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Summer 2013

Education Reform, Parent Style

Tremont School KidsTremont School students working on designs when SparkTruck visited the school

In one room, Sofia is cutting out pictures of Italian masks to put on a poster. Her plan is to make her own mask, too. Across the hall, Gus is playing chess with a classmate while other students are also doing their work — some on laptops, others huddled in small groups. Two girls are reading books while stretched out on big, blue beanbag chairs pushed underneath the huge windows that fill the room with winter light. It's the hour before lunch, and the students are working on their personal learning contracts.

The contracts have become the hallmark of a small new school in Massachusetts created not by a nonprofit network or a private foundation, but by an unlikely team: six parents who felt it was the only option for their soon-to-be middle schoolers.

When the idea first began percolating, in 2007, all of the families, including Janice Rand Vaughn, Ed.M.'94, and her husband, David Vaughn, had at least one elementary-aged child on an individualized education program (IEP). After trying various special education programs in the public schools in their towns, the three families had all landed at the same private elementary school just outside Boston that specialized in small classes and social-emotional learning. They loved the school, but, unfortunately, it ended after the fourth grade. What would happen when their kids reached middle school?

Jokingly at first, they talked about starting their own school. And then the conversation got serious.

"We said, why not build our dream school?" says Vaughn, who previously served on the founding board of a charter school in Boston. "This school could be anything we wanted it to be."

For a year, they visited other schools to see how they work, talked to educators, and read research. They considered going the charter school route, but decided there wouldn't be enough flexibility for what they wanted to try. So they spent more time raising money for a private school and eventually worked out a deal with a local Greek church to rent space. And they brought in Bill Wilmot, Ed.M.'06, former head of a charter school, to lead what would be called the Tremont School, which officially opened in September 2011 for grades five and six. The goal is to add a grade each year, through high school.

Although the school welcomes children with learning differences, the founders stress that this is not a special needs school.

"We were three families, each with one child with learning differences and one without," says Rand Vaughn, whose day job is at the Harvard Kennedy School and who, like the other founding family parents, volunteers at the school and is represented on the school's board of directors or related committees. "Our hope was to create a school that was inclusive and effective for a wide variety of kids, reflecting the reality of our own families, as well as the society at large."

There is also a razor-sharp focus on individualized attention and what it means to be part of a community — something from which all students would benefit.

"This is a place where kids are taken for who they are," she says. "That sounds trite, but it's not necessarily the norm for all kids. But being taken for who you are can be a miracle, for the kids and for the parents."

At Tremont, Wilmot says, differences don't set students apart from one another.

"Every kid needs help," he says. "We look at the challenges and strengths of every kid and ask, 'How do we use the social environment of the school to help?' How can we use this theme or that theme to support each child?"

One way they do this is by not focusing on standardized tests or a set curriculum that every student follows at the same time. There are no letter grades, and learning revolves around something called the Living Curriculum, which is heavily project-based and personalized for individual learning styles.

"The teachers are great about coming up with ideas, and we'll say, 'Does it pass the Liam test?'" Wilmot says, referring to one student. "We try to think of the polar opposites in the classroom and what will work for both of them while still being thoughtful of the broader goals."

Students spend five-week blocks focused on themes, such as elections or Europe, which are integrated into every subject. The unit on place included drawing maps using coordinates, looking at how geology defines political and cultural boundaries, and reading novels in which setting plays an important role.

And it all ties back to the personal learning contract, a one-page grid made by the teachers, outlining assignments and expectations for the week. Students carry their contracts with them throughout the day and take responsibility for making sure tasks get completed, whether at school or at home. One hope is that students will learn to manage their own studying, rather than waiting for teachers to tell them what to do. It also allows students to pick and choose what to do when. If a student focuses better on math in the morning, that's when she does math, even if other students are reviewing spelling words with a friend or doing independent reading.

This approach may seem unconventional, at least compared with most school settings, but Rand Vaughn stresses that the approach is, in fact, helping to create what many educators today say is critical: 21st-century learners.

"What are we looking for in 21st-century skills?" she asks and then lists some of the skills commonly touted: problem solving independently and in teams, being flexible and taking into consideration other perspectives, managing time, building self-discipline, using creativity. "That's happening here, in a natural setting. Everyone talks about education reform, and it's actually happening, right here, at the Tremont School."

Learn more about the school at www.tremontschool.org