Middle school at Leland & Gray to see 'transformation'

TOWNSHEND — Changes are coming to Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School's classroom culture.

"Overall, there's a real push for individual students to be more in control of their learning and we want the students to feel empowered to make choices and to guide their learning and to be enthusiastic about what they are interested in," said Johanna Liskowsky-Doak, who's involved in what administrators are calling a "transformation" in the middle school. "I think in general, in education, that's where everyone is heading and we are fortunate to have guidance from someone who has experience doing this in other schools around the state."

Liskowsky-Doak, who has been a science teacher at Leland & Gray for seven years, is now one of two instructional coaches at the school. She's tasked with co-teaching in classrooms and facilitating professional development.

The school has partnered with Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education, which Principal Bob Thibault describes as an initiative to support middle schools through the University of Vermont. "They work with middle schools who are trying to reinvent themselves," he said.

The institute's goals are around "personalized learning, proficiency and flexible pathways," said Liskowsky-Doak. "They basically set up a three-year relationship with a school and they spend those three years providing professional development virtually for free for the school as part of the program. They have a coach who comes down and works with the middle school team in reinventing themselves."

Liskowsky-Doak said she is mostly working with teachers assessing and analyzing how students are performing in classes. Another focus is on how the instruction is matching up with students' needs.

With an eye on these areas, the idea is to design lesson plans and activities.

"I've been part of the middle school team for years so I'm sort of naturally fit to guide them with all the new initiatives we have happening," said Liskowsky-Doak.

This will mark Leland & Gray's first year in the program. Brattleboro Area Middle School and Flood Brook School in Londonderry have also participated.

Thibault looks at the program as a way to "renovate or restore what the middle school is about."

"Since we're a 7 to 12 school," he said, "we want to make sure the middle school has a true model."

Superintendent Bill Anton said the partnership with the Tarrant Foundation and the institute "really allows Leland & Gray to build on its strengths."

The school "has always been successful in creating meaningful relationships between students and adults," he added. "Leland & Gray also takes advantage of being a small school. We are nimble. We learn fast and can implement fast. Working with Tarrant deepens our capacity to deliver a student-centered education in an ever-evolving environment... We look forward to learning about some best practices to implement and further our knowledge about teamwork, engagement, and adolescent learning."

Tarrant has brought its programming to more than 50 schools in Vermont, according to Anton.

Technology integration is one of the areas the institute is tapping into. This school year is the first in which all Leland & Gray students will have a laptop. Previously, all middle school students had one.

Teachers are now going to be using the laptops for improving or developing organizational and workflow systems, according to Liskowsky-Doak. Tarrant's coordinators are usually former educators who act as coaches working exclusively for the institute, Thibault said.

"We're really excited about the movement the middle school is making," he said, adding that the work is encouraging students to be courageous and it comes at no burden to the taxpayers. "My hope is that we're providing the highest quality middle education we can for our students. I think that in peer-to-peer, we have to be innovative and pushing our ideas about what best practice looks like and working with that particular age group, which is different developmentally than the higher age group."

Larger goals involve moving to more proficiency-based grading scales and developing more personalized learning, Liskowsky-Doak said.

"Also, what we're going to begin soon will be just larger interdisciplinary projects, where a couple content areas will work together on a common project goal," she said.

Starting out, she said, students will be given structure and guidelines. But later, they'll be expected to come up with their own.

Thibault praised Liskowsky-Doak's leadership and the time teachers have invested in the programming.

"They have committed a lot of extra time they wouldn't be putting in," he said.

The school is also participating in High 5's Edge of Leadership, which is paid partly through a three-year grant from the Thomas Thompson Trust. The Brattleboro nonprofit will offer "innovative" and "leadership" programming to seventh graders at Leland & Gray. They will be asked to identify and provide solutions for challenges found in school and the community, according to a press release.

High 5 staff members are expected to visit classrooms once a month this school year. They are working alongside Liskowsky-Doak.

"Students learn the way they think about others plays a major role in how they think, feel and interact in the classroom and the larger world around them," the press release stated.

The hope is to have students spend more time learning while teachers spend more time teaching and less time managing classrooms.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or @CMaysBR.


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