The last six months have been an education for me.
What I learned made me excited for the educational system that my two little boys are heading into here in Vermont – and convinced of the need for continued focus on practical and equitable solutions to our state’s continuing educational challenges.
As a new member of the team of family, board members, and staff that make up the J. Warren and Lois McClure Foundation, I was excited to visit grant-funded projects and witness:
- Middle school students in Windham County working together to improve their schools’ culture. They used survey data to identify issues and developed plans to make their schools more fair and inclusive for all, building skills that will serve them well in their future careers and communities.
- Female high school students taking over the Vermont Technical College campus for the Women Can Do STEM and Trades Conference. They wielded a blowtorch in the welding shop, learned to create 3D models on the computer, climbed 50 feet into the air on a fire truck ladder, designed packaging to be both functional and attractive, fixed bicycles, and even extracted DNA from a green pepper!
- School guidance counselors learning to develop and implement Personalized Learning Plans using online software that allows students, parents, and teachers to create educational pathways that build upon each individual student’s interests and strengths. These plans are now required for Vermont middle and high schoolers and a key tool helping students chart a path to postsecondary education, gainful employment and life-long learning.
My sense is that school will truly look and feel completely different by the time my preschoolers are in middle and high school. Instead of a straight academic path, students will move freely between academic courses, vocational or technical classes, and community-based learning opportunities. Educational experiences will be connected to wide variety of explicitly discussed career paths, and all will be valued as ways to build both the hard and soft skills necessary to be a part of Vermont’s community.
At the same time, I was saddened by the opportunity gap that exists in Vermont and will persist without increased investment in schools, programs, and colleges serving families of modest means. As laid out in two recent reports from the Vermont PreK-16 Council, here in Vermont:
- Low-income kids in Vermont have the lowest rate of participation in out-of-school learning and enrichment activities in the country; this factor is the largest contributor to unequal educational attainment. (Read Every Hour Counts: Vermont Students Succeed with Expanded Learning Opportunities for a comprehensive look at this issue.)
- Only 60% of Vermont high school graduates enroll in post-secondary education, which is less than the national average and the lowest in New England. For students from economically-challenged families, only 35% enroll within eighteen months of high school graduation. (Read the full December 2015 report from the Higher Education Subcommittee of the PreK-16 Council for this statistic, the next one, and others.)
- Vermont ranks fourth in the nation in the percent of its General Fund spent on corrections and 43rd in the nation in spending on higher education.
Despite these sobering statistics, what I’ve learned makes me hopeful. Vermont stakeholders – teachers, superintendents, legislators, state agency leaders, college presidents, leaders of both nonprofit and for-profit organizations – are dedicated to leveling the playing field here. And philanthropists like the McClure Foundation are targeting funding towards enhancing Vermont institutions’ ability to serve those who most need support to complete postsecondary education and training. We’ve witnessed how much our grantee organizations can accomplish by focusing on practical programs that help set all kids on a path for a promising future. And that makes me optimistic for my two little boys and the rest of “our kids” here in Vermont.
PS: The McClure Foundation is looking forward to funding even more excellent work. Funding guidelines for the 2016/2017 school year are online now, with Letters of Interest due February 9th.