PLAINFIELD — As I came through the door and entered the Haybarn Theater at Goddard College on February 21, I could feel and hear a buzz of youthful excitement.
Inside the Haybarn was a near capacity crowd of students, parents, mentors and friends. Music was in the air and young people were dancing, talking, laughing; letting off steam. This was no ordinary buzz. It was something like an eruption of joy.
What I was witnessing on that Sunday afternoon was the final hour of a 48-hour, “digging deep” Winter Weekend of learning organized by the Governor’s Institutes of Vermont as students took to the Haybarn stage to dramatize and explain what they had learned.
The 82 students from more than 50 high schools across Vermont had come together at Goddard College to work in small groups with peers and with the help of teacher-mentors to pursue a subject they were passionate about in one of five learning strands.
One strand was an immersion study and discussion of global issues. A second strand was an in-depth study of human genetic wiring. A third strand was a theater master class with the goal of developing believable dramatic characters. A fourth strand was a workshop in writing fiction beginning with the two-word prompt, “I remember.” The fifth strand was a chance to come to grips with computer hacking and threats to cyber security.
In a phone conversation a day or two after the Winter Weekend, I talked with Karen Taylor-Mitchell, executive director of the Governor’s Institutes of Vermont and she reflected on the early history of what began as the Governor’s Institute for the Arts.
According to Taylor-Mitchell, a conceptual idea for what soon became the Governor’s Institute for the Arts was first discussed in 1982. Then in 1983 the first Institute for the Arts was launched. Back then, some of the early people involved were Vermont Arts Council executive director Ellen Lovell, Education Commissioner Steven Kaagan and Speaker of the Vermont House Stephan Morse. Deeply involved also was Christine Graham, a published writer and fundraising expert who became the institute’s founding director.
Talking about what led to that first institute, Taylor-Mitchell said, “The arts institute grew out of the idea that young artists in Vermont schools weren’t getting sufficient exposure to artistic media, techniques and other artists. Then-Governor Richard Snelling recognized that this model had been successfully tested in other rural states, where short, intensive residential workshops called Governor’s Schools were expanding the learning resources available to students in every school, and he gave it his official backing.
The institute was an immediate hit, “There was an incredible thirst for something like this,” Taylor-Mitchell explained. Students with a passion for the arts — and these arts included music, visual art, installation art, theater, dance, media arts, all kinds of arts — were feeling what Taylor-Mitchell described as “a powerful exhilaration that comes from immersing oneself in what one loves and learning while surrounded by other people who love it just as much.”
As the word got out, people began saying, “We need more of these institutes in science and world culture.” And as time went on other institute subjects were added.
Among other offerings — this coming summer there will be a one-week institute at the University of Vermont on “environmental science and technology.” Students will be collecting pollution data from local communities using professional grade laboratory and field instrumentation. Then they’ll be asking such questions as these: “What’s in our air, water, soil and what are the impacts for public and environmental health?” Then with the help of peers and experts, they will present their data and offer their proposals and recommendations. Again, this summer, students at a weeklong “mathematical sciences” institute will work with “renowned mathematicians and scientists to take on “world-class mathematical challenges.”
Speaking about her own high school experience, Taylor-Mitchell said, “I attended high school in a very large public school system in Clearwater, Florida. There was a bounty of educational resources and the greatest educational peril kids faced was getting lost in the crowd.
“But the educational danger Vermont kids face is the lack of that breadth of resources. Many don’t have the advanced classes, the peer groups, the wide array of teaching styles and personalities to connect with. Almost half the kids at Governor’s Institutes come from towns smaller than my high school. It’s easy to get pigeonholed and feel isolated. What floored me most when I first got to Governor’s Institutes of Vermont six years ago was the letters from teens who have experienced an Institute program. Over and over again, they were saying the same thing. ‘I found my people. I found my tribe. I see a world where what I care about is important. I’m not alone.’”
“We have a culture,” Taylor-Michell said, “that teaches teenagers that it’s not cool to learn. But when kids come together, when they’re pursuing things they care about, with student peers and mentors who share that same enthusiasm and commitment, great things can happen. Students discover that it’s OK to bring their math to breakfast at 7:30 a.m. It’s okay to develop a deep interest and curiosity about math or science or computers or literature or anything else,” said Taylor-Mitchell. “School can be enough when somebody is good at math. But what about students with a deeper interest. Governor’s Institutes of Vermont is for someone who’s fascinated by those things.”
Another key element of the program is spending a week or two away from home in a college environment. As Taylor-Mitchell said, “They get a taste of dorm life. We’re an operating learning community. Everyone is learning together.”
Toward the end of our phone conversation, Taylor-Mitchell spoke about what she wants to achieve right now at the Governor’s Institutes. “Improving access to opportunity is GIV’s entire reason for being and we want to continue to make big strides to removing barriers for all Vermont students hungry for these kinds of opportunities.”
Taylor-Mitchell discussed the Institute’s sliding tuition scale that makes it possible to enroll Vermont students from every income level. “Each year,” she said, “about 20 percent of our students have family incomes of $25,000 or less.” She believes that no student should be denied an Institute experience because of where they live, how much their parents make, or their gender or racial identity.
These convictions are spurring the current organizational drive to increase the number of GIV students that it serves. Last year the program is reached more than 500 teens from every high school in the state. “This year,” Taylor-Mitchell said, “we want to serve 630 young people. We know the demand is there. So we decided to put the pedal to the metal and reach as many students as we can. This has allowed us to keep adding new institute subjects, a biomedical and computer hacking institute this winter and an astronomy and entrepreneurship institute this summer. These institutes will give Vermont teens an edge in preparing for college and careers in the emerging economy.
“We never turn anyone away because of money,” said Taylor-Mitchell. “Never.” “We’re trying to get the word out about it.”
“It’s proven that Governor’s Institutes for Vermont changes young people’s lives, Taylor-Mitchell said. “We hear those words from alumni and their parents on an almost daily basis. Don’t we have a responsibility to bring such a powerful tool to as many students as possible?”