Leland & Gray completes first peer-review process

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TOWNSHEND >> Starting last fall, with help from two other Vermont schools, Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School's staff and students took a good look in the mirror.

It was a new approach to evaluating school operations — a method now dubbed Collaborative Peer Review — and it has yielded a complex set of findings on topics such as communications between students and teachers; "real-world" education; and equality.

But those involved in the process share a common conclusion: They say it has steered the school toward better understanding and stronger communication.

"I think that the process is benefitting the people on the team individually as well as the school as a whole," said senior Alexa Litchfield, who was part of the peer-review team. "We're discovering what the strengths are at Leland & Gray and what we need to work on."

Added fellow senior and peer-review team member Madison Cannella: "I've never understood what school evaluation has been about. By participating in this, I'm surprised the school has ever done it any other way."

Previously, Leland & Gray had been part of an evaluation process through New England Association of Secondary Schools and Colleges. But Principal Dorinne Dorfman and school board members believed the school no longer could afford the $20,000 necessary for such evaluations, and some questioned how much Leland & Gray was getting out of the NEASC evaluations.

So officials struck out on a new path by creating a peer-review partnership with Mill River and Otter Valley schools, located in Clarendon and Brandon, respectively. The schools formed evaluation teams and engaged in intensive training with Hardwick-based Unleashing the Power of Partnerships for Learning; also, Castleton State College provided dual-enrollment credits for students and graduate credits for educators who were involved in the process.

Teams from each school visited the other two schools in September and October, watching classrooms with the "four Rs" in mind — rigor, relevance, relationships and responsibility. Also figuring into the mix were document reviews, demographic information and surveys of students and teachers.

Synthesizing all of the resulting information required months of work for the Leland & Gray team, and the results were presented Tuesday to the school board. There are two additional, upcoming chances for residents to hear the peer-review report: A presentation is scheduled for the Parent Advisory Group 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 17, at Leland & Gray, and another is scheduled for 9 a.m. Wednesday, March 18, at Townshend Library. Both events are open to the public.

Overall, the review report shows that the visiting teams' impressions of Leland & Gray were favorable. For instance, under the category of "communication and relationships," one comment was, "Teachers recognize each student's strengths, weaknesses and challenges."

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In another example, under "real-world education," observers noted that "teachers pose open-ended questions, which lead students to engage in complex thinking and conversations." The observers also found, in the review's "equity" category, that Leland & Gray's enrollment in nearly all advanced or higher-level classes has increased even as the school's overall enrollment has declined.

The surveys of students and staff, however, turned out to be the most complex variable in the review process. The two groups took very different stances on some topics including:

— Little more than half (54 percent) of students felt their teachers are enthusiastic about teaching, while 95 percent of teachers said they felt enthusiastic.

— Almost all (92 percent) of teachers said they often encouraged students to think creatively, while only 53 percent of students said they were encouraged to think creatively.

— Eighty-six percent of teachers agreed with the statement, "I work on real-world problems in my class," but just 32 percent of students shared that sentiment.

Peer-review team members are taking several lessons from those surveys, including the fact that there are fundamental differences in how students and teachers perceive school. Also, Dorfman knows that each student brings differing expectations to Leland & Gray: "It's not possible for one school to be the best fit for every student," she said.

Putting those differences aside, however, some say the survey responses also lay groundwork for better communication and change. For instance, "one of the things that emerged is that teachers are very open to receiving feedback regularly from their students, and that's not something we currently practice universally throughout the school," Dorfman said.

One of the benefits that emerged immediately from the peer-review process was a strong working relationship among team members. In addition to Litchfield, Cannella and Dorfman, the Leland & Gray team also consisted of senior Erica Cutts, sophomore Jake Wilkins, parent Beth McDonald, teacher Ruth Ann Dunn and teacher Ann Landenberger.

Dorfman was especially impressed with the students' work.

"It's been transformational for the students," Dorfman said. "I can't tell you how exciting it was to see it."

Contact Mike Faher at 802-254-2311, ext. 275.


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