July 20, 2019

Good news for Christian students

By Kim Howard
Observer correspondent

One child asked club members to pray for her grandfather to stop smoking. Another requested the safe return of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Another child wanted help obeying “mom and dad.”

Prayer requests fill just a fraction of each weekly meeting of the Good News Club, a bible-based group for first through fifth graders held at Williston Central School. For 90 minutes after school on Thursdays, children play games, eat snacks, sing songs, learn about the bible and pray.

As the country has more stringently defined a separation of church and state, club advisor Beverly Ronco said educators everywhere are afraid to address religion.

“As a result, students don’t talk about it,” she said. “As they walk through the school building, it’s like, ‘don’t mention God.’ It’s like they have to put that part of themselves away.”

A Williston resident who works in the local public schools as a substitute teacher, Ronco felt she could offer support to children of Christian faith by having them meet with others like them. The club’s objective, Ronco wrote in an e-mail, is “to teach and promote love for God, parents, family and friends; love and respect for country and those in authority over them; and to encourage them to do their best in all they do and pursue.”

Before moving to Vermont seven years ago, Ronco held Good News Clubs in her home in Pennsylvania for more than a dozen years. Curriculum materials are provided by Child Evangelism Fellowship, an international, bible-based evangelism organization headquartered in Warrenton, Mo. The organization’s Web site notes that over 3,400 school-related Good News Clubs are held weekly across the country, reaching roughly 119,000 students.

The Williston club drew an average of 15 weekly participants last year, the club’s first; this year roughly half that number attend each week. Parents must sign permission slips for their children to attend.

At the club’s meeting the last week of November, students had relay races rolling pumpkins and played a “human piñata” game in which candy was earned when a child could elicit a smile from a peer in the piñata chair. In between, the children learned about the plagues unleashed on Egypt in the book of Exodus.

In the second plague, Ronco told the children while using pictures on a felt board, “Frogs were everywhere.”

“Cool!” third grader Spencer Bissonette called out.

The only boy at the club that day, Spencer was the first to volunteer his thoughts about the Good News Club when a reporter asked.

“It’s kind of fun and we have parties sometimes,” Spencer said, later adding the kids learn a lot “about the stuff in the Bible.” Spencer had one other addendum: “I support (the club) because my mom wants me to support it because it’s a good thing that they allow them to have it in school.”

A legal right to use the school

Though Spencer probably doesn’t know it, “they” are justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.

A religious group meeting on school grounds might cause some to raise eyebrows, but the court ruled that such use of community facilities is not a violation of the constitution. In 2001, the Supreme Court held (6-3) that Milton School District in New York violated the free speech rights of the Good News Club when it prohibited after school meetings; since the district allowed other community groups access to its facilities, the Court argued, prohibition of the religious club amounted to “viewpoint discrimination.”

In Williston six years later, the Good News Club “can use the space if they put in (the paperwork) just like everybody else,” said District Principal Walter Nardelli.

Club members also may ride the after-school activity bus just as may students attending any other club or activity. The club can advertise on community bulletin boards within the school, but it cannot advertise in “The School Bell,” the school weekly newsletter.

“The Bell is not a public forum,” Nardelli said, noting it’s reserved for school and town-specific information. Requests to be included in the newsletter come “from all over,” Nardelli said. “We try to limit that otherwise we’d have enough to fill pages.”

In the recent club meeting, three students were lying down by the time Ronco was toward the end of the lesson on Exodus. The others were attentively engaged. All perked up considerably when they played two games reviewing the day’s material.

Fifth grader Samara Bissonette said she hopes more people will come to Good News Club. The best thing about the club, she said, is learning “about all the people in the Bible and what great things they did.”

Her younger brother Spencer had a one-word answer for the club’s best feature: “Candy!”

[Read more…]

New energy store offers green knowledge and products

By Colin Ryan
Observer correspondent

About four years ago, the general contractor Northeast Construction realized that a key challenge in building environmentally friendly homes was the difficulty of finding energy-efficient products suppliers in northern New England.

Now, the company is poised to solve the problem by launching Building Energy, a green business that offers alternative energy products. Building Energy opened for business last week in Williston and, according to manager Basil Stetson, is in the process of designing an interactive showroom that will demonstrate products – and operate with the eco-friendly mindset on which the company was formed.

“The building will be heated by thermal heat, run on solar power and will have skylights that bring in natural light,” Stetson said. “We anticipate the showroom being a lot of fun – a place where you can come interested in one thing, but learn about others as well.”

