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Aurora Institute

Providing Flexible Pathways and Personalized Learning Options for All Students

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Andrew Jones

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

This is the third in a three-part series from Andrew Jones, director of curriculum at Mill River Unified Union School District in Vermont.

A central feature of Vermont’s Act 77 and the Educational Quality Standards is that students have access to personalized learning opportunities and flexible pathways to graduation. In many traditional schools, there are only a few avenues for students to follow. Without credits, meeting graduation requirements through non-traditional formats is actually easier, as long as those opportunities are tied to certain proficiencies. Through flexible pathways, students are not hamstrung to take specific courses or follow a predetermined course. At Mill River Unified Union School District, we looked for ways to completely rethink what it means to learn and go to school.

MRUUSD has embarked on what has been dubbed the “Trailhead Project.” Dave Younce, the MRUUSD superintendent, initiated this vision by putting together a “moonshot” team to brainstorm ideas to reimagine the education experience within the district. After several sessions, the vision was refined into what was initially titled Vision 2020 and later renamed the Trailhead Project. Leveraging the unique characteristics of each of our schools and building off of work already accomplished, this project provides real options for students in the district. The logic behind this initiative was to not only provide dynamic learning opportunities, but to make access equitable to all Mill River School District students. For most students in Vermont, attendance at the local town elementary school is the only option (asides from attending a private school). In our model, students from any town can attend any elementary school depending on their interests and needs. And, we provide transportation.

Our four K-6 schools include: Clarendon Elementary School (CES), Wallingford Elementary School (WES), Tinmouth Elementary School (TES), and Shrewsbury Mountain School (SMS). Each school will have a particular focus, but regardless of the school, all students must meet the district-wide proficiencies. The caveat is that how students engage with those proficiencies will differ. Clarendon will be focused on project-based learning. Wallingford has moved to a proficiency model, where instead of merely having a third grade classroom or fourth grade classroom, they have “pods.” Furthermore, mathematics and English focused time is the same for all grade levels, so students who might be in first grade but are working at a fourth grade level can work with a teacher at their particular proficiency level. Tinmouth Elementary’s focus is focused on the fact that it resides on the side of a mountain and has access to acres of woods. Outdoor and adventure education are the foci here, aiming to have students outdoors as much as possible. Finally, Shrewsbury Mountain School builds off of their long history of sustainability.

Going to the high school, credits have been replaced by proficiencies. Students must meet a certain level of mastery in specific proficiencies and performance indicators, but the path is varied. Furthermore, students have opportunities to extend their learning by completing certain endorsements such as the Performing Arts endorsement or Math and Science Academic Endorsement. Each endorsement (currently eight of them) has specific requirements that include meeting a certain level of proficiency and through experience in more rigorous coursework, such as in Advanced Placement courses. Juniors and seniors will have the option to attend a semester away at one of the satellite elementary school campuses, engaging in learning experiences tied to the program of studies at each of the sites. For instance, at Tinmouth, high school students could engage in outdoor education coursework focused on the graduation proficiencies, but not in the confines of a traditional classroom.  

Still in its infancy, the Trailhead Project continues to grow. This project is being refined and improved upon as we move forward with implementation. As far as we know, no one in Vermont is doing anything like what we are attempting to do.

Read the Entire Series:

Andrew Jones is the director of curriculum for Mill River Unified Union School District (MRUUSD) in North Clarendon, Vermont. Twitter: @AlpinistAndrew