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Action Plan: Middle Schoolers on the Move

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Middle schoolers and brothers Quinn (left) and Braydon Cosgrove help Pack the Pantry workers at the Price Chopper in Barre in November 2023. Photo by Dawn Poitras.
About ten years ago, while reviewing a survey filled out by students at Barre City’s Middle School, Dawn Poitras, Barre schools assistance professional, discovered a troubling fact. Most of the middle schoolers believed they were of little value to their community and, in fact, felt little connection to it. Unlike their Vermont great grandparents, who may have milked the cows before heading to school, these middle schoolers didn’t seem to feel needed by their families or anyone else.

Poitras knows that a sense of self worth can be a critical factor when it comes to avoiding addiction and other risky behaviors. As a response, she established Students on the Move (SOTM), a program for middle schoolers that fosters student activism. When describing the organization, Poitras emphasizes that the ideas and the work involved come from the kids themselves. 

“I’m just their secretary,” she says.

From the beginning, students were encouraged to see themselves as agents of change, capable of making things better in their school and in their community. Poitras urges them to focus on issues they care deeply about. It could be the environment, homelessness, hunger, or caring for the grounds of their school. They might work in teams or individually; however, to be a member of Students on the Move, they must sign a contract promising to avoid problematic behaviors (like experimenting with cigarettes as one example). When an idea surfaces, they’re invited to share their thoughts with Poitras. 

One of the first initiatives was May Day, introduced in 2016 when students in the fifth through sixth grades devoted an entire day to community service. 

“May Day is a time when we can get out into the community, help clean up, give back, and make it a better place to live for everybody,” said then-eighth grader and student organizer Chloe Lamphere.

Now a tradition, May Day has featured activities from making blankets for residents of the Good Samaritan Haven to cleaning up the city playground. One industrious group used scraps of material from the Vermont Flannel Company to sew catnip filled toys for lucky cats at the Humane Society. 

According to an article in the Times Argus (Nov. 1, 2018) middle schooler Jake Touchette saw a post on social media that summer which said: “Everyone in Vermont has autism.” The slur angered him At the time, he was just beginning seventh grade and met with Poitras on that first day of school, talking of ways to turn his negative feelings into positive action. How could he send the message that while all Vermonters were not autistic, they didn’t use the term as an insult.

Touchette planned a buffet brunch, served to the community just before the annual Veteran’s Day parade that November. He received help from Barre’s then-Food Service Director, Craig Locarno. Profits would benefit The Imagination Station, run by Washington County Mental Health and open to all individuals on the autism spectrum. 

Since those early days, SOTM members have created many projects that reflect their hopes and passions. For example, they’ve supported Wounded Warriors, ensured that police dogs have vests, designed a Pass the Smile activity and, through their involvement in “Getting to the Y,” they’ve even helped adults to become better at goal setting.

Recently, eighth grader Phalyn Larrabee accepted a challenge from the Barre Middle School leadership team. That group wanted to come up with a program that would feature Students of the Week and Staff Members of the Week.

According to Phalyn, “They (the team) wanted student input … so students and staff could get recognized for being nice, kind and … being a good citizen in our school community.” 

Phalyn notes that she didn’t do all of the work herself. “Other students who were not part of SOTM and SOTM members joined in helping to come up with an action plan … It was presented to the leadership team and action steps from the plan were put in place. … I felt relieved and successful (when it was all done) because students were being recognized for the work they did.”

 Poitras loves to talk about all these students have accomplished, but her proudest moments don’t necessarily occur at the most exciting events. Instead, she reminisces about the times “When I see the lightbulb go off in a kid’s head … when they realize they’re valuable … and what they have to say is important.”

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