The owners of Building Energy hope its temporary showroom will be ready by next month. The store is currently located in the offices of Northeast Construction on South Brownell Road in Williston, and at present does solely contract business.

“One distinction Building Energy has is that we’ll be one of first stores in the country where you can buy a variety of high quality green products under one roof,” said Stetson. “Right now we are offering solar and wind-powered products. And we are lining up other products, such as wood and pellet-fired boilers.”

Northeast Construction has been operating for 27 years. Stetson described Scott Gardner, owner and president of Northeast Construction and Building Energy, as being “at the head of the pack in terms of green building.”

Like it’s new company, Northeast Construction has a strong commitment to energy efficiency and quality building practices – Gardner trained with Efficiency Vermont, an energy efficiency services provider, for “Energy Partner” status from 2002 through 2006. In 2005 the company received an award at the Better Buildings By Design Conference for “one of two tightest houses ever tested in Vermont.” The house, located on Oak Hill Road, was a milestone for Gardner, and confirmed his energy vision as attainable.

“We had been insulating homes for 13 years,” Gardner recounted. “We wanted to find out how good we really could be, and we discovered how successful we could be as well. A house can be both beautiful and efficient – our goal was to show that you could combine the two. An efficient home is comfortable and quiet, there are no drafts, and the temperature is consistent throughout.”

In addition to the Building Energy retail store, which the owners hope will be ready by July or August, the company will perform building energy audits by testing if buildings are airtight and using infrared thermography to analyze building insulation and thermal envelope construction by looking for changes in temperature caused by heat leaks.

“The first step in saving money for the customer is not losing energy in their home,” said Stetson. “We do energy audits – our energy auditors, who are BPI (Building Performance Institute) certified, will find energy leaks by looking at insulation, heating systems and building envelope, and then make recommendations to help you best retrofit your house.”

Stetson, who moved here from Florida, said his passion is starting and running small businesses, and he chalks getting this job up to “serendipity.”

“You get lucky once in a while, where you can make a living, feel good about what you’re doing and know that you’re breaking ground in an important new area. We’re not pushing hardware – we want the customers to have the best solutions. We’re trying to provide good products and good knowledge and a better living environment, and I believe that Building Energy will develop a reputation for expertise in general and be viewed as an energy resource over the long term.”

[Read more…]

EPA opposes some Circ Highway plans

Rte. 2A upgrade preferred, agency says

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

The federal Environmental Protection Agency wants upgrades to Vermont 2A instead of a new Circ Highway through Williston.

A letter from the EPA’s regional office in Boston cites wetland impacts in stating the agency would not approve permits if plans for road construction along the Circ’s original route move forward. However, a state official said wetland impacts could be mitigated or the highway design changed to satisfy the EPA.

“There is a long way to go before the final decision,” said Vermont Agency of Transportation spokesman John Zicconi. “No one should think this sounds the death knell for any of the alternatives.”

State and federal transportation officials are in the middle of lengthy study called an Environmental Impact Statement that will determine the best road-building option.

The study has whittled dozens of alternatives to three major options: a limited-access highway or boulevard along the originally planned Circ route; widening Vermont 2A to three or four lanes through Williston and Essex while replacing some intersections with roundabouts; or a hybrid that uses parts of each approach.

The EPA’s letter states the 2A alternatives have the least impact on wetlands. The limited access highway and hybrid alternatives affect 28 to 47 acres of wetlands, depending on the design. The 2A improvements only impact about 2 acres of wetlands.

The EPA is just one of more than 200 organizations and individuals that weighed in during the highway study’s public comment period, which ended last week.

Zicconi said the EPA’s recommendation comes as no surprise. He said the state has long known that no matter which alternative is chosen there will be permitting issues.

Nor is the EPA’s recommendation the final word, Zicconi said. The agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. would have to sign off on the recommendation if an alternative other than the 2A improvements is chosen.

State and federal officials will weigh all comments and choose a preferred alternative next year.

The Circ as originally proposed decades ago called for a limited-access highway from Interstate 89 in Williston to Vermont 127 in Colchester. Only the stretch through Essex has been constructed.

[Read more…]

Municipal budget brakes spending

Manager proposes $7.6 million plan

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Town Manager Rick McGuire proposed a $7.6 million municipal budget that slows the steady stream of spending hikes of recent years.

