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Students take on education reform

By Geoffrey Ross
On April 12, 2011

The cameras were set; so were the microphones and lights.They were placed around a table with six Norwich students discussing a topic they are all familiar about. The cameras rolled and the discussion about education transformation got underway.

The discussion was part of the Norwich communications department's new documentary on education transformation, and the six students are all producers on the project.

The documentary comes 10 years after the department produced a documentary called "High School."

"In 2002 we received a grant from the Vermont Department of Education to produce a documentary that studies the link between truancy and incarceration," said Bill Estill, a professor of communications at Norwich.  

"At the time, 92 percent of those in prison in Vermont under the age of 24 didn't have a high school diploma. We visited 12 high schools and five prisons and found that many of the schools had created special programs to better meet the needs of their students,"  Estill said.

For this year's documentary, "We have thus far been to the Vermont Legislature and four high schools," said Estill. One school visited was Montpelier High School. "Montpelier High School was ranked on the list of the top 100 high schools by both U.S. News and World Report and Newsweek," said Estill.

"Many of the students think the project is important to them and will have a impact," said Kerry Gaspard, a freshman communications major from Lake Forest, Fla. "I think the project's important because you're going to ... hear real people talking, (hear) real opinions; you're going to see what's going on inside the schools because we have principals, we have students, we have teachers."

"You are going to hear the people who are in the educational workforce, saying their opinions and what they have to say and what's going on and what needs to be changed," said Gaspard.

"We knew we were on to something when the Norwich student producers started sharing their personal stories and how they might have been better prepared for college. It seems like we've tapped into a topic that is currently really up there in terms of a national debate," said Estill.

A documentary on the topic would bring to light that "change is necessary. They have to see the full problems that are there and what the change could bring about," said Jaren Jeffcoat, 23, a senior communications major from Dallas, Texas.

The first step to producing the documentary occurred when the students started talking about the topic of education transformation.

"We have followed the work of Michelle Rhee, the former (school) chancellor of Washington, D.C., who shook up things so much there that she was fired," said Estill.  "She has since formed an organization called StudentsFirst to advocate for education in all 50 states. We have also been following all of the education union news in places like Wisconsin."

The next step was to research the current situation in education, what needs to be changed and how this could be accomplished.

This process drew out some interesting facts and theories on how to fix education.

"Education reform is a hot topic because it is something that everybody goes through, everybody goes through education through their high school and college career, and it's something they can go back and reflect and say, ‘You know what, that worked for me and this doesn't,'" said Jeffcoat.

Recently, Gaspard heard from a professor in California that "a lot of the funding is spent on special education and he feels that it should be cut down because it shows to the students and faculty that one set of students are more important than the next set of students."

In Vermont, schools have been told to increase quality and lower budgets. It's frustrating to faculty, staff and students when they see resources leave their institutions for lack of funding.

"There is a group of schools participating in YATS (Youth and Adults Transforming Schools)," Estill said. "They don't call it ‘education reform' but rather ‘education transformation'."

"My students noticed the demeanor of these schools. Students have a voice and are valued," said Estill.

Norwich students have ideas on how education should be fixed, since they all went through the system.

"In higher populated areas. having magnet schools, schools that are tailored towards certain career paths or certain ideas," Jeffcoat said. "For example, back home, I live in the city of Dallas, and in Dallas half of the schools are magnet schools, and what they do is they take students that are well-versed in mathematics, or well-versed in art, or well-versed in writing, English, and they put them in schools where they are classes geared towards them."

Vermont's commissioner of education has his own idea of how to better serve the communities and families in the state without creating new buildings. The model is for clusters of six schools in an area to focus on different areas of special instruction, service learning and group activities. Students would travel to different schools based on their interests and career goals, according to Estill.

"Vermont can serve as a model for other states to follow," according to Estill.

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