New review partnership to debut at L&G

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TOWNSHEND -- With Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School operating on a tight budget, officials couldn't justify paying $20,000 for an independent evaluation of school operations -- especially when that evaluation system didn't seem to be working very well.

So last year, School Board members opted out of an agreement with the New England Association of Secondary Schools and Colleges -- with the caveat that administrators had to find another way to evaluate Leland & Gray.

"I didn't, at that time, think we were going to invent an alternative. But that's what we did," Principal Dorinne Dorfman said.

The solution, which involves two other Vermont schools and includes participation by administrators, teachers, students and community members, will come into play Sept. 16 and 17 when the first evaluation team visits Leland & Gray.

Dorfman labels it the Collaborative Peer Review project, and she sees it as an important step forward both for Leland & Gray and for the state. She's especially excited about students being part of the process.

"For the students, the learning is enormous -- they're learning about the structure of the schools," she said. "And then the product is something that you can put into action."

Leland & Gray administrators and board members held long, thorough discussions about whether to continue using New England Association of Secondary Schools and Colleges, also known as NEASC, for evaluations.

Concerns included the cost -- which Dorfman said is the same no matter a school's size -- as well as requirements imposed on Leland & Gray's staff.

"The board understood that the exorbitant cost of $20,000 and excessive preparations would distract teachers and administrators from other school initiatives that improve student performance," Dorfman wrote in a recent account of the decision.

School board Chairwoman Emily Long noted that board members wrangled with the NEASC question for "three months or more," working to ensure that withdrawing was the right thing for Leland & Gray.

School staff members "felt they weren't getting enough out of this (NEASC) process," Long recalled. "We wouldn't have hesitated to pay the $20,000 if we were getting the bang for our buck. But that clearly wasn't the case."

The decision to back out of NEASC was solidified by the fact that, based on the results of a survey conducted by Dorfman, many other, similarly sized Vermont schools had done the same.

"All of the (grade) seven through 12 schools that had responded to my survey had withdrawn from NEASC over the last few years," Dorfman told the Reformer in a recent interview.

The board eventually agreed to end the NEASC affiliation "with the stipulation that we have an evaluation alternative," Dorfman said. "They still felt that a level of accountability -- external validation and review -- was required. It wasn't just that we were going to have no evaluation."

Dorfman found a solution in a new partnership with Mill River and Otter Valley schools, which are located in Clarendon and Brandon, respectively.

"I contacted the schools and asked, 'Is anyone interested in exploring an alternative?' Those are the ones that stepped up. And I actually knew the principals already professionally," Dorfman said. "They're both (grade) seven through 12 schools, both about the same size and about the same demographics, so they're a good match."

The three principals began meeting to "design a peer-review process that brought together students, teachers and community members," Dorfman said.

Evaluation teams made up of those three interest groups from each school participated in two days of peer-review training last month through a Hardwick-based group called Unleashing the Power of Partnerships in Learning, or "UP for Learning."

"We all felt we were doing something very important for the schools, for other schools and for our state," Dorfman recalled of the sessions. "That sparkle in people's eyes -- we were really youth and adults working together, coming at this with our own valid perspectives, with important information to share. It was one of the most exciting things I've done in a long time."

On Tuesday and Wednesday, teams from Mill River and Otter Valley will descend on Leland & Gray to conduct an intensive review of the school's operations. They'll be looking for lots of evidence of educational principles dubbed the "four Rs" -- rigor, relevance, relationships and responsibility.

Next month, Leland & Gray's team will return the favor by visiting the other two schools to conduct evaluations. Joining Dorfman on that team are L&G teachers Ruth Ann Dunn and Ann Landenbeger; parent Beth McDonald; and students Jake Wilkins, Erica Cutts, Alexa Litchfield and Madison Cannella.

Evaluation teams will provide each school with immediate feedback. Next, UP for Learning will produce a detailed report of findings for each school, which can be presented to interested groups including school boards, faculty, parent organizations and student clubs.

Dorfman said there are inherent benefits in schools sharing observations and ideas with other schools.

"There are certainly merits to doing it," she said. "There are very positive stories from other schools ... and it can really help move a school forward."

At the same time, there are concrete benefits for the teachers and students who have chosen to become part of the three schools' evaluation teams. Teachers earn graduate credits, while students get dual-enrollment credits through Castleton State College.

While noting that it is still early in the new evaluation process, Long lauded the creativity involved in developing the system.

"I'm thrilled that we have the people willing to think outside the box and get involved with this," Long said.

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275. Follow him on Twitter @MikeReformer.


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