The fiscal 2008-2009 budget represents a 5 percent increase over the current budget. If adopted, it would boost the municipal property tax rate by 4 cents. That would result in a $120 tax increase for a home valued at $300,000.

The Selectboard earlier this year urged McGuire to keep the budget hike around 5 percent. Board members said the idea was to reign in the double-digit increases of previous years while maintaining services and facilities.

“We’re trying to hold expenses down and give people a breather,” said Judy Sassorossi. “You can’t escalate things constantly.”

In recent years the municipal budget has increased at a brisk clip, largely to pay for rising expenses driven by Williston’s commercial and residential growth.

The budget proposed by McGuire last year represented an 11 percent increase. Proposals in the two previous years hiked expenditures by 19 percent and 17 percent.

Those numbers include both capital and operating expenses. Budgets actually voted on by residents have often been lower than the original proposal because the Selectboard typically trims expenses before the spending plan is put on the ballot. Chairman Terry Macaig said it is too early to tell whether the board will alter the budget this time.

McGuire unveiled the budget at the board’s Dec. 3 session. He said he was “thrilled” to hold the increase to 5 percent while maintaining existing services.

The budget includes no new positions for the first time in a decade, McGuire said. Hours have been increased for two existing employees in the police and fire departments.

Most departments see only small budget increases. The library and town clerk’s office receive a 5 percent boost. Fire and rescue expenses rise 3 percent. Planning and zoning spending is up just 1 percent.

There are two notable exceptions. General administration, which includes the town manager’s office, property assessors and legal services, rises 15 percent. Parks and recreation expenses are down 2 percent.

Health care costs continue to skyrocket. Changing health care plans provided a temporary reprieve in the current budget year. But health insurance expenses rise 18 percent in the new budget.

Another major spending increase will pay for the new police and fire stations. McGuire said bond money was borrowed in batches, and this is the final installment. The increased debt repayment will hike the budget by nearly $81,000.

On the revenue side, sales tax proceeds continue to be a question mark. Changes in the state rules governing what is taxed went into effect Jan. 1 and have reduced revenue from Williston’s 1 percent local option tax. The budget assumes the town will see $225,000 less in revenue from the tax in fiscal 2008-2009.

Selectboard member Ted Kenney wondered if sales tax revenue, which funds roughly 40 percent of the municipal budget, would fall even more precipitously.

“If we hit a recession next year, I imagine the local option tax is going to take a beating,” he said at last week’s board meeting.

The spending plan represents a starting point for the Selectboard, which on Monday met with the representatives from the library, police and fire departments. The board will talk with the remaining department heads in coming weeks before approving the budget.

A public hearing on the municipal budget is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 10 at 8 p.m. The hearing takes place at Town Hall.

Residents vote on the town and school budgets in March.

[Read more…]

Planting ideas for a vibrant spring

By Timothy Higgins
Observer correspondent

Temperatures may be dropping and snow has already landed on the ground, but Williston in Bloom is running full steam ahead and already gearing up for the sunny days waiting at the end of winter.

Williston in Bloom is a local effort to improve quality of life in town by undertaking a variety of beautification programs.

“We are a group of volunteers who plant flowerbeds around the town,” said Williston in Bloom Committee Co-chairwoman Sue Stanne.

After meeting last week, the group is considering introducing a new type of flowerbed to the town – rain gardens.

“We were contacted by Jessica Andreoletti (of the Winooski Natural Resources Conservation District) and Emma Melvin (of the University of Vermont) to play a part in the Rivers Rain Garden project,” Stanne said.

A rain garden is a planted depression designed to absorb rainwater runoff from impervious areas including roofs, driveways and walkways. The gardens allow storm water to soak into the ground instead of flowing into storm drains or causing erosion and water pollution as surface water. Rain gardens can cut down on the amount of pollution reaching creeks and streams by up to 30 percent.

Andreoletti, resource/assistant manager of the Conservation District, said, “It is important to get the word out and educate the public about rain gardens. Our goal is to get one rain garden in every town in Chittenden County in 2008.”

Although not committed yet, the Williston in Bloom committee is interested in participating.

“We hope to hold training sessions and workshops with the Williston residents on the construction of rain gardens, possibly in February or March,” Stanne stated. “This is in the very early planning stages but we are very excited about it.”

A history of beautification

Neil Boyden, Williston Public Works director and a member of Williston in Bloom, said the program has been going on for five or six years.

