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Real World, Real Learning

Josiah Phillips, right, works with his CBL mentor, Ian Downing. Courtesy photo.
Nitya Sharma is excited. The Montpelier High School senior has just learned she’ll be shadowing an oncologist at the UVM Medical Center, a rare opportunity for a high-school student who hopes to be pre-med next year. Sharma participates in Montpelier High School’s Community Based Learning program, known by almost everyone at the school as “CBL.” The program offers teenagers a chance to go out into the community to explore possible career choices. It’s not mandated, but about 75 percent of MHS students take part in CBL at some point in their high school career. 

It begins with a conversation. Students will sit down with a CBL advisor and talk about their interests. Medicine? Teaching? Business? “If they tell us, ‘I don’t know,’ we show them a menu of options,” says CBL advisor Sarah Loveless. Once a student has a goal in mind, even if it’s tentative, the staff reaches out to their list of community partners. “We have a ‘go to list’ and we search with that student in mind,” says Loveless. The student’s mentor might be a business person, medical worker, teacher, or one of many others willing to introduce a teenager to a possible career. 

Heather McLane, another CBL team member explains, “We have community partners who do this year after year and we thank them profusely for their help, but they’ll say, ‘Don’t thank me. I got a lot out of it, too.’” 

Ian Downing, owner of Montpelier’s Slopestyle Ski and Ride shop and a former CBL student who found his “dream job” through participation in the program back in 2003 said, “My older brother had done this and I thought it sounded like a very cool, real-world kind of thing. At the time I was interested in both boating and skiing. I worked at the Peter Glenn shop and found very quickly I loved being around skis and ski people. It felt good to know that I was trusted to leave school and go out to work in a business. I learned about the day-to-day part of the job and discovered a career I never even knew existed.” Ian now mentors his own CBL students, such as sophomore Josiah Phillips, who seems to feel equally at home in the ski shop. 

Phillips explains, “I like learning about running a business. You’re always busy. You learn about the products, how to figure out what to buy. You get to know how things work.”

Montpelier High School senior Abby Bigglestone had considered all kinds of future careers. She ultimately decided on education, but at first COVID-19 limited her options for involvement. 

“I interviewed a handful of teachers in virtual meetings, then I tutored a third-grade girl in Massachusetts through an online program. It was a great experience, but what really sparked my interest was working at the Capitol Kids After School program. I went on to a placement at the Turtle Island Children’s Center. Now I know I really want to teach, probably in kindergarten or first grade. I’m going to major in elementary education next year and I don’t think I would have concluded that without CBL.” 

Nitya Sharma was certain she wanted medicine when she entered high school, but signed up for CBL to learn more about what doctors do and why they chose this work. 

“I did some virtual interviews, one with a midwife and another with a medical student. I joined the Memory Project, a virtual version of a memory cafe designed to support patients with dementia and their caregivers. This year I got to volunteer at the People’s Health and Wellness Clinic in Barre, which was awesome. I learned about the work of general practitioners and especially how to communicate with patients. Since this is a clinic, I also learned about supporting patients who were struggling financially. I’m also interested in neuroscience and was able to meet with scientists at UVM who are doing a study on brain activity during menopause.”  

The CBL staff talk about the “transformative” effect of CBL. “It’s that experience of being in the driver’s seat of your own learning and facing real-life problems. We see so much growth,” says Loveless. “They learn from the experience of facing the challenges that come with the work and from meeting with advisors to reflect and to talk about it, “

One student, placed in a law office, “… came back super excited to tell me all she’d learned about ‘expungement law,’” McLane said. 

Depending on their assignment, CBL participants will spend about three to five hours per week in the community, usually during a time scheduled for CBL studies or, occasionally, after school hours. The CBL program seems to be strongly supported by Montpelier families, however, if any disgruntled taxpayer were to question the value of time spent away from the classroom, MHS students can respond.

“You’re not missing out on learning,” Sharma said. “You’re actually learning more.” 

As her classmate Bigglestone sees it, ”CBL prepares you for the real world and shows you how to be a professional. I’m very thankful for it.”