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The Future's In Flux. An Opportunity For More Equity In Vermont's Schools?

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The K-12 education system could soon be in line for tens of millions of dollars from the federal COVID relief funds allocated to Vermont. And along with that influx of one-time money, some advocates want to see fundamental changes in the education system.

One such group is Voices for Vermont’s Children, which is pushing for greater equity in education, especially for students with learning disabilities, lower-income students and students of color.

Infinite Culcleasure is an organizer and policy associate with Voices for Vermont’s Children. He also ran for mayor of Burlington in 2018. He said as schools prepare for the fall, he wants to see greater changes to the education system.

VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with Infinite Culcleasure. Their conversation is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Infinite Culcleasure: Right now, there are no fundamental changes to our approach. So what we're concerned about is going back to normal, where we're at. We're concerned about going back to business as usual, as opposed to using this opportunity to have a transformative period, where we look at the pie and decide to divide it a little differently.

Henry Epp: So how would you see the distribution of this significant amount of federal money changing the way that education is delivered, in your view, in a more equitable way?

I think I would turn to how we teach children how to read and write. You know, those are very basic skill sets that are necessary for all people to function productively in society.

The Agency of Education just released the SBAC results from last year. And it just doesn't look good. And the most alarming part of the recent results from the Vermont SBAC exams is the reduced performances among third graders.

And so it only gets worse from here on out, because of the minimal reading instruction they receive, will disappear from the regular classroom, regular education, classroom setting. You know, this spring, we have no idea what's happening this summer. For most people, nothing. And the return in the fall.

More from VPR: Vermont Schools To Reopen In The Fall, But Class Won't Look The Same

Your organization, Voices for Vermont's Children, put out a statement recently calling for racial justice in the wake of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. And the statement was about Vermont and the United States in a general sense. But I'm curious what specifically you think greater racial justice would look like in Vermont schools?

That's a great question, because in Vermont, where we have African Americans that make up, oh, less than 2% of the population. I think we have a great opportunity to model for the rest of the country what that might look like. I really would start at the personalized learning level.

And understanding that this way that we've been teaching kids in general, but in particular black and brown kids and indigenous young folks, they're not able to connect with who they are, and are being subject to a worldview that just isn't theirs.

I also happen to be an appointee on the Ethnic Studies and Social Equity working groupfor the state of Vermont. And so there'll also be some work, recommendations coming out that we have some high hopes for, which schools can build curriculums around.

But for now, I think very fundamentally we can look at students of color and really individualize and understand that they are being subject to a worldview that they cannot relate to.

Just finally, in terms of concrete steps in that way, do you think – I mean, is the answer better training for educators in Vermont? Are there other concrete steps there?

I mean, we all need better training. We’re all lifelong learners. Particularly in the classroom, I think there are three different authorities, right? There's the teacher, there's the text and there's the student. And so one really concrete step is to start there, is to realize that young people are one of the authorities in the classroom and that they should be leading.

One of the most dramatic shifts in Vermont's journey in making education more equitable was Act 60, right? The Equal Educational Opportunity Act, where we started to fund schools much differently. There had to be a lawsuit in order for us to get to that place. And so I just wonder, you know, is that what it's going to take in order for us to make dramatic shifts in how we eliminate illiteracy?

So very concrete step towards eliminating illiteracy. We can start there.

Amy is an award winning journalist who has worked in print and radio in Vermont since 1991. Her first job in professional radio was at WVMX in Stowe, where she worked as News Director and co-host of The Morning Show. She was a VPR contributor from 2006 to 2020.
Henry worked for Vermont Public as a reporter from 2017 to 2023.
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