“We design, maintain and plant areas around town where there are flowers,” Boyden stated.

Williston in Bloom has planted around town buildings and along roads such as Route 2 in the Village, along the bike path and around the bandstand.

“This fall we planted 1,400 daffodil bulbs in and around the area of the town hall,” Stanne said.

In addition to town beautification projects, Williston in Bloom works with the University of Vermont Master Gardeners extension program to participate in the Plant a Row for the Hungry project, which provides food to the Hinesburg Food Shelf and Chittenden County Emergency Food Shelf. Several Williston in Bloom members are also Master Gardeners.

The town chips in as well, donating an area of the Williston community garden.

Williston in Bloom also sponsors a garden contest for residents, which is judged by the committee in several categories. Winners are announced in September and an awards ceremony is held in March. Contest applications are available online at http://town.williston.vt.us/mgr/environ/wibpage.htm and distributed at public facilities around town.

A rain garden category could become a new feature of the contest next year.

Stanne chairs the committee with Joan Fox-Cota. Boyden, June Jones, Al Ligouri, Oliver Gardner, Ruth Painter, Nancy Hulett, Mike Jones and Kim Richburg serve as committee members.

“We presented a PowerPoint presentation to the Selectboard a few months ago and they really enjoyed it,” Stanne said. “They thanked us for making the town look pretty.”

Anyone interested in participating in Williston in Bloom can contact Neil Boyden at 878-1239 or any of the other committee members.

The town contributes $3,000 to the group’s $8,000 budget, but Williston in Bloom typically funds the remainder with donations. Tax-deductible donations can be sent to the WIB Committee, 7900 Williston Road, Williston, Vt. 05495.

[Read more…]

Counter-protest gets personal

Military families voice support for troops

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

For Dannielle Thomas, Friday’s pro-military demonstration in Williston was personal.

The Fairfax resident organized the rally at the Armed Forces Career Center in Maple Tree Place. About a dozen flag-waving and sign-carrying participants stood in a bitter-cold breeze for three hours to show their support for military recruiters and troops in Iraq.

The rally was a response to an anti-recruiting, anti-war protest organized by Mount Mansfield Union High School students the previous Friday. Though Thomas said she supports their free speech rights, she felt hurt by some of the rhetoric, especially one sign that read “recruiters lie, kids die.”

After all, her husband, Staff Sgt. Philip Thomas, is a military recruiter in Williston who has served in Iraq. And her younger sister, Caroline Yarmala, is currently stationed in Iraq as a member of the U.S Navy.

“I thought it was misguided,” Dannielle Thomas said of the previous protest. “I don’t think they meant to be disrespectful. They just got too fired up before it started, and they got riled up by outside groups.”

Her mother-in-law, Diana Thomas, also attended Friday’s rally.

“We just want to let our troops know that we love and support them,” she said. “We’re here to back them up on everything they do for us.”

The low-key event presented a stark contrast to the previous week’s protest. About 75 demonstrators marched to the Armed Forces Career Center before moving on to the National Guard recruiting office, also located in Maple Tree Place. Protesters waved signs and chanted through bullhorns, then staged a sit-in at the Guard office. Thirteen were arrested on trespassing charges after they refused to leave.

On Friday, demonstrators quietly gathered on the sidewalk. They even moved to an adjacent location when a gaggle of media members covering the event began to impede traffic.

The rally was so orderly that police said it should serve as a template for other demonstrations.

“Today’s group was a model for future protests on how to express an opinion or belief without violating laws or the rights of others who disagree with your opinion,” wrote Williston Police Sgt. Bart Chamberlain in a media release.

A family affair

Those present at last week’s rally were either veterans or had family members in the military. Two women who brought young children with them, Brandy Borja of Grand Isle and Jennifer Rea of Milton, are also married to military recruiters.

St. Johnsbury resident Chandler Clifford, who spent a combined 20 years in the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines and National Guard, said he wanted to counter the previous week’s demonstration, adding that though protests by high school students may be “cute,” he felt they were too young to fully understand the military.

Island Pond resident Jon Piper, another veteran whose father, stepfather and grandfather all served in the military, was also there to demonstrate his support for the troops. He worried that soldiers in Iraq might read news of anti-war protests on the Internet and conclude they have little support back home.

Turnout at the previous protest in Williston was boosted after several anti-war groups got involved. One organization assisted with the pro-military rally.

