When I travel to schools around Vermont, I hear many versions of the same concerns:
- Going anywhere from our school costs hundreds of dollars.
- We want to take students into the community, but we burn through our budget by October.
- Transportation funds are running low (or are gone).
- We know it is so important to give our students community and field experiences.
- Technology can support this work but nothing takes the place of getting students out into the field for hands-on experiences and opportunities.
How is this supporting the promise of Act 77?
Specifically, the promise “to extend and validate learning experiences in our communities, campuses and beyond”?
It’s a complicated issue in Vermont schools, but it comes down to two things: what we know works best for students, and equity. So let’s take a look at some of the transportation issues Vermont schools are facing — and what a few rural educators have to say about them.
What we know works best for students,
First of all, why do middle level students need to have access to community and field experiences?
(Hint: it has to do with engagement, motivation and transferable, life long skills). Let educator Morgan Moore sum it up for you:
These allow authentic audiences for our students. Seventh and eighth grade students are much more motivated to research, write, present, etc. when they know they will be presenting outside of the school. In a K-8 school we provide many leadership opportunities for them in the building, but after nine years they need new, challenging, audiences. They also learn more while out in the community, by interacting with other students and places. It is imperative that they are on college campuses, at fish hatcheries, local libraries, ordering food on Church Street, etc. In all of these experiences they learn about the resources in their community and state, and apply school skills to real life experiences. After thirteen hours in Burlington for Vermont History Day last Saturday, students went home and immediately started researching for next year’s project — that is not the norm in a typical social studies classroom.
-Morgan Moore, Humanities Teacher, Burke Town School
And what we know inequity looks like.
Reducing isolation and increasing access — across the board
Vermont is a rural state. Many students live in rural locations, with limited access to transportation and activities beyond schooling. Teachers often marvel how many students have never been to Vermont largest city, Burlington, or even to a park in their own towns.
This impacts our students living in poverty most of all.
Families who can provide transportation to extracurricular activities do so. They bring their kids to lessons, activities, and sports regularly. This is not available to all of our students, creating an opportunity gap for learning key transferable social skills, growing social capital, developing interests and purpose in the community. Providing increased transportation to field experiences for students can reduce some of this isolation and the associated opportunity gaps.
The majority of our student population have limited resources to plan experiences beyond the local area. Most families have two parents who work. As a result, children (esp. in rural areas) do not have access to a variety of experiences; they are limited to what is available in their particular community.
Students of all ages need a wide variety of experiences to build background knowledge, language development, an understanding of the wider community, and an understanding of people and places outside their limited communities.
-June Murphy, literacy coach
Reducing dependence on parents — and teachers — hauling students
Many times we hear that students getting out into the community in support of their project-based and service learning experiences hinges on teachers driving students to these locations. This is, of course, incredibly generous of these teachers, but can put them in a difficult spot, driving students in their personal cars. Do we want to place this extra burden on our teachers? Often, teachers doing this is the only way they can make these experiences happen.
At The Cabot School, in Cabot VT, a trio of middle school students have the opportunity to spend school time working on one of Vermont’s oldest organic farms, Molly Brook Farm, over in West Danville, as part of the Cabot Leads program. West Danville is about 10 minutes from Cabot, by car. The students describe the experience as invaluable and engaging. Farmers Myles and Rhonda Goodrich teach students math, biology and economics on the farm — and the only way for students to get to Molly Brook is through the good graces of Cabot’s school librarian and her electric blue hatchback.
We also frequently call on parents to provide transport. This comes with its own set of concerns. Insurance, safety, and yes, equity. Does every parent in your class have the ability to take time off work? Do they all have their own vehicles in good repair?
Also, many districts require parents to undergo a background check, complete with fingerprints. It’s a long process, and a complicated one and extra expenses for the district to pick up.
So, classes with more parents available and willing to do this can go more places.
How is this equitable? Who might it leave out?
Buses are expensive
Buses in rural locations can be prohibitively expensive. In school budgets, teachers can blow through the allotted amount for field trips by October, and often with one trip. Sometimes schools only budget for one field trip a year for each class. Do we really want just one performance, presentation, community visit, field experience and opportunity per year? How does that limit the experiences of our students, especially those who have a one somewhat traditional field experience (such as a museum visit or theatre performance) in the spring?
