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When math lessons at a goat farm beat sitting behind a desk

It’s not just Vermont that is embracing work-based learning. Programs that let students try on careers before they graduate are catching on across the country, as parents, policymakers and employers demand “more relevance and more real-world skills” from the nation’s high schools, says Kate Blosveren Kreamer, deputy executive director of Advance CTE, a nonprofit representing state directors of career and technical education.

“Coming out of the recession, there is a real hunger for real-world skills,” says Kreamer.

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A curious goat at Ayers Brook Goat Dairy farm.

But making work-based learning work isn’t easy. It requires school districts to build new relationships with local employers; develop novel ways of measuring student growth and awarding academic credit; and navigate a thicket of logistical challenges — from arranging transportation to managing liability. For most educators, it’s a cultural shift, and one that comes with additional, often uncompensated, work.

Then there is the issue of quality control. Monitoring rigor in a classroom isn’t that complicated; maintaining it across multiple worksites is trickier.

Given these hurdles, most schools are starting small. At Randolph Union, there are 32 students participating in “independent learning opportunities,” or ILOs, and another six in a course that introduces students to careers in water management.

The challenge that rural high schools like Randolph Union now face is how to scale work-based learning so that more students like Wess see the connections between the classroom and a career, and maybe — just maybe — see a future in their graying home state.

Vermont’s experiment in experiential learning goes back a number of years, but it took off in 2013, when the legislature passed a law that lets students meet state graduation standards through work-based experiences. That law, known as Act 77, “opened up learning beyond the four walls of the traditional classroom,” says John Fischer, who was a deputy secretary of the Vermont Agency of Education at the time. “It recognized that learning can occur anywhere.”

Among Act 77’s aims: to reduce high school dropout rates, particularly among low-income students. (In Vermont in 2013 18 percent of economically disadvantaged students dropped out of high school compared to only 3.5 percent of nondisadvantaged students.)

“We knew we had an equity problem,” Fischer recalls. “Some students were learning well in a traditional classroom, and for others, it wasn’t working for them.”

But implementation of Act 77 has been uneven, raising new equity concerns among advocates. While some districts have hired work-based-learning coordinators to help place students in positions, others have leaned on teachers and guidance counselors “to make the magic happen,” says Juliette Longchamp, professional programs director at Vermont-NEA (the state’s teachers union).

We knew we had an equity problem. Some students were learning well in a traditional classroom, and for others, it wasn’t working for them.

Longchamp worries that some schools are adding to the burden on teachers while doing little to ensure the quality of students’ job placements.

“If we really care that regardless of what zip code you live in you have equal opportunity, that’s definitely not happening,” she says.

Part of the problem may be that even getting a work-based program going can be difficult. Last year, the University of Vermont worked with five high schools to create classes based in their communities. Two of the programs took off; three floundered.

The difference, says Jane Kolodinsky, who led the pilot as chair of the university’s Community Development and Applied Economics Department, was partly in the level of commitment from teachers and administrators.

“There has to be buy-in from the bottom up and the top down,” she says.

Success also requires employers and administrators who are willing to take risks and tackle logistical challenges together, Goldstein says.

“You need pioneers who will raise their hands and say ‘we’re going to figure this out,’ ” she says.

At Randolph Union, the pioneer — the “pied piper,” as Goldstein calls him — is Ken Cadow, a former Navy lieutenant and grocery store owner who was given a 2017 Champion award by the Vermont Agency of Education and the New England Secondary School Consortium for his efforts in workforce development and personalized learning.

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Last Updated on April 13, 2020

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