WILLIAMSTOWN, Vt. — Failing 9th grade for the second year in row, A.J. Swan had accepted that he wasn't going to graduate from his Vermont high school. He'd barely made it this far, after being held back in 7th grade.
It wasn't that he wasn't learning, he said, but he didn't find what he was learning important and didn't feel a need to write it down — as homework and papers — to show he knew it.
"It wasn't like a good feeling," he said of knowing that he wouldn't get a high school diploma.
That was until the school stepped in last year and offered him some alternative ways to prove what he knew — by writing papers on topics he was interested in, taking assessments and enrolling in a hands-on learning environment at a technical school where he has thrived in video. He's set to graduate this spring and wants to become a documentary filmmaker.
"We'll be proud to send him out there," said Alicia Rominger, a social studies teacher and learning coordinator at Williamstown Middle High School. "He has the skills that he needs. Isn't that the end all? He'll be able to go out and write, read, think, compute."
The school is part of the League of Innovative Schools, a network of 56 schools in Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Rhode Island working to improve their programs and share ideas with other member schools. The teachers and administrators meet with other like-minded schools in regional meetings to exchange ideas about what has worked and what has failed, and to build momentum for change.
"The reason why we did it is because schools are often, for a whole variety of reasons, working in isolation and the idea was there are a lot of great ideas out there doing really great things," said Stephen Abbott, director of communications for the New England Secondary School Consortium, which coordinates the league.
One example is a school in the fishing village of Stonington in Deer Isle, Maine, which has developed a marine studies program. Starting in the fall, students who could be interested in going into fishing or marine biology will be able to do hands-on projects in the community related to marine studies to demonstrate their academic knowledge. They might look at the crash in lobster prices last year, or how the ocean temperature affects the density of lobsters on the ocean floor, or the output of offshore wind development, principal Todd West said.
The school has made great strides in the last three years, turning itself around from one of the lowest performing schools in Maine, to one with a 93 percent graduation rate last year. West attributes that to a shift in the professional culture to one where teachers are collaborating and giving each other critical feedback. They're also identifying students who are struggling and getting them help in a timely way.
But those gains are starting to level off. The state test scores have gone up, but not dramatically. West thinks that's because students aren't engaged in what they are doing during the school day.
"We watch them outside of the school and they're excited and they're always learning stuff and they work hard and then they walk in the door and it's the opposite, not excited, they're not learning stuff. So, we really feel like we need to do something different to connect with our students because our students are smart, they're good learners, they just don't show it in school, and I tend to think that's more of a problem with what we're offering and not necessarily a problem with what they're bringing to the table," West said.
The marine studies pathway is a way that the school is changing what it's offering.
The school has taken away lessons from other League of Innovative Schools, adding a focused study time each day, like another school has, where students who are struggling can get extra time with teachers.
League activities are supported by state education departments and charitable foundations in some states. It's different from the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools, which is a national coalition of public school districts committed to digital innovation.
Wallingford Public Schools in Wallingford, Conn., has benefited from access to experts and resources that it would not normally have, superintendent Salvatore Menzo said. The schools are putting in place personalized learning plans where students demonstrate their mastery of concepts by doing projects and solving problems, like designing a house using geometry.
It gives the students choice and voice, two factors that Menzo says are key to getting students engaged in what they're learning.
At the Wiliamstown school in Vermont, Patrick Davison is choosing online college courses he can take instead of attending English class as part of his flexible pathway to graduation. The prolific reader was in the same boat as Swan, failing out of 9th grade twice, simply because he didn't do the work and wasn't interested. Instead, he would zone out. But in his free time, he would learn on his computer. Now, he's taking classes to prepare himself to get into Champlain College to study game design. He's applied to take a creative writing course at the University of Vermont this summer and has gotten into the Governor's Institute of Vermont, an intensive summer study program held at a college campus.
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"With A.J, with Patrick and a few other kids, they don't need a huge adjustment," Rominger said. "They don't need to get out of the system, but they need the system to work for them."
They're excited about learning now, she said.
Swan, a bright, articulate 18-year-old interested in being a survivalist as well as a filmmaker, said his academic success has made him happier and more confident and opened up more opportunities for him.
"I would have been just another high school dropout living in Vermont," he said.