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The Democratization of Harwood Union High School

September 18, 2009

Rowland Foundation Proposal: Democratization of Harwood Union High Schoolcurrentfellows1

Jean R. Berthiaume
December 7, 2008

Challenge facing Harwood Union High School Students

Harwood Union High School, located in the Green Mountains of central Vermont, offers a traditional curriculum to 550 plus students with approximately 70 faculty and staff. Recently, Harwood has seen the benefits of student participation in service-learning, authentic assessments, increased participation in civic groups, and leadership bodies. Under new administration, Harwood is progressing instructionally. Yet, according to student and parent reports and objective survey data, Harwood remains a school that is still failing its’ students in terms of broad levels of engagement and application of skills.

The dilemma is that our school seems to have an inability to move forward and shed the shackles of the factory model adopted during the industrial age of education. Consequently, Harwood remains a school that struggles to provide a high quality education for a range of students. Unfortunately, many students are losing their love of learning, creativity, self-esteem, and sense of community because of this dilemma.

The challenge is to move Harwood, out of the dark ages, away from a school day comprised of eight forty minute periods which fractionalize meaningful education and stifle natural connections between people and learning. In contrast, we need to be answering the following questions. How can Harwood capitalize on this unprecedented age of communication, social networking, and technology and harness it for educational purposes? How can we engage our students in the democracy of the future? How can we build stronger bridges to better support students with their learning, faculty with their students, administration with their faculty, and together, all stakeholders, with the greater community of learning?

Personal interest

My personal interest in this project/initiative stems from my life work here at Harwood with civic education and service-learning underpinning my scrutiny of an educational system that seems to be far from perfect. My resume shows I have successfully assumed positions and projects of increasing responsibility bringing me to my current post of History Department Chair and history teacher at Harwood. Now, with the support of Harwood’s new forward thinking administration, I am compelled to utilize my experiences and passion for service-learning and civics to undertake this transformational project.

The status quo is no longer acceptable. I do not want to be part of another committee that simply discusses how to rearrange the chairs on the Titanic. I see the Rowland Foundation award as an opportunity to make substantial changes in education at Harwood and perhaps beyond. I am ready for the challenge of doing the legwork and heavy lifting to support my principal in instituting real changes that break down walls and artificial time constraints typical in traditional public high schools.

My motivation comes not only from the success I have had in teaching thus far, but also from a growing reality of our failures to appropriately teach all students. Given the fact that adolescents enter their search for identity during the middle and high school years, our system of education needs to do a better job helping students discover themselves in the context of work that is relevant and completed authentically along side people working in what many of us call “the real world.”

Description of project/initiative

Democratization of Harwood Union High School

Thomas Jefferson believed public education was the place to teach students to be the stewards of our democracy. This project will embrace and extend that belief to instructional practices within our local and global communities. By researching and implementing strategies across the curriculum for students to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to participate in a democratic society. The vision of this project includes, but is not limited to three major goals:

  1. Engage students and staff by providing rich and meaningful opportunities for them to apply their talents and learning in ways that directly benefit their school and greater community.
  2. Teach students the leadership and communication skills through participation in authentic assessments, involvement in the work of committees, boards, and meetings throughout the school and greater community.
  3. Invite the community to participate in the education of our students by having citizens working in the nonprofit and profit sectors work along side students on school-wide curriculum that is both transparent and relevant.

The outcomes of this project will be evidenced by an engaged and empowered student body, possessing the leadership and communication skills needed to be contributing citizens in our democratic society. The heightened visibility of Harwood students at every level of operation in our school and broader community will add further evidence of successful outcomes. In summary, this project will help us to achieve our school’s mission which states:

To provide an educational and creative environment in which every person is valued as an individual, challenged as a learner, and inspired to contribute to a democratic society.

Ultimately, this project will seek to become a model program, which can be replicated in other schools benefiting even greater numbers of students.

Use of sabbatical

  • Although much of my proposal echoes the voices of Paolo Freire, John Dewey, and Miles Horton, I believe that some of my time needs to be dedicated to reading more.
  • Spending some time at the Highlander Research and Educational Center (founded by Horton) in New Market, Tennessee. Highlander conducts research, develops organizing and educational strategies, collects and produces resource materials for educators and organizers, and sponsors popular education programs that support grassroots activists and community leaders.
  • Highlander’s programs are unified by the common theme of “Constructing Democracy,” building a society in which all people can participate equally in the decisions affecting their lives.
  • Spending time at the Harmony School in Bloomington, Indiana.  Harmony School is a preK-12 school based on the principle that the role of education in a democracy is to sensitize young people to the delicate balance between individual growth and community responsibility.

Benefit to Harwood students and impact on school’s culture and climate

In addition to the positive outcomes stated under the project description, students, faculty, and administrators will take collective action to shape their own destiny. Educational experiences that engage and empower people to take democratic leadership towards fundamental change will be created.  The culture of our school will change from one of adults making decisions about students in isolation to a more deliberative dialog model similar to that of study circles model. Ultimately, the goal is an erosion of a culture where things are “done to people” and movement to one where all stakeholders have a voice and a chance to participate.

One Comment leave one →
  1. socialstudiescurrents permalink
    September 18, 2009 3:50 pm

    Great proposal, Jean. I’m so excited to be on your advisory board.

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