Planting the seeds of a new reputation

From left, English teacher Danielle Fletcher and senior Tamara Nash discuss education within the atmosphere of the Project Vine program on March 6. —Ali Barlett

By Mackenzie Condon

The alternative education program provides a valuable education experience for students and parents who need a more personalized teaching approach. Core academic classes are taught everyday for a shorter length than the standard 85-minute of most other classes. Shorter class periods, smaller class size, hands-on learning, and value placed on inquiry make the learning experience fitting for students with vastly ranging backgrounds. Students join the program on a voluntary basis. They can be recommended by teachers and guidance counselors, but it is the students and their parents who make the ultimate decision to make the switch.

The program places value on changing up the learning methods throughout the year. Anna Cotton, chair and science teacher in the Alternative Education department–rebranded recently as Project Vine–said, “I constantly learn over and over again that things go well when I have a good balance of doing hands-on activities and more traditional lectures to explain and practice problems.” In addition to the different in-classroom learning approaches, the students have also taken their learning outside of the walls of the school. The students have visited the Harvard Museum of Natural History, Camp Sassafras, and have taken numerous trips to Felix Neck Wild Sanctuary throughout the year.

Since the program’s start-up in 2012, Ms. Cotton has become well aware of stigmas that the program is branded with by some of the programs student’s peers. She said, “The students tell me that people think our program is easier and the kids don’t have to do work.” With experience teaching a mainstream physics class a few years ago, she expressed the falsity of this conception for the small learning environment. She said, “It’s hard to get away with anything in a small class, and we have an expectation for students to be active learners.”

Ms. Cotton expressed that at times there are students who have been recommended by guidance counselors or teachers but want nothing to do with joining because they assume it means that they are a bad student, not smart, or a kid who gets in trouble.

Junior Annie Bettencourt has been in the program since her freshman year in high school. “I vividly remember someone telling me ‘Don’t sell yourself short’ when I told them I was going to enter high school in the alternative education program,” she said. “That really made me take a step back and think about what I was getting myself into. I talked to people who encouraged me to join and told me that those misconceptions are always there and that people will speak negatively when they often know nothing about what the program is about. Luckily, I joined the program.”

The mindset of high school students is no mystery to Ms. Cotton who believes the value that high school students often put on not standing out could be to blame for some students’ reluctance to join the program. She said, “I know in high school it’s hard to do anything different, so I imagine the perception is that there is something wrong with a kid doing something different.”

While misconceptions may shape the perspectives of students outside of the program, those in it believe the school-within-a-school is an invaluable key to student success in education.