The Value of Connecting Students, Learning, and the Community
As a native Rutland, Vermont resident, I have always felt like I belonged in my city. I also believed that I could give back to my community. However, over time the city of Rutland has faced many challenges and it has become harder and harder for many young people to feel the same way. In the same regard, I have spent 12 years in the classroom with limited opportunities for students in a real world, authentic work-based setting. We have many isolated opportunities for students to get a taste of the future or visit businesses and industries to imagine what they may want to do with their lives. One piece we, as a community, were not as strong in was the extended “internship” for students as a part of their high school schedules.
Rutland High School provides many amazing and in-depth learning experiences and opportunities for our students. Many more than when I graduated from RHS in the year 2000. Thanks in part to the generosity of Barry and Wendy Rowland and the Rowland Foundation, RHS has been able to develop many unique learning opportunities that have become a model for the state. When I started at RHS two years ago, having moved from the middle school in our district where I taught for ten years, many of the programs were solidly in place. We have an interdisciplinary freshman team structure, a day and a half conference for students called the Global Issues Conference that connects students to global issues, and two endorsement paths students can choose to add to their diplomas: Global Studies and STEM. Along with the endorsements is a Capstone program students take part in if they choose to seek an endorsement. Each of these programs has been thoroughly developed by previous Rowland Fellows and have changed the structure and learning for students in a positive way. RHS is also unique in that the vision for the building provides a diverse and cross spectrum education for all. We also have a Year End Studies program which has been in place for many years and allows students to focus on areas of non-traditional learning and choice for students. With all of these opportunities in place, the framework to build upon and to create more Work Based Learning to occur was clear.
We needed an authentic connection for students to careers and to the community. Thus our proposal to create personalized, service, and work based learning opportunities for students was developed. Our community has many needs and our students have many skills as global minded citizens with a teenage perspectives. Thus we decided to add a service component to a more traditional action oriented internship. Students must give back to the business giving so much to them. The program my colleagues and I developed is called PLACE, Promoting Learning by Activating Community Engagement. Through our Rowland Fellowship, we discovered the professional development we needed to make this program a reality was available to us in our state of Vermont as well as in getting to know the professionals in our community.
We began our journey with discovering what we wanted to do in order to make these connections strong. We met with many professionals as well as various student groups. We were then ready to pilot this learning opportunity with students.
The equity lens was always on for us. We have a diverse socio-economic population in our school. We wanted to make sure all students had equal access to be successful in a PLACEment. This meant we needed to make sure structures were in place to make that viable. We began by looking at individual students who either expressed interest, were recommended by a staff member, or had substantial “room” in their schedules. These individuals were asked to meet with us to see if they had interest in this learning opportunity. Many jumped at the idea and others felt they may not be the right type of student. When we began interviewing the individuals, we were able to pique areas of interest for them and then we would connect their interests to career fields. The next step, in most cases, was to reach out to community partners. Many partners saw a greater potential value in taking on a high school intern than one may think. They saw an opportunity to help the community, their profession, the skills in today’s future job candidates, and to change an individual’s life.
One value of this type of learning experience is the individual successes of the students involved. When students are connected to their interests in a real world application they can make meaning in a personalized way. We have seen students overcome difficulties such as anxiety, because they have had success in a career they plan to pursue. We (the staff, the community, the mentors- all partners involved) gave the students the tools and the place to feel confident.
Another benefit is to the community mentors. Watching these students grow, will bring more partners to the table. This work is not just about kids, it’s about the community.
An important piece to remember is that it is about the value of the individual experience. Some PLACEments or career paths that may not seem like they will be as impactful for a student as others might be. These PLACEments can be amazing for that specific child, because they have meaning for the individuals involved. We need people to serve in all roles in our community. Let’s help connect students to their passions.
Let me share a few stories about how connecting students with service based community partners has helped to enhance learning for all involved parties.
A student in our PLACE program interned with our police department. She believed she was interested in forensics. We were lucky to place her with the forensic custodian. She learned about handling evidence, daily work of various law enforcement positions, and data bases for storing information. In return, she helped to develop a training program for officers to learn the new system. This student presented to our school board and shared that she is not the typical kid who you would think to see in a leadership role like this one. Because she was able to gain confidence, connect her learning, and see real world application, she was successful beyond what she could have ever imagined. For her, this experience made her believe she has what it takes and that she will be pursuing the right field.
Another student interned with the state’s attorney’s office. She spent significant time in court observing trials, learned necessary skills such as transcribing interviews and filing, and was able to meet and listen to all parties involved in a variety of cases. Her learning was invaluable to her and to the staff in the office. They shared the great benefits of having a different age perspective in the office and the potential to educate more young people so they do not become victims of crimes.
Others students spent time learning in various fields: daily work of a nurse- running labs, interacting with clients, researching and helping others; running a sports arena- fixing and making it safe for spectators, helping to teach young children the art of various types of sports, connecting math with daily operation; or marketing events in the community at the Chamber of Commerce, connecting the community with resources available, as well as drawing future residence and employees into the community.
Work based learning applies concepts for students and gives them experiences they will never forget. The entire community thrives when these experiences occurs. This type of learning opportunity is not just for a short time in school, it is for life!
Bianca McKeen is a science teacher at Rutland High School. She also serves as an adjunct professor for the College of St. Joseph in Rutland, VT. Bianca is a proud mom or two and a wife.
Bianca, along with two colleagues received a 2016 Rowland Fellowship. She was also the 2012 Vermont Academy of Science and Engineering Outstanding Science Teacher of the Year and a 2013 Darwin Day Scholar.