The group, Gathering of Eagles, stages counter-protests throughout the country, said Kathy Upton, the organization’s Vermont coordinator. She said Dannielle Thomas contacted her and asked for help.

“We’re just trying to get the other side of the story out,” Upton said. “Too often the anti-war side gets all the attention.”

Thomas said she originally planned to hold the rally at the same time as the other protest. But she was talked out of it by her husband, who felt it would give the anti-war demonstrators more publicity and create conflict.

Shortly before last week’s rally ended, about 20 students from Essex Technical Center arrived, temporarily boosting attendance. Though grateful for the support, Thomas acknowledged that she was disappointed more people didn’t show up. She noted it was held on Pearl Harbor Day and some veterans’ organizations had other events scheduled.

If any of the student protesters were her children, Thomas said she would tell them to learn more about the military and not just go along with their peers.

“Be more educated about the things that fire you up,” she said. “Do your own research and find your own ground.”

[Read more…]

CVU students breeze through regional design competition

By Colin Ryan
Observer correspondent

When the students in Champlain Valley Union’s Design and Engineering Technology class sailed wind-powered vehicles past a series of fans during a competition at the University of Vermont on Saturday, they were effectively taking their final exam.

Three teams from CVU – The Hex Nut Smugglers, Rhumb Runners and The Gnarwhal Project – competed in the 17th annual “Blowing in the Wind” challenge hosted by UVM College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences Design TASC, or Technology and Society Connection. The competition brought 48 teams from 19 schools in Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut.

The challenge asked students to design and build “ships” – wheeled vehicles with sails – that could fit within a standard paper ream box. The ships had to transport cargo of pennies, washers and bolts using only wind from simple store-bought box fans to move.

The intention of the competition was to motivate students in a way that will last far beyond the competition, according to Dawn Densmore, director of Outreach and Public Relations for UVM College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences.

Past challenges have included using a single hand crank electric generator to retrieve food cans and launching ping-pong balls into different sized trash bins.

“How do we make sure we’re keeping the pace with the rest of the world in terms of technology?” Densmore asked. “We do that by getting them charged about doing these kinds of projects, so that when they proceed to hard-core math and advanced engineering, they have enough wind in their sails to carry them through.”

CVU’s Design and Engineering teacher Olaf Verdonk attempts to achieve a similar goal in his class, which he described as “a professional engineering environment.” Verdonk asks each student to submit a resume of relevant skills, such as web design, computer-aided drawing (CAD) and metal fabrication.

At the “Blowing in the Wind” competition, Verdonk said, “They (the students) have had three months to come up with a working solution to the problem. The class is a way for them to get a true engineering experience, where they’re given a problem they have to engineer a solution for.

“The students have been working since mid-September on creating solutions, researching, drawing rough prototypes, testing, and they’ve done a really remarkable job. And the best thing is, today they’ll see many different ways of solving this problem. This is when their eyes open up.”

At least one CVU student, Williston resident Jesi Booth of The Gnarwhal Project – who referred to being the only female in Verdonk’s design class as “the story of my life” – saw the competition and class as a good experience in her quest for a career.

“I plan to go to college to become a materials engineer, which will definitely have design associated with it,” Booth said. “I like designing – both the process and the end result of creating something, which is more mechanical engineering. But if I can design something like this and make it work, that would be a good thing. Now if only our vehicle works…”

Not only did Gnarwhal’s design work, it won took home awards, as did the vehicles from the other two teams.

Team Rhumb Runners, with Newton Hausermann, John Hill, David Jensen and Matt Mainer, missed the grand prize for the IBM Highest Scoring School Award, but took first place, $500 and an IBM ThinkPad.

In the Goodrich Uphill Awards, which challenged teams to move their ships uphill, The Hex Nut Smugglers – Ian Hunt, Eric King, Holden Ranz, Thomas Moore and Cyrus Schenck – came in second place, earning $250. The Gnarwhal Project, with Ryan Mills, Andrew Giroux, Jesi Booth and Eric Kolibas, came in third place, winning $125.

The Gnarwhal Project also took the $250 second place prize for the IEEE Design Notebook Award.

“I’m really excited that UVM does something like this, and I’m thankful for the local corporations that support it, because it’s a fantastic experience for any kid who is interested in pursuing engineering,” said Verdonk. “I told my students right from the beginning that this class was about coming up with a design that would meet the requirements of the competition. If they couldn’t do that, they’d have a lot of trouble passing my class. Today my students did well, they learned a lot, and, I’m happy to say, nobody failed.”

