scholar into the system. Working closely and collaboratively with school leaders, teachers and counselors, the Equity Scholar will provide both proactive and in-the-moment responsive education and coaching for staff and students regarding long term, emerging, and immediate issues of equity in teaching, learning, and school culture.
Over the years, WCFE has been responsible for many other projects and grants, including support for: the U-32 Ropes Course, the U-32 Community Building Fund, service learning, GIS (Geographic Information Survey), conflict resolution and peer mediation, etc. We produced the Seventh Grade Directory which contained pictures, names, addresses and phone numbers of the incoming students as well as indication by families that theirs was an alcohol-free home. We also sponsored Parent PotLucks at “Meet Your TA” Night to help parents get oriented to U-32.
Our goal is to foster communication and cooperation between the residents of the five district towns of Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Middlesex and Worcester and the WCUUSD schools and to be a resource for those schools. Since 1992, WCFE has worked to bring the community into the schools in a meaningful way. In this day of declining enrollments and greater pressure on schools, community partnership is even more important now than ever.