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Brattleboro Area Middle School: An Inspiring Example of Quality Public Education

Tarsi Dunlop's picture

After spending a day at Brattleboro Area Middle School (BAMS) in Vermont, I’m considering how my career path could overlap with living in this district. It isn’t likely, but my point is that I want my future hypothetical children to go to exactly this kind of school – and as a resident, I would want my local tax dollars to support this type of institution and all the amazing professionals that educate and care for the students in it.

BAMS is a public school serving 276 7th and 8th grade students, 46% on free and reduced lunch.  A long-time family friend is a science teacher at BAMS, and we’ve had some great conversations about education during my time working with the Learning First Alliance (LFA).  I was eager to visit his school, so he helped me connect with Principal Ingrid Christo. Upon my arrival, I was welcomed into the school and encouraged to sit in on meetings and classes and talk to people.  The entire day – full from start to finish – exemplified the best qualities that we should all look for in our neighborhood school.

What is it about BAMS that makes it feel so special? It starts with an overarching philosophy which results in a combination of exemplar outcomes: there is a building-wide commitment to the academic and social-emotional success of every child with the underlying belief that every child has the potential to succeed if given the proper resources and supports. This common mission sets a great foundation for the collaboration among staff members, from nurses and counselors to teachers and office administrators. As with most examples of safe, great places to learn, it’s difficult – impossible, really – to point to one specific reason that BAMS works for and on behalf of kids. Public schooling is no easy feat, something policy-makers seem to overlook. Still, when you hear about things that ‘work,’ you find yourself looking for signs of them as you walk the halls of a school building. This is why parents, who are trying to decide where to send their kids, or where to buy a house, should personally experience what happens within the walls of the school building.

Great Schools Focus on the Whole Child

The educators at BAMS recognize that each child is unique and requires individual attention. An educational support team (EST) comprised of counselors, the school nurse, educators and administrators meets every other week in seventh and eighth grade teams to share information about students who may need some additional help or support. They discuss the student’s social and emotional well-being and external circumstances; for instance, the arrival of a new sibling, new friend groups, parental issues at home, anything that may be affecting the student’s ability to focus and learn.

Additional examples of the school’s focus on the whole child, taking place after core classes, include:

  • Galaxy period, which happens every day. It’s primarily remediation (or enrichment for those without chorus or band). Students are placed in different classes, first based on local assessment scores and grades and then general status in their classes at any given time. Offerings include: math remediation and review, literacy, homework support and organization and STEM enrichment, and students rotate through keyboarding, Chinese culture and a thematic class in the library (themes offered by the resident Librarian).
  • Support Others and Read (SOAR), which occurs every other day for the last twenty minutes of school and alternates with an advisory period that happens on opposite days.  While SOAR originally started as an independent reading time, it also includes reading aloud, small reading groups and the occasional book share.
  • Extensions, which happen on Mondays and Wednesdays. During extensions, any student getting a C- or below at any given time is encouraged to come for homework support. On average, ten to fifteen students work with core subject teachers.  And, kids participating in sports get a pass to play upon completion (coaches are alerted to the kids’ need to stay after).
  • Finally, there is BEAMS, the 21st Century afterschool program. BEAMS provides a window of time for homework help, snacks, outside play and relaxation, and then the clubs start. Four offerings are provided each afternoon, five days a week. Examples include: robotics, woodshop, introduction to game design, drama club, poetry slam and movie madness. Some offerings are led by classroom teachers and others by local community members. Fifty percent of the program’s funding comes from a 21st Century Community Center grant, a federal program administered through the Vermont Department of Education, and the other half comes from the school budget, donations, other grants and community partnerships.  

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my conversation with their technology specialist, who is a teacher with a science and computer background. He clearly loves teaching and working with kids, but he also took the time out of his day to discuss the pilot rollout of the school’s most recently technology initiative: 1:1 Google Chromebooks. These devices are low maintenance, and they allow kids to be connected to the internet for research as well as receive and turn in assignments for classes using the Google Docs system. BAMS is committed to preparing kids for the 21st century and is taking thoughtful steps in the technology space to provide useful tools for teaching and learning.

Great Schools Have Great Leadership

Being a principal is not easy, and being a great principal is even more difficult. But in order to function and thrive, schools need great leadership. Principals set the tone, manage the staff, and oversee teachers and classroom performance.  A great principal fosters a collaborative environment and teamwork, provides rigorous and constructive feedback to teachers, and maintains and ensures a safe environment. In the one day I spent at BAMS, partially shadowing Principal Chrisco, I was simply awestruck, for two reasons. First, she was skillful at handling an incredible variety of meetings throughout the day and a number of administrative issues that arose and needed to be managed and resolved. Secondly, her ability to act as a leader, mentor and advisor at the same time was inspiring. We know that principals play a significant role in guaranteeing the success of a school; Principal Chrisco is a champion of student well-being and development, learning, and staff performance – as a team. She knows the importance of building an environment where everyone feels (and is) supported, and she delivers.

Great Schools Are Community Schools

The school is currently working to build up parent engagement, a key component of student performance and success. The parents I met at an initial council planning meeting are busy individuals, but they care deeply about their children and the school and want to support it and connect to other parents. Building parent involvement in the school is important, but it’s also a forum for parents to discuss and share stories and experiences in raising kids in these important middle school years. It was unsurprising but nice to hear all the parents in the room express appreciation and gratitude for the communicative nature of the teachers when it came to their students.  The incredibly productive meeting resulted in ideas and action items focusing on events, communication and educational evenings for parents on key issues of interest and far surpassed many meetings I’ve attended here in DC.  

It’s important to remember that although all of these common-sense practices are at work in BAMS, it’s far from the only public school to be fulfilling its mission. Running a high-quality public school is not easy – the work is complicated, and it requires a professional staff and strong leadership. All our schools should be great, safe places where kids learn and thrive, and there are many more such schools out there than most public education critics are willing to admit.

When the students come first, and not just their test scores, the result means that every child – regardless of background  – gets the help and support she or he needs to succeed. While student data is a key part of success at BAMS, it is useful and person-oriented data that includes assessment as one of many components. The community at BAMS focuses on the whole child, as a learner and as a person. We should expect our schools to provide this, and we should work to support their efforts as citizens and community members.


This school sounds like

This school sounds like everything I want for my school. I teach at a rural high school in southern Tennessee, and we serve almost 1,000 students. I find your post encouraging because one class of our students is just a little more than the population of BAMS, and I believe focusing on the "whole child" as you described, where the educational support team comes together to discuss and problem solve areas of potential success/distress for the core group of students ties in to an idea I have.

Actually, the idea stemmed from a BER seminar I attended in which I learned of a school that had suffered from numerous suicides and attempted suicides among its students. The way they chose to address the crisis was to survey their students for adults (teachers, administrators, custodians, counselors, etc.) they felt they could trust in a crisis situation. They dis-aggregated the data into two main fields: 1)the students who had no one they could trust & 2) the teachers no students chose as their go-to. They created teams of highly-connected teachers to focus on those students who felt disconnected, and assigned students to teachers who hadn't been selected (they received training on building relationships).

The goal was to create a sense of belonging in every student and in every teacher and was done without the knowledge of the students. A reissue of the same survey at the end of the semester showed that all students connected to at least one teacher, and all teachers connected to at least one student. There were no attempted suicides during the time of the experiment.

I am searching for ways to have a positive impact on the pervasively negative air in my school, and reading this blog has given me hope. I believe the educational support team/connected survey and the implementation of purposeful relationship building could have that positive impact I'm looking for.

Thanks!

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