[Read more…]

Williston rehab facility opens second branch in Colchester

By W. N. Crow
Observer correspondent

Area residents who find themselves in need of physical rehabilitation found cause to celebrate recently with the grand opening of a new branch of The RehabGYM.

As business begins in earnest at the new facility, located at 905 Roosevelt Highway in Colchester, the owner and operator of the gym has high hopes for the unique brand of rehabilitation.

“(I) have always actually been a little unhappy with how physical therapy is applied to the population,” owner Sharon Gutwin, a Williston resident, said at the facility’s grand opening last week. “I always felt that people wanted more, needed more for getting better.”

Gutwin, who graduated from University of Vermont in 1979 with a degree in physical therapy, declared the philosophy of The RehabGYM to be “a combination of gym facility with P.T. (physical therapy) knowledge.”

The original RehabGYM opened at Maple Tree Place in Williston in 2003. The Colchester facility opened in October.

Both facilities are staffed by employees who are also accredited medical professionals with a breadth of knowledge extending beyond simple fitness training, Gutwin said.

Designed by Gutwin in conjunction with disabled clients and their families, along with help from The Medical Store of South Burlington, the new branch looks to cater to all degrees of physical need, with special attention focused on state-of-the art pool facilities.

Used for both swimming and recreational rehabilitation, the pools have been fitted with a hydraulic lift system that makes getting in and out of the pool and into the changing room and back a fluid and easy process.

Despite all this, however, those without physical boundaries are encouraged to make the most of the gym as well. Gutwin hopes that those in the community will use the facility for what she terms “proactive care.” Ultimately creating personalized physical goals with medical supervision, she hopes, will keep clients injury-free during their physical regimen.

“It’s cheaper,” she said, smiling, “And it’s a lot more fun.”

Gutwin’s goals for the gyms extend far beyond those of simple exercise and rehabilitation.

“I’m hoping to instill this lifelong fitness attitude within an individual … when they’re young,” and then continue working with clients through high school and into middle age, Gutwin said.

Nowhere is this all-ages mentality more apparent than right next door, with the also newly-opened Kids’ RehabGYM. Though serving much of the same function as the adult facility, needs are met on a more specialized scale; the youngest patient was only a few months old when starting the program.

Designed with the goals of physical therapy and physical play in mind, the youth-centric facility caters to the whole family in terms of having the young patients receive physical instruction in their own, personal space.

The machines inside the smaller center – a curiously whimsical hybrid of gym and playground – seem designed in a way that the groups of kids playing on them made no secret of enjoying what could otherwise be seen as a workout in its own right.

On the other end of the age spectrum, Carol Wheeler, who receives treatment for her tendonitis, also utilizes the facility to keep up her physical activity when not there on business.

Wheeler described the gym as “wonderful” and praised its convenience, being close to her home.

At the end of the day, Gutwin is just glad to be able to administer the help that she can, and looks forward to making her goals more widespread in the future.

“It isn’t just about us. It’s about what we can do with what we’ve been given, and [others] being able to give back,” Gutwin said. “I feel like I’ve been blessed with the ability and the support of others to get here … My anticipation is that this could be something more, but in the time being, for those that come to The RehabGYM, I feel very good knowing how they feel when they’re here, and I think I’m on the right track.”

[Read more…]

Film crew returns to Swift House

By Katrina Gibson
Observer correspondent

Students at Swift House in Williston Central School got a taste of the movies when a film crew came to videotape them earlier this month.

With a microphone overhead and two cameras pointed in their direction, students presented projects they had been working on as a part of Swift House’s student-centered learning environment.

This was the third time in 10 years the film crew has videotaped the Swift House team. The crew returned this year to document the 10-year progress of Swift House’s transformation to a “21st century school,” where the teaching philosophy is geared to students’ individual needs and incorporates life and career skills.

“Back in the early ’90s we transformed from a traditional school to a 21st century school,” said Al Myers, facilitator at the Swift House. “The learning environment is kid-centered and based on the students’ needs. Every kid is doing a different project and each child can learn from the other.”

In most traditional settings everyone in the classroom is learning the same topic. In Swift House, each student is able to focus on topics he or she is interested in while also learning from peers.

During the transformation in the early 1990s, a film team from the University of Indiana visited the school to document the change and created two videos called “Student Voices” and “Gathering the Dreamers.” In 1997, the team returned for a second look at the experience and created a third video called “Reaching for the North Star.”

