To the Champlain Valley School District community:
We would like to share with you the great opportunity for personalized learning that is offered at Champlain Valley Union High School for our 12th graders. Graduation Challenge is considered by many to be the crowning achievement of students’ high school careers. We connected with Carly Rivard, CVU’s personalizaton coordinator and Adam Bunting, principal of CVU, to better understand what Grad Challenge is all about, and learn why this tradition has lasted for the past 24 years.
The best way to understand Grad Challenge is to view it as a capstone project that revolves around a personal interest, and requires students to work with a person in the field of their topic. In this way, students have an authentic learning experience. Beyond that, students are expected to write a paper on their learning process and to publicly present their topic to a panel of community members and faculty who score their presentation and ask a series of questions.
Students are given free rein in determining their topic, and there is as much variety as there are seniors. Examples of topics included: Winter Survival Skills in the Adirondack Mountains, Fish Species in the LaPlatte River, Life as a Police Officer, and Managing an Escape Room. Student interest and curiosity are at the heart of every topic.
One parent remarked: “Wow, we thought that Grad Challenge was a great idea in theory, but I think our son’s experience has been transformative. Through an experience that forced him to stretch beyond his comfort zone, he discovered his ability to lead others.”
According to Carley Rivard, Grad Challenge has become a right of passage for most students at CVU. “It is something that requires hard work and persistence in areas that may be new to a student, and is something every senior does to achieve the next level of status, in this case graduate,” she said.
While many students experience some level of dread, they often feel connected to each other by the relief and pride they experience afterwards.
Adam Bunting added that it is a hallmark of the process to have all members of the junior class be present during the event. The pride that the seniors exude is palpable and serves to inspire the juniors to embrace their right of passage yet to come. It is also customary to have many members of the public attend because “when people get to witness transformative learning, something internally lights up in all of us. In this way, a sense of community is created.”
Superintendent Elaine Pinckney told us: “Every Grad Challenge presentation I’ve attended over the years has been so inspiring. It’s wonderful to see the students’ passion in their work, their joy in sharing it with the public, and their obvious pride in their accomplishments. What has always struck me is the diversity of their interests and their absolute knowledge of where their passions lay.”
Principal Bunting was a part of the first class to experience Grad Challenge as a CVU senior back in 1994. He recalled the power of transcribing Ethan Allen’s letters and the awe of holding the actual documents in his hands. Back then, the purpose of Grad Challenge was to provide a common assessment around communication, writing and presentation skills. He noted that the purpose has evolved to meet students’ need for voice, choice and agency in their learning.
It now serves to provide an opportunity for students to connect with real people, in the real world, who are doing real work. Realizing the value of this sort of experience, Bunting hopes to provide more opportunities for students to pursue their interests and apply their learning in authentic ways. Bunting’s vision is supported by research which shows that students who have had practice applying their learning in authentic ways demonstrate increased levels of engagement in college and work.
So, what is up and coming at CVU to move this vision forward? Visual arts teacher Abbie Bowker and librarian Peter Langella, 2017-18 Rowland Foundation Fellows, have been working on that. Their fellowship has allowed them to work on creating an interest-based program at CVU that allows all students to practice skills, gain knowledge, and meet proficiencies through regularly-scheduled experiences of their choosing. They call this program RISE (Reflective Interest-based Student Experiences). More about their work and their proposed ideas for CVU online at rowlandcvu.weebly.com, or contacting them directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
The CVSD Board of Directors:
Lynne Jaunich, chair, Charlotte; Colleen MacKinnon, vice chair, Hinesburg; Kelly Bowen, clerk, St. George; Jeff Martin, assistant clerk, Charlotte; Josilyn Adams, Erin Brady, Kevin Mara, Brendan McMahon, from Williston; Russ Caffry, Dave Connery, Barbra Marden, Shelburne; Ray Mainer, Hinesburg.