Community High School of Vermont graduation. (Reformer file photo)
Community High School of Vermont graduation. (Reformer file photo)
Saturday February 16, 2013

Editor's note: This is the last in a three-part series on plans to close the Community High School of Vermont and how the state hopes to streamline and improve services it provides to students CHSVT educates.

BRATTLEBORO -- Critics of the Department of Corrections' plan to close the "street" campuses of Community High School of Vermont have expressed concerns that other agencies, such as Vermont Adult Learning, are not positioned to deal with the difficulties presented by people who have just been released from jail and are looking to further their education.

In addition, those critics worry that students of CHSVT who aren't under the supervision of DOC but have troubles with traditional learning systems, also won't get the guidance they need from VAL.

"Vermont Adult Learning doesn't work for these people. We've tried," said Peter van Wageningen, who has been with CHSVT since 2004 and is retiring this year. "They're not ready to deal with temperamental kids, but we are."

In an attempt to cut costs, the DOC has recommended the closure of CHSVT's street campuses and bringing those services back inside the walls of prison facilities in Vermont. Recently furloughed and paroled students, and those on probation, would no longer have access to CHSVT's services, and neither would students who have not been in trouble with the law but attended CHSVT for its innovative learning program.

In a letter to the Legislature, Danielle Southwell, the assistant director of youth development for Youth Services in Brattleboro, said she has seen "time and time again" the effectiveness of the local Community High School's program and staff in graduating students who were previously dropped out or kicked out of high school and have not had success in gaining a high school equivalent through Vermont Adult Learning.

"By closing down this option, we will leave these students and our communities vulnerable to unemployment, less skilled labor and poverty, which could therefore lead to a whole host of other issues," wrote Southwell. "While there are obvious costs to keeping the campus open, the alternative could lead to a myriad of hidden costs to our justice system, our local communities, and our state as a whole, from increased recidivism, dependence on state benefits, increased unemployment, and a less skilled labor force, just to name a few."

"We fill a gap that would otherwise be unfilled," said Brattleboro campus adjunct Darah P. Kehnemuyi.

Wilhemina Picard, superintendent of educational services for DOC, said CHSVT students aren't always the easiest to work with.

"They're not always pleasant and not always well adjusted."

It's not just about academics or learning technical skills, but also learning social skills, what Picard called "a wrap-around program" that teaches people how to go to work and how to cooperate.

Rep. Val Stuart, D-Brattleboro, a member of the House Education Committee, said she is very concerned about the elimination of the CHSVT campuses, but she doesn't have all the details yet.

"I have to study the matter further, but I know for the kids the program has worked like a charm. If we have a lucky charm for kids who are struggling and don't fit in elsewhere, why would we take it away?"

But Pixie Loomis, the executive director of Vermont Adult Learning, told the Reformer that VAL has the ability to educate the students that have been relying on CHSVT.

"For the past 35 years, the adult education system has been working with low-literacy students who have not been well served."

She said that negotiations are under way between the Department of Corrections, the Agency of Education, the Agency of Human Services, and the Governor's office and are expected to continue for several more weeks.

"That's a discussion we need to have," said John Fischer, the deputy commissioned of the Agency of Education. "What are the transition services? We will talk with Wilhemina and the Agency of Human Services because making a move like this you don't want to weaken the system. Instead, we can free up some resources and reinvest with stronger transitional services."

Fischer said he understands the concerns about the closure of the street campuses and the students who need more than educational services to help them with behavioral and social skills.

"This will be a full-service type of model," said Fischer. "We would like to make this an even stronger program. The key is going to be in our transition planning. Where do we bring the services to strengthen the transition and not bring harm?"

"We can play a very positive role here," said Loomis. "One of the things we do incredibly well is assessments and developing individual learning plans. For those with higher skills, we develop individual graduation plans that have a career focus."

Students who don't thrive in a traditional learning setting, said Loomis, are welcome at VAL.

"The intent of the individual learning plan is to engage them in something of interest; to talk to students about what their options might be."

Loomis said she understands that some CHSVT students might not have had an optimal experience with Vermont Adult Learning in the past, but is encouraging them to try again.

"We'll sit down with them and address those issues," she said.

Each student at VAL is assigned an educational advisor who works one-on-one with that student to develop a learning plan that best suits his or her situation.

"We can't be all things to all people, but we are extremely accommodating," said Loomis. "We are focused on engaging the individual and meeting them where they are."

Walter White, 18, who grew up in Brattleboro, just received his GED from Vermont Adult Learning.

"I didn't like normal high school," he said. "I felt lost in the shuffle and not really paid attention to."

Additionally, White said he was sick a lot and missed a lot of classes.

VAL helped him get his education back on track, he said.

"They helped me a lot. They really care. They help you push towards your goals."

Developing his personal education plan was enjoyable and happened very quickly, he said.

Since its first graduation in 2007, the Brattleboro street campus of CHSVT has graduated 92 people. In that same period, VAL graduated 462, of whom more than 50 percent were under the age of 21, said Loomis. In 2012, VAL graduated 82 students, she said, and had a total school body of 327 students.

Bob Audette can be reached at raudette@reformer.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.