Now, 10 years later, the film crew, led by Dr. Leonard Burello, professor of education at Indiana University, returned on Dec. 6 to look at how the change in the education model has evolved.

“We want to recapture the work we did in the ’90s,” said Burello.

After reviewing the older videos and comparing them to the present ones, Burello said the school is at approximately 80 percent of where it was when the change started.

“You have to be consistent and do it over time,” said Burello.

He suggested the team take a look at the older videos and try to reinstate some of the practices that may have been dropped throughout the years.

In Swift House, “teachers take the roles of learning facilitator and manager, rather than just information givers,” according to the school’s Web site. Students as well as teachers take responsibility for their education and spend time learning about topics that they are interested in and sharing them with their classmates.

Burello first began videotaping in Swift House in the early ’90s to document teachers as they began implementing the project-based learning approach. Swift House was chosen because, at the time, former Williston principal Lynn Murray was working in a graduate program with Burello, who was interested in learning more about what the school was doing.

In the late 1990s, experts created national educational standards and required schools to incorporate the standards into their curriculum. Though this did create guidelines as to what students were required to learn, it didn’t seem to adversely affect the work that schools with this new approach were doing.

“We don’t reject the standards,” said Burello. “We embrace them. You just make them work for you.”

Burello used a colleague’s example of how schools were adhering to the standards yet still utilizing this progressive teaching style by saying, “If the destination is Denver, we all will get to Denver, we just may take different routes.”

According to Burello, there are schools in approximately seven states throughout the country participating in the project-based learning style. Although there aren’t any statistics yet on how this way of teaching and learning compares to the traditional classroom, Borello said, “For the most part, the performance is above average.”

The educational style gives the students the opportunity to learn about themselves and take accountability for their education, which is a shift in traditional education, said Burello.

The videos are designed for professional educators and are intended to document examples of effective practice.

For copies of the video and more information on this curriculum visit www.forumoneducation.org.

[Read more…]

School surveys community for future plans

Deadline is Dec. 11

By Kim Howard
Observer correspondent

Should Williston public schools institute all-day kindergarten? Should fifth graders share classrooms with eighth graders? Should all pre-school through fourth graders be housed together in one school?

These are some of the questions for which Williston School District is seeking feedback from graduates, parents, current students and community members at large. The District earlier this week unveiled a 22-question online survey that takes roughly 10 minutes to complete. The results will help guide planning for next year’s school budget.

“We’re trying to collect a lot of information of things we’ve heard discussed informally,” District Principal Walter Nardelli said on Monday. “It’s hard to move in a direction unless you have some facts.”

The District does have some feedback from recent years, but a comprehensive survey was needed, Nardelli said.

The survey deadline is Tuesday, Dec. 11. The Williston School Board is likely to hear a statistical overview of the results at next Wednesday’s meeting, Nardelli said. A full report will not be available for some time, he added, as the survey includes space for extensive comments.

Some school changes could be seen as early as next year; other changes could be more long-term.

“If 65 percent to 80 percent of people absolutely agree with all-day kindergarten, we would try really hard to do that (next year),” Nardelli said.

Nardelli said it may be possible, for example, to modify class sizes and reallocate classroom space to make room for full-day kindergarten. If that works, it would not necessarily require a larger school budget, he said. Until recently, space constraints precluded such an idea.

District enrollment peaked five year ago at 1,218 students, forcing the construction of temporary trailers at Allen Brook School. Enrollment remained steady until the 2005-2006 school year. Since then, enrollment has dropped nearly 5 percent.

Nardelli concedes space is still tight at Allen Brook School. Increasing need for one-on-one space for students with developmental and speech delays, for example, could not have been predicted when the school was built a decade ago.

Last year a committee started discussing school facilities needs, including the future of the Allen Brook trailers. Committee work was canceled with the failure of the school budget in March. Questions of school configuration had bogged down the last committee meeting; Nardelli said the survey results will be helpful when the committee reconvenes.

School officials are willing to make changes, Nardelli said, if “it makes sense educationally” and there is community support.

“Everything is a matter of pluses and minuses,” he said. “If there were a correct answer about configuration, every school in the United States would look the same. What we’re looking for is the darkest shade of grey we can find in Williston on these questions.”

The survey is available at the “School Configuration Survey” link in the center of the school’s Web page at www.williston.k12.vt.us.

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