Thursday October 4, 2012

DAWSON RASPUZZI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- The Education Committee for Mount Anthony Union School District received a positive report about the high school's 15-minute seminar advisory period from someone who may be in the best position to speak about its success -- a student.

The short period that falls between blocks at the high school began last school year as a way for students across grades to build relationships with each other and staff who lead the daily sessions.

According to an open response survey given to all students at the end of last school year, the advisory periods have met those expectations.

The first question asked students what they believed worked well in the seminar groups.

"Interesting perspectives"

"The number one response we received from that was relationships with other students, which was the purpose of seminar. You weren't placed in a tracking system ... you were placed with (students with) a wide range of all grade levels and all abilities. So it gave you interesting perspectives when discussing different issues as the year progressed," said Griffin Thomas, the student representative on the school board who is also co-chairman of the Education Committee. "The second most popular response was being with the same teacher and building a relationship with that teacher."

Thomas said personally he was able to establish a trust with students in his seminar group easier than in most classes, in which students do not get to know each other as well. Thomas also said many students find it difficult to form bonds with teachers but he saw through seminar more students were able the bridge the gap that sometimes exists between students and staff. "I think this really provided students with time to build a bond with teachers they otherwise wouldn't have a chance to," he said.

Principal Sue Maguire shared a story in which a student standing alone in the courtyard was passed by a group of students who said "hi" as they cross paths. The student standing by himself then turned to an administrator and said he knew the other students from seminar, and if it weren't for seminar the other students would not have said hello.

All teachers as well as guidance counselors, paraprofessionals and some other members of the staff lead seminars. The average seminar has about a dozen students from grades 9 through 11, and two faculty members. Students stay in the same seminar class each year until they become seniors, at which time they are grouped in a senior seminar that has a greater focus on life after high school.

The seminars for students in grades 9 through 11 focus on themes of social support, career and college readiness and academics, but current events and other issues also get discussed when they are on the minds of students.

"Each year you get new freshmen in and it's like an orientation that helps with a lot of students' questions (such as) which stairway to use, which lunch line to go in," Thomas said.

Having a mix of grades was beneficial for all students, Thomas said, but particularly the younger ones.

"As a junior last year I was able to talk to them about different things I wish I could have done when I was a freshman, be it clubs, or activities that would have looked good for colleges," Thomas said.

Seminar also includes discussions with juniors regarding college, which Thomas said is helpful for the younger students to hear so they may begin thinking about their own futures.

The inclusion of the daily seminar periods was a recommendation during the New England Association of Schools and Colleges accreditation process that the school completed last year. The change was met with minor resistance from the school board and community because in order to incorporate the 15-minute period the time had to be shaved off of academic time. To meet the change, 90-minute long classes were reduced to 85 minutes.

The change was also criticized by students when it began.

"There was a bit of a backlash at the beginning of last year, as there is with anything new, but I think it has tempered off," Thomas said.

Another survey question asked what students would change. The top answer was more autonomy regarding topics and the class structures. The last question was what could be changed to improve seminars, which students answered with more fun activities and food.

Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at draspuzzi@benningtonbanner.com or follow on Twitter @DawsonRaspuzzi