What about collaborating with other students regionally? Or presenting at state-wide conferences such as Dynamic Landscapes and Vermont Fest?
This spring, three schools took part in the first ever Battle Physics tournament. The tourney was located at Green Mountain Union HS in Chester VT. Now, Leland & Gray students wrote a grant application to support their tournament entry, and it included bus rental. At the same time, The Dorset School, in Dorset VT, provided funding for student bus transport. Two schools, two school budgets, one big disparity.
Incredible learning opportunities cost money for transport.
Buses are very expensive and we are not able to take frequent enough trips to allow students to pursue personal interests and flexible pathways, within their school day. Therefore, it means that only students who have transportation can truly pursue flexible pathways. I wrote a grant to address this challenge, but then found out that buses are only available within school hours – so we are not able to use the buses for trips that end later. Being in a rural area, it often takes us 1-2 hours to get to a destination, which leaves us only two hours at most to be in a location (often this is not long enough and we need to leave conferences or experiences early, or miss them due to timing).
-Morgan Moore, Humanities Teacher
Often, schools have a limited budget for transporting students on longer trips by bus. Many classes rely on parent chaperones/drivers in order to plan field trips. This is an obstacle for some classes. This also poses inequities from class to class. If there is a grade level where there is a “pocket” of parents who are available to chaperone AND have larger vehicles to fit more students, those classes tend to have more field trip experiences than others.
-June Murphy, literacy coach
Arranging transport shouldn’t be a teacher’s responsibility.
We know authentic audiences want to hear from students. We know students benefit from sharing their learning widely. But all the time and effort it takes teachers to plan opportunities for their students to share their work makes my head spin. Fundraising and grant applications take hours of extra work. Work that takes teachers away from teaching and their personal lives. All of this impacts the sustainability of teaching as a career.
Coordinating and leading these experiences is no small task. Adding “find funding” to this list makes these experiences only available to students where the teachers take this on.
The promise of act 77
The two tenets of act 77 are flexible pathways and personalized learning plans. According to Vermont’s Agency of Education, flexible pathways (bolds mine):
Flexible Pathways Flexible Pathways are any combination of high-quality expanded learning opportunities, including academic and experiential components, which build and assess attainment of identified proficiencies and lead to secondary school completion, civic engagement and postsecondary readiness. Flexible pathways allow students to apply their knowledge and skills to tasks of personal interest as part of the personalized learning planning process. This does not refer to a finite menu of pre-selected pathways from which a student must choose, but also includes school-based course offerings, virtual or blended learning opportunities, community or work-based learning opportunities, and post-secondary learning options among others.
If we are designing ways students can have equitable access to expanded learning opportunities, we must address all facets of the system.
And transportation’s one of them.
If we had access to affordable transportation students could regularly meet with community partners, engage in field activities, present at conferences, visit other schools, see performances, art, etc. A teacher could truly create captivating experiences at the start, and during lessons, that would engage middle school students. Students would be interested in learning because they would see the real life applications and be able to present to real audiences, win awards, prizes, recognition, etc.
-Morgan Moore, Humanities Teacher
Leaving students out of learning experiences based on access to transportation is a serious problem. Plans for Act 77 implementation have to include district-wide plans for transportation.
No really: #fleetofvans
The hashtag #fleetofvans first emerged in a #vted Twitter chat about equity and flexible pathways. Lindsey Halman of UP for Learning, tweeted #fleetofvans as she highlighted this problem and ignited a hashtag, but really, a way of thinking about this issue.
Is a fleet of vans the answer to the transportation issues faced by Vermont students?
Imagine if all Vermont schools had a fleet of vans — or affordable buses — at their disposal.
Imagine if those vans and buses could be booked by students as part of taking the reins of their opportunities.
I’ll leave you with a quote from teacher Kim Dumont, from the Ottauquechee School, in Quechee VT.
In order to provide authentic, meaningful learning experiences to all children, regardless of location, transportation is crucial. Children in rural areas would particularly benefit from having readily accessible vehicles at their school. Without vehicles at their disposal, valuable opportunities may be out of reach. In this case, investing in a fleet of vans is truly an investment in our future.