Saturday January 12, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- When Gov. Peter Shumlin devoted most of his second inaugural address Thursday to education, business and education leaders around Windham County nodded their heads in approval as Shumlin talked about the ways he wanted to strengthen the state's education system from pre-kindergarten through to college.

Not only did they support what Shumlin was saying, but they also recognized many of the programs the Governor wants to spread throughout the state as those that have deep roots in Southeastern Vermont.

Shumlin made his case by following every student's schooling from pre-k to elementary and secondary school and then right on to college, talking about ways the state can improve the experience every step of the way.

And just about every initiative he proposed has been tested here in Windham County.

"There is a lot of innovative work being done around Windham County and there is no reason we can't replicate these programs all over the state," Shumlin said. "These are programs that should be available in every school in Vermont."

During his speech Thursday Shumlin said he wanted to double the amount of money Vermont spends on childcare.

He also said his administration would support schools that work to develop preschool programs, including providing start-up costs to help schools get more preschool children enrolled.

Vermont has allowed public schools to work with private childcare centers to have more young children involved in high quality programs, and Windham Southeast Superintendent Ron Stahley said that work, which has been going on in Windham County for almost 10 years, should be available in every corner of the state.

"This district has been a leader in supporting early education," said Stahley. "It was great to hear the governor talk about all of these plans."

Stahley said that while it was exciting to have the governor focus almost exclusively on education, questions remain about the funding, and he was looking forward to working with state leaders to have more of Vermont's children enrolled in early education programs.

"The pre-k partnerships we started have broadened our ability to reach more pre-school students," he said. "Early intervention is the key to helping close the achievement gap. Any expansion of that is helpful."

Kim Friedman of Newfane who has been working on early childhood issues since 1999, said early education advocates have been waiting to hear a speech like the one Shumlin gave Thursday.

"Those of us in the early childhood community have been waiting a very long time to hear leadership like this from the governor's office," said Friedman, who now does early childhood consulting work for the Agency of Human Services. "The governor wants to make sure every child has the foundation he or she needs and he is calling on all of us to work together to make it a reality."

Under Vermont law, children can attend a private child care center and public education money follows that child.

Through years of developing such programs around WIndham County, Friedman said that most administrators, parents and early educators agree that the program is successful and important, but it is always a struggle to finance more classrooms.

Gov. Peter Shumlin, center, is congratulated by Chief Justice Paul Reiber, left,  following his  inauguration to a second term on Thursday, in Montpelier.
Gov. Peter Shumlin, center, is congratulated by Chief Justice Paul Reiber, left, following his inauguration to a second term on Thursday, in Montpelier. At right is his daughter, Olivia. (AP photo)

She said the governor's speech went a long way to assure those in the early education community that it was going to be a priority for Shumlin to find the money to increase the number of pre-k classrooms around the state.

Shumlin also said he wanted to double the amount of funding spent on dual enrollment programs at Vermont's high schools, which allow high school students to take college level courses in high school

Colleges and high schools around the state have such programs, but a model developed at Brattleboro Union High School that helps accredit high school teachers so they can teach college level courses within the high school should be extended across the state, Shumlin said Friday.

"When I mentioned the dual enrollment programs I thought about the work that is being done at BUHS," Shumlin said. "This is not expensive. It is something we can start right away to help more kids get beyond high school."

Tom Yahn, who is the director of the Windham Regional Collegiate High School, met with Shumlin earlier this year to talk about the work BUHS has been doing to offer more options to its students.

The Windham Regional Collegiate High School has been able to work with both public and private colleges in the area and Yahn said the governor recognized that the same structure would work all over the state.

"This helps kids who might not have considered going to college, and it gives kids who are going to college a way to get credits and save money for when they do move on," Yahn said. "It's a model that will work in every high school in the state."

During his inaugural address Shumlin also called on business leaders to work closer with the educational system at all levels, and during an interview Friday he said the downtown campus planned for the Brooks House is a perfect example of linking the state college system with business to better strengthen both institutions.

"The downtown campus is going to be an innovation center," said Shumlin.

He mentioned Brattleboro's own G.S Precision in his speech as an example of a business that is having trouble filling highly skilled positions.

He said as colleges find out what kind of workers businesses need they will be more able to provide the training to make sure Vermont college graduates are ready to meet those demands when they graduate.

Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation Executive Director Jeff Lewis helped lead a meeting in Brattleboro Friday with business leaders and representatives from the state college system.

BDCC has been an important player in helping coordinate the conversation between the business community and the state colleges.

Lewis also said he listened to Shumlin's speech Thursday with the recognition that some of the work under way in the region could help spur business growth and more educational opportunities across Vermont.

"There is a lot of interesting work going on," Lewis said. "We need to develop a more capable workforce across the state. We don't have enough qualified workers and the work we have been doing addresses that. We are aware of what we are doing and we hope he is looking at us."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or hwtisman@reformer.com. You can follow him on Twitter @HowardReformer.