There’s something about Pomp and Circumstance that always seems to bring a tear to my eye. And there it was again last Saturday, at the first-ever graduation at the Vermilion Country Charter School, in Tower.
With only six seniors in the school’s first year, it was a small and personal ceremony. Pam Webster, an Episcopal minister who lives in Ely, offered the keynote and she had spent time with each of the graduates and offered specific hopes and a few predictions for each of them.
As usual, parents and relatives had come from far and wide to be there, and there was all the attendant emotion we expect as we mark the passage of young people into the world of adulthood. I’m sure most all of us can still remember that day and the sense of accomplishment and possibility that always comes upon reaching a major life milestone.
Those same emotions were on hand for many of us who helped create this new school, for it was a milestone for us as well. After three years of enormous effort, we found ourselves one year ago with the approval and the funding to open the school. Yet little did we know that the hard work was just beginning. As we surveyed all that we had to accomplish to get the doors open by September, it seemed incredible. It’s easy to think about schools as simply focused on the educational mission. And while that is certainly central, there are so many more pieces to the puzzle, from transporting students, to feeding students, and to housing them in a safe environment. Then, you have to figure out how to pay for it all, particularly in the first year when upfront costs are high and some key sources of funding aren’t yet available. And we had to create it all from scratch, in three short months.
But thanks to the long, hard work of innumerable volunteers, extraordinary support from the city of Tower, and to a group of exceptionally dedicated teachers and staff, the school opened on schedule, and the rest is history.
We had been warned by everyone with charter school experience that the first year would be the biggest challenge of our lives. “Absolute hell,” was how many charter school officials we talked to described their first year. We heard from one school director whose school had burned down in the first year, yet their team persevered and their school is highly successful today. By comparison, our challenges were pretty run-of-the-mill.
Because we were introducing a new style of education, known as project-based learning, students, parents, and teachers, all needed time to fully appreciate the differences from what they had known before. Some parents questioned whether their kids were actually learning enough, because they weren’t bringing home worksheets to fill out on a nightly basis. Unfortunately, in too many schools, academic “rigor” is measured by the number of worksheets students are supposed to complete, and that’s a disservice.
I probably filled out hundreds of worksheets in my grade school days, but I don’t remember a single one of them. I do, however, remember the real experiences that I had— the field trips to interesting places, and the research project that I designed, conducted, and reported on for a project-based biology course I took as a senior.
The students at Vermilion Country learned in those same ways, and did lots of their learning by getting out of the school and into the real world. Most students went on dozens of field trips during the course of the year, including at least one that went out-of-state. In the future, the school will be expanding on those opportunities.
The first year of any new charter school is always tenuous financially because, in most cases, the school’s start without any budget reserve. Through good financial discipline, however, Vermilion Country will finish the year in the black and next year’s budget includes a substantial reserve fund, thanks to some significant funding sources that don’t kick in until the second year of operation.
The school’s board, teachers, and staff, have learned an enormous amount over the past year, and looking ahead to this fall, the school will start the year with additional staff, additional educational resources, and a much more comfortable financial position. The school will also begin the year with a very comfortable student enrollment.
It’s sometimes easy to lose perspective in any major undertaking and starting a school certainly qualifies as such. But sometimes you experience a moment that brings it all back to the mission, and that happened just a couple weeks ago when one of the Vermilion Country seniors, a young woman from Ely, came into the office on an errand. One of our employees, who knew the girl, started talking to her about her experience at the school— and what I heard made the four years of effort all worth it. Her explanation was articulate, exciting, and inspirational. My only wish was that I had captured it all on video, because we couldn’t have written a better commercial for the school, or project-based learning.
There was a lot of pride in the room last Saturday as the hundred or so guests at the school watched the six graduates, including that Ely senior, receive their diplomas. The students themselves had taken on a challenge as well, to learn in a new way in their final year in high school. They took it on, and never looked back. What better lesson is there in life.