Trailhead 2020: Clarendon Elementary

CLARENDON — The Mill River school district isn’t just implementing proficiency-based education — it’s reformatting the Tinmouth, Clarendon, Wallingford and Shrewsbury elementary schools, giving each a curriculum and overarching theme, so families can choose the method and the goal for their student’s education.

Under the Trailhead 2020 initiative, Clarendon Elementary School is no longer just a K-6 school — now it’s a project-based model, where every student is meeting their math, science, history and language requirements through an overarching project of their choosing. Schools in the district are targeting a full transition to a more focused and individualized curriculum in each school by 2020.

The initiative is part of how the school is tackling compliance with state law. Passed in 2013, Act 77 requires Vermont schools to implement proficiency-based learning models by 2020. The model aims to emphasize a student’s knowledge and capability without restricting how they achieve proficiency in the subject.

“This way, you take all of the different disciplines and weave them into what the kids are learning,” said Principal Fred Valastro.

Valastro said the results speak for themselves.

“When I first got here, the test scores were abysmal,” Valastro said. “The proof is in the pudding. We’re seeing a steady increase in test scores and some significant jumps.”

In sixth grade, to demonstrate their proficiency, the students have signed a contract with PEG-TV to produce eight episodes of their own show using PEG-TV’s equipment. “Learning Our Way” will document how students learn through their smaller projects, like understanding how hula-hooping affects brainwaves, or examining sound waves to fulfill their science requirement.

“We’re using the TV show ‘ZOOM’ as our model,” said sixth-grade teacher Bonnie Pritchard. “The students are writing, creating, filming and producing it all themselves. … They’re writing scripts, writing story boards, organization thoughts and using their communication skills.”

Pritchard, who has been at the school for more than 20 years, said the project-based learning model has increased her 21 students’ focus and engagement in their lessons, and teaches the students brainstorming and teamwork skills.

“They’re incorporating their personalities,” Pritchard said. “Sometimes it’s challenging to get the students on TV, so those students do voice-overs. … The goal is to share this with the community.”

The project-based learning continues down to kindergarten. Julia Doiron’s class created the Kindergarten Crayon Factory by melting down old crayons with a hair drier and creating new, usable crayons that they’re selling at Saturday’s craft fair for $1 per pack, complete with a miniature outline of a ladybug for the customer to color.

“It’s a happy medium between structure and play,” Doiron said. “As long as the kids know that you respect and love them, they’ll move mountains for you. It’s about giving them options and the freedom to choose.”

Doiron said transitioning from traditional learning methods to a project-based model required a challenging evolution for educators.

“The biggest obstacle for us is letting go,” Doiron said. “We need to be okay with not knowing how we can help them. We want to see these kids bring their creativity, and help them nurture it.”

Mike Lannon’s fifth-grade class created the Clarendon Little Co., a corporation of individual student projects the students created based on their interests, aimed at generating actual revenue to test business models and prove their viability.

“I’m the main builder here,” said Tyson Rockwell, who aims to benefit the Clarendon Little Co. with his architecture and engineering skills. “I’m working with Legos to build a crane using air hydraulics. I’m still working on how much weight it can haul. I want to build it up to be a 5-pound weight, because we have a 5-pound weight holding the door open.”

Rockwell said he’s working with his classmates to motorize and strengthen the crane using math, engineering research and computerized robotics technology with advice from his teacher.

“I need to get more tire support,” Rockwell said. “(My friend) can computerize most of the things I build. That way, we can make it run and make it look good.”

Class CEO Olivia Graham said she’s developing artificial intelligence technology in addition to scheduling appearances by Secretary of Education Daniel French and organizing funding for the class food truck.

“It’ll be $3,719 per year for insurance, but I haven’t included interest in that yet,” Graham said. “But it’s going to be $44,988 for the truck.”

Third- and fourth-graders participate in a Genius Hour, during which students learn to find their passions and explore them, such as examining which parts of the brain store memories and information.

“This is their opportunity to start project-based learning,” said fourth-grade teacher Jamie Therriault. “They decide what they want to become a genius on.”