Helping Vermont Students Take ‘Alternate Routes’

NORTHFIELD, Vt. -- Just steps away from Northfield High School sits a modest ranch-style house. It’s the home of Northfield High School’s STAR program where Luke Foley, who was named the 2014 Teacher of the Year by the Vermont Agency of Education, is helping local students who struggle in a traditional classroom setting.

“I was having a hard time at school,” said Cody Prior, 18, a recent graduate from Northfield High School. “I never did my homework. I could never follow through with that. I was very forgetful and getting really poor grades. This was kind of my last chance.”

“I came here,” Cody said of the STAR program. “It just feels like one big family.” At the STAR program Cody excelled. He helped lead efforts to build an outdoor classroom, including securing a $5,000 grant from Lowe’s. “That was actually one of the most exciting times I ever had in school,” he said of winning the grant.

The STAR program, which stands for “students taking alternate routes,” is an alternative program for high school students in Northfield, Vermont who struggle in a traditional classroom setting.  Northfield High School’s website describes the program as an “experimental learning center.”

Students who participate in the STAR program, Foley said, ultimately perform better in their traditional high school classes. Attendance improves, grades rise and behavior problems fall dramatically.  Foley explains the results this way: “They see the relevance and purpose of their education … They are ready to do what’s necessary.”

Kelsea Bourne, 18, who also graduated from Northfield Middle High School this year, said she had trouble in math and in following through to make sure her homework was complete.  The STAR program worked for her, as well. Kelsea had significant trouble throughout her freshmen year, Foley said, adding she is now an honor roll student.

“It works better because it’s not traditional. It’s hands on.  We incorporate the academics with real-life skills,” said Kelsea, who has been working on a garden and a greenhouse project through the STAR program.  The greenhouse, she said, will supply hundreds of pounds of tomatoes, basil, peas, and green beans for the school cafeteria each year.

This past year, Foley taught one block of students, including Cody and Kelsea, in the morning.  In the afternoon, a broader group of students from the high school took classes through the STAR program. 

Foley’s most recent class embarked on developing four separate projects; each included writing grant proposals.  The projects: a 5k-trail system near the high school, an “outdoor classroom,” a greenhouse and obtaining funds to buy outdoor gear.

“When you think about a traditional setting, oftentimes kids will go through a day and they’ll have classes that don’t really connect,” Foley said. “We look to create an integrated experience where students have an opportunity to use all of those skills to take on projects that matter to them -- and to the community as well.”