Spotlight Series – Valley New School

In a standards-obsessed system, some schools have shifted to teaching the process of learning. Some teachers actually see themselves as facilitators of learning rather than instructors who need to critique students into the mandated areas of Advanced, Proficient, Basic, and Minimal. I would like to tell you about one such school and a group of five teachers doing big things. Really really big things.

What if a senior in high school started a school in Haiti? What if a junior in high school entered an adult comic book competition and placed 2nd? What if one small school of 64 students logged more community service time than any other high school in a district with 15,000+ students? What if a team of middle school teachers had this idea: start a student directed Project-Based Learning (PBL) high school? If you don’t believe any of these questions above, then you need to take your cynicism and two feet and travel to Appleton, WI. Go downtown. The heart of downtown Appleton is College Avenue. Exit the Starbucks and look at the City Center Mall across the street. Now take your two feet, go into the mall, ride the escalator to the 2nd floor and take a left…but be prepared. You’ll feel something that may be foreign to you; especially, if you teach in a traditional school and you’re accustomed to the stark contrast of silence and chaos in the hallways. I described my first experience to Valley New School in depth on another site. The scary thing is that I continue to get the same feeling every time I approach VNS. Only Wrigley Field and The Kohl Center provide me with the same anticipatory excitement I get when I walk towards Valley New School.

I’ve been to Valley New School about a half dozen times over the last year and half. Each time I walk away with a new perspective on the teaching and learning that takes place inside of that unique school. I was fortunate enough to sit down with two teachers, David Debbink and Steve DeMay. Here’s the audio from my interview at  Valley New School. (The file is 16ish MB and may take a bit to load).

I’d like to take a moment and break down where VNS comes from. The Appleton Area School District has 16 charter schools. David and Steve both talk about the late Tom Scullen with great respect and admiration. I’ve heard the same type of praise stated about this man on several occasions. As a recently retired superintendent, my father has said multiple times, “Tom was superintendent of the year in Illinois and Wisconsin. That’s when you know you’re good.” To his credit, Superintendent Scullen was the first educational leader in the State of Wisconsin to establish a network of charter schools connected to one school district. In Appleton, Wisconsin, choice is a good thing. The more options for parents and students the better. This simply isn’t the case in most parts of Wisconsin. My wife and I live in Appleton. Our daughter just turned two, and in just a short time we’ll have a half dozen different public schools to choose for our little lady. We can match up the school that most suitably represents our daughters learning style. Last year, we went to the charter school fair and learned all about the various pedagogies and learning environments available. It was the vision of one man and his team to allow for 16 thriving schools to make it through start-up and into sustainability. In my opinion, the growth of district run charters in Appleton was not done in a laissez faire manner but in a very strategically purposeful way. I have read through their paperwork and protocol for starting up a charter school. They really have a clean and thorough system designed for opening up a new school. Sheboygan has followed Appleton’s lead. Other than Sheboygan, no other district in Wisconsin has taken the approach to creating new learning environments like Appleton. I think it’s very important to understand that Valley New School grew out of this environment. If you listen to the interview with David and Steve, I repeatedly tried to insinuate that VNS was grown out of the great ideas of a few hard working teachers. I was met repeatedly with the same response from David and Steve, the district has allowed us to do our job. The district has a philosophy that the teachers know the model they want to teach and will work very hard to execute that model. The district allowed us to set up in a space outside of a school. And on and on and on. I think that’s what brings on some of the Wrigley Field-esque mystique each time I walk into Valley New School. The learning is dynamite. The teaching is fantastic- teachers as co-facilitators of instruction is something I want to do with young adults. But the fact remains, there is no other district run high school in the state like Valley New School. I’ve been to outstanding independent run charter schools all over the country, but I have never been to another publicly run small school like Valley New School (Empire High is cool but they have 800+ students).

Four teachers at Wilson Middle School dabbled in teacher directed PBL. They thought, hey lets make this into a school. They traveled to Chicago and saw a very poor model that couldn’t possibly be replicated. They stumbled into Minnesota New Country School uninvited and fell in love. Those four teachers started a school that is now in its 8th year. The teachers are David Debbink, Steve DeMay, Nicole Luedtke, and Jennifer Plamann. These four teachers are just as wacky and extroverted as any other set of teachers you would expect to find in a high achieving school. What strikes me about this group is the balance. David is a Math teacher. Steve is a Science guy. Nicole is an English/Comm Arts (I think???), and Jennifer is an Art teacher.

These teachers have built an incredible learning environment. They teach the learning process. Students at VNS learn how to do research. If my son or daughter wanted to attend a tier I research school such as The University of Wisconsin-Madison, I would send them through Valley New School. These advisers accomplish this by facilitating student learning. They act as co-creators of learning instead of directors. In order for me to do the staff at Valley New School justice, this post would need to extend to 3000+ words. In my brief time in education, I’ve heard many people talk about the kids. I’m sometimes leery of educators who so frequently voice phrases espousing their dedication to children that their words sound like cliches. “It’s all about the kids.” Or, “It’s not about what I do, it’s about the kids I serve.” I heard a lot of those phrases from dissertationers and other eduwonk’s while I was on the conference circuit this past fall. I’d find myself sitting in a breakout session or listening to a keynote describe their findings and throw out cliche after cliche about what brought them to their work, why American schools suck so bad, or how large urban districts choke out the possibility of innovation. My impulsive judgementalistic thoughts would lurch towards when have you ever been in an awesome school and seen what people are currently doing? The school I would envision and currently still see in my mind is Valley New School.

I wish I had the writing skills to paint you a clearer picture of VNS. I wish this blog could emit some of the electricity to you that I feel when I walk in to that place and see adults talking with students about their passions. I wish you could see the Victorian dresses that line up the student display space. I wish you could see the music studio that sits right next to the storage closet that doubles as a tech ed shop. What I really like about VNS is this: it is clear that adults working in that school don’t initially respond with a direct “No!” Just by walking through that school, it’s obvious that spaces have been created out of need and in a “just in time” fashion. Passion directs their space.

I am grateful to Valley New School for being so open with their intellectual property. The link to the left of this text was incredibly helpful to me during the planning process of creating a new school. Before visiting that page on their website, I didn’t know who John Gatto was, I didn’t know who EdVisions was and I certainly had no idea how to organize the student-directed PBL process. Passion fuels passion. At Valley New School, the staff freely gives away what they have worked so hard to create. If you ever go, just get one of the advisers talking, before long, they’ll start talking about individual students and the amazing projects that have been created. That’s when you’ll realize, at Valley New School, it is all about the kids.

A big thank you to the students and teachers who make me feel at home every time I’ve been at your school. You are doing great things for students and for teachers.

Dave, “It’s caused us to become more human.”

Steve, “Everyday we have to make 50 little decisions that make a difference….it’s somewhat opened our eyes to the administrators we’ve been slamming all of these years.”

One other note…they do what they do and they do it well.

About Michael

Do Work!
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