ST. ALBANS CITY — Vermont’s first Secretary of Education, Rebecca Holcombe, was at the St. Albans City School on Friday to learn about how students are taking the lead in creating an outdoor classroom and to discuss how schools can teach and measure the types of skills that cannot easily be scored on a test.

“What we care about for kids … is much broader than the subjects we test,” said Holcombe. “We don’t feel the test scores are an adequate assessment of what schools are doing.”

Under the school’s stewardship program, each learning community has taken on the task of developing a portion of the outdoor classroom. Teams must decide upon their mission, goals and the process for achieving those goals.

Team projects

The projects, which are all multi-year efforts, include creating a maple sugaring program, a rain garden to treat runoff from the bus turnaround, a garden for monarch butterflies, a Christmas tree farm, and a sunflower garden.

Students must present their plans to a land committee, made up of students and adults that has the final say on where projects will be located on school grounds.

Team Renaissance students have taken on the task of developing on-site composting. Students explained to Holcombe alternative designs they had considered for the site and why they had chosen an l-shaped design that allowed for easier turning of the compost.

They’ve raised $3,000 for the project so far from grants.

Asked about what they’ve learned, the students mentioned both the science involved in understanding decomposition and the value of designing something that can help the school overall.

Students from the learning communities must present their projects for final approval to a land committee that includes students and adults. The land committee will decide which projects will be located where.

At every regular meeting, the school board hears presentations from students, as well.

In order to speak in front of an audience and answer questions, “you have to know what you’re talking about,” a student explained to Holcombe.

Another group of students presented its work on an electric car charging station for the school. The project was prompted by a teacher’s purchase of such a vehicle and the acknowledgment that more such vehicles are bound to be sold.

In addition to researching possible designs and locations, the amount of energy needed, and the operations of an electric car itself, students surveyed adults in the school to determine if the availability of a charger would make them more likely to purchase an electric car.

The students are now going to petition the Agency of Transportation for an electric car charger.

Holcombe also met with students who had taken part in Invention Convention, including a student who had invented a system for pulling oneself up a sledding hill along a rope on pulleys. Teachers intend to test the invention on the school’s sledding hill.

Another group of young inventors explained the advantages of working together on an invention. “Everybody has a different idea,” said one of the students. They agreed their invention, the Ski Carrier 5000, was better because of their collaboration.

Students from Voyagers, a grade four through six team, is examining whether to add a walkway or an observation platform to a wetland on the school’s land.

The wetland needs to be protected in order to protect the plants and animals that live within it, explained fourth grader Will Lagrow. Without them “it would just be an area with water in it.”

Sixth grader David Weinstein explained that wetlands purify water and collect stormwater. “It acts like a sponge. It soaks up water from heavy rainfall,” he said.

“Everything we do here is student-led or student involved,” said Jared, an eighth grader in Dynamic Design.

Dynamic Design is in charge of the school’s gardens and is currently raising seedlings in conjunction with a kindergarten classroom. Students are also designing walking trails through forested lands owned by the school and are talking about building a solar oven later in the year.

At the seventh and eighth grade level students are presented with the state standards in social studies and science and then work with their teachers to design units to meet the standards.

Asked about that approach, Jared said, “I find that with more hands on activities it’s better than learning out of a book and filling in bubbles.”

Team USA students are working with Alderman Jeff Young on a fairy garden for Taylor Park and a sensory garden for the school. The sensory garden is primarily intended for use by students with autism, but will double as an outdoor classroom, explained Lana, an eighth grader.

Team USA students are also designing a portable ropes course for the school.

Problem solving

Asked what sets city school students apart, the students from Team USA spoke of working in the community, the ability to make decision and think on their feet.

Speaking with administrators and school board president Jim Farr, Holcombe said that being able to solve problems and communicate with an audience “are critical skills that aren’t captured in test scores.”

“These test scores are telling a story, but it may not capture the depth of what you’re doing,” she said to principal Joan Cavallo.

Holcombe’s agency is interested in working with schools to develop alternative methods for evaluating schools that will capture the school’s efforts to help students develop those skills not captured on tests.

Real world problem solving, such as city school’s stewardship projects, can be especially valuable for engaging boys from low-income families, suggested Holcombe. That is the demographic group who are struggling the most in schools across the state.

The Agency of Education also has no method for measuring school climate currently, yet the  schools which are making progress are those which have first improved school climate, according to Holcombe. Schools that have adopted the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) have seen reductions in both special education and discipline referrals, she said, laying the foundation for later work.

City School was named an exemplar school for its implementation of PBIS.