by Nathan Grutchfield
MONTPELIER — In his first year as principal of Montpelier High School, a significant part of Mike McRaith’s job has been to implement massive new state-required changes. However, an equally important goal of McRaith’s is the establishment of an environment reflecting his own personal belief system. The Bridge interviewed McRaith and learned much about the man’s philosophy, which includes kindness, sustainability and compassion.
Nathan Grutchfield: Now that your first calendar year at MHS is over, what have been your biggest successes and challenges as principal?
Mike McRaith: I feel like I’m starting to connect with the kids, which is really important to me. I want to know the kids and to be able to find out what’s important to them. I want to build student leadership as well as faculty leadership. We have a Principal Advisory Team, which has eight students, two from each grade level. We meet once or twice a month, sometimes even more. I wanted to get that off the ground. It didn’t exist before, but I feel that it is functioning well currently. We have a leadership team amongst the faculty that meets regularly, and that system is going well. I feel that capitalizing on the resources that are here has been a success.
A challenge for me is the expectation or opportunities in the state for the class of 2020, (including) proficiency-based learning, proficiency-based graduation and personalized learning plans. Those things are potentially big shifts in education, so those challenges take up a lot of my thinking and time to make sure we get that right for our students and our community.
Grutchfield: Can you tell us more about these shifts in education, and what the reaction has been at the school?
McRaith: There are at least two major shifts that all secondary schools in Vermont are going through. One is called EQS, or the Educational Quality Standards for the State of Vermont. The EQS program does a lot of things for setting the expectations for schools. One thing is that it requires high schools, starting with the class of 2020, to have proficiency-based graduation and move away from a credit-based system.
There is also Act 77, the Flexible Pathways Law, which is sometimes referred to as the personalized learning plan law. It’s about ensuring that all high schoolers in the state have opportunities for many different paths to graduation, including, here in Montpelier, and the gold standard in my opinion, community-based learning. It also goes along with the requirement that all seventh and ninth graders have a personalized learning plan. Many of the students are coming from our middle school with a very rich experience in personalized learning plans. Some of the teachers there do presentations on personalized learning around the state every year and are probably the state’s leaders in personalized learning.
Here at the high school, we put into place an outline for personalized learning plans for all ninth and tenth graders. Over the next few years, the (PLP) approach will apply to all students, grades seven through 12. The high school has a history of personalized learning. They had personalized learning plans around 15 years ago, but the approach faded into the background. So the reaction has been mostly positive, but there have been some who say “We’ve tried this.”
The students really want to know why we’re doing this. They want to make sure it’s relevant and it’s not an add-on. The thing that I’ve said a lot is, “We want to make sure this is part of your authentic experience and that this is part of your classes, not an add-on.” There’s room for growth on that issue, but it’s a process.
Grutchfield: In terms of giving back to community members who aren’t directly affiliated with the students, how would you assess the school?
McRaith: A couple of things come to mind. One, I’m not kidding when I say that our community-based learning program is a gold standard. The more time I spend here, the more I’m impressed by it. It’s incredible. Almost all of our students will have a community-based learning experience by the time they graduate. What makes that possible is excellent staff members. They are the founders of our community-based learning program. But we also have a receptive community. I think the Montpelier community recognizes its contribution to our students’ learning. People take it seriously and do a good job with it. We have all these great placements, and that’s a huge part of outreach with the community. Another thing that we have done is we’ve lined the Bailey Street Bridge on Veterans’ Day, which the VFW really appreciates. There’s also the showcase of our students’ talents and skills. We have excellent play productions. If somebody wants to come see a sports game, they’re certainly welcome to do so. We did a coding event, during code week, when our computer science class opened its doors to the public so the public could see the programs that the students had been learning and also learn to code if they wanted. The coding was taught by the kids, kids who are part of the workforce in town. There’s all kinds of stuff like that.
It’s a small school, around 300 students, with increasing enrollment, but our kids do so much. Maybe if I’d seen it from the outside, I might think it’s a pretty standard high school experience, but it’s not.
Grutchfield: Overall, in the next year, what are your major goals?
McRaith: For me, to continue to have a high-quality, rigorous experience for students that is proficiency-based and that is increasingly personalized, and to make sure those flexible pathways are very clear and available to students. We want to continue to build community into our school experience, as well as sustainability. We mean sustainability in a lot of ways, but primarily in the environmental sense.
If somebody stops me on the street and asks me what my priorities are, my number one priority is always that this school is a place of respect and kindness between students and between adults and students. That is my number one goal, that we continue to foster that. I feel like we’ve taken a lot of good steps this year. For example, we coined the (Twitter) hashtag #bekindMHS. We had our first ever Kindness Week. I’ve also asked the faculty to do a little deeper reading on kindness, about how it can be a real challenge, but that it can build a community. I also (electronically) shared that with the students as well, if they wanted to read that article. So that’s the long version of saying that putting kindness and optimism at the forefront of our minds is a top priority for me.
Grutchfield: As a general question, what does kindness look like to you?
McRaith: When you have power, rather than using that power for your own gain or to make someone else feel small, you use that power to make someone feel at ease or lift them up and help them to be their best selves. In a high school, the examples of that are usually found in the social power between students. If someone is a senior and perceived to have a lot of popularity, they could use that power to make other people feel small and unimportant or they could use that power to say, “You belong here.” That goes for the adults too, (who) have positional power. They can use that positional power to empower students, to help kids feel they belong and be capable learners. To me kindness is when you have the opportunity to exercise power in a compassionate way.
Important Terms Explained:
EQS: Educational Quality Standards. Rules that the state follows regarding the effectiveness and fairness of educational opportunities.
Proficiency-based graduation: Graduation that is reached through the demonstration of mastery of required skills and knowledges.
Credit-based graduation: Graduation reached through attainment of course credits earned by participation in a range of required courses.
PLP: Personalized Learning Plan. A website that is produced by students and used as a tool for education and success that suits the student.
CBL: Community-based learning. An educational approach that aims to connect students with profound learning experiences in a community rather than inside the classroom or school.