‘The best job I’ve ever had’

For the second time, MVRHS English teacher Danielle Charbonneau nominated as Massachusetts Teacher of the Year. 

Danielle Charbonneau in front of the tree bookshelf, which holds books that hold meaning for students who graduated, is a Massachusetts Teacher of the Year finalist. — Eunki Seonwoo

Danielle Charbonneau, an English teacher at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) who runs the Project Vine program, is a finalist for the Massachusetts Teacher of the Year award. 

According to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), which is the office that gives out the award, this honor not only celebrates an “exemplary educator” but also “draws attention to issues of teacher quality and reiterates the importance of the teacher as the single most important school-based factor in improving student outcomes.” DESE media relations coordinator Jacqueline Reis told The Times the awardwinner is expected to be announced in the fall, most likely in late September or October. 

Charbonneau was a semifinalist in 2020.

“We’re super-proud of Dani Charbonneau. It’s really an exciting honor,” MVRHS Principal Sara Dingledy said. Charbonneau’s efforts and impact with Project Vine made her a “game-changer” for some of the students, according to Dingledy. 

Charbonneau graduated with a degree in English from Harvard, and then a journalism degree from New York University. Before becoming a teacher in 2004, she was an editor at CBS. She first taught in New Jersey at Plainfield High School, and later returned to her home region of Cape Cod. She has been with MVRHS since 2016, and later got a master’s degree in school administration from the University of New England. Charbonneau commutes from Barnstable with her wife, Ellen Muir, who is a math teacher in Project Vine. They both have to leave the house by 5 am to catch the 6 am ferry.

“I never thought I would get up that early all my life. But this is the best job I’ve ever had, and if it means getting up at 4 am, it’s not that big a deal,” Charbonneau said. “It’s worth it.” 

The Teacher of the Year finalists have to go through various steps in the selection process, from writing essays to submitting 20-minute videos of them teaching classes. Charbonneau said two DESE representatives came in to observe her teaching a Project Vine class for around two hours, and asked her questions, in early June. 

“They met this program as it is,” Charbonneau told The Times. 

Project Vine, which is an alternative “way to do high school,” is based on the idea that getting to know the students really well can help faculty better meet students’ needs, from having the same teacher for all four years to nonacademic activities. Students still go through the courses traditional students study, based on the state’s requirements, but there are also many project-based assignments and field trips (e.g. a trip to Penikese Island without electronics, a landmark scavenger hunt in Boston) integrated into the program to help connect classroom learning with the outside world. 

“We really try to embrace fun as much as possible,” Charbonneau said. “Learning new stuff and meeting new people and getting these experiences should be fun.”

Charbonneau also said that consistently having the same teacher for a subject for multiple years can develop an almost familial relationship between the faculty and around 25 students who are a part of the program. This relationship allows the program’s teachers to notice when something is wrong with a student, and they can strategize on how to help accordingly. 

“You can get something different from the high school experience than you might if you were just doing a traditional program,” Charbonneau said. 

Charbonneau said Project Vine has been compared a lot with the Rebecca Amis Institute, which was another alternative education program that operated on the Island. She is fine with the comparison as an easier way for people to understand Project Vine, since “Rebecca Amis did a lot of good things.” 

“Here’s how we’re different. So, that was in a separate building, it met at different times, and while there were some students there who said, ‘This is what I want,’ there were other students who were sent to Rebecca Amis,” Charbonneau said. “We are an embedded model. If you are a member of Project Vine, you have the same school day as everybody else, you can still take CTE, art, foreign languages along with the rest of your peers in MVRHS, because the school day runs the same length, you’re still here for sports, extracurriculars right after school, and it’s all voluntary. Everybody in this program made the choice to come in.”

However, Charbonneau said, the term “alternative program” may instill the wrong image in some people’s minds and make them think the students in it are “all one variety,” such as having attendance, familial, or academic issues, or that it is a special-needs class. 

“That’s absolutely not the truth. In fact, I would say the only unifying factor for our kids is they all really wanted to come into the program. Aside from that, you have people who were earning straight A’s before they came into the program, they have no academic issue. They just really wanted something different,” she said. “That’s not to say all of ours were earning straight A’s before they came in here. We also have a lot of people who were showing those signs of being late every day, or missing a lot of school, and we really try to have something here in the building that’s really worthwhile for them to come into.” 

Charbonneau said she hopes other schools will be able to adopt programs similar to Project Vine, which she would have the chance to share if she becomes the state’s Teacher of the Year. The winner is invited to speak at various functions about the state of education and also has the opportunity to compete for the national title.

“I would love the opportunity to share what it is we’re doing here on that large of a level,” Charbonneau said.