State and local officials gathered at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) on Tuesday to see Danielle (“Dani”) Charbonneau, the MVRHS English teacher who runs the Project Vine program, awarded the Massachusetts Teacher of the Year award. According to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s (DESE) press release, Charbonneau is the first teacher from Martha’s Vineyard to be awarded Teacher of the Year. As the 61st recipient of the award, Charbonneau is now the state’s candidate for the National Teacher of the Year program.
Charbonneau was also a semifinalist for the award in 2020. This year, she went past the 12 semifinalists, and came out on top between the two finalists.
Jeffrey C. Riley, state education commissioner, was at the school on Wednesday morning to make the presentation. Much of the school’s student body was in the audience, and both the high school Big Band and the Minnesingers performed.
Riley reflected on “how wonderful the children are here on Martha’s Vineyard.” He commended the students and the Island for what they did for migrants and refugees from Venezuela. “You guys stood up as a community,” he said. Riley also asked for a round of applause for the teachers in the crowd.
But this day was about Charbonneau, and when Riley announced her as this year’s winner, the crowd at the Performing Arts Center erupted in a standing ovation.
“I’m so proud today, MVRHS,” Principal Sara Dingledy said. “We’re so lucky to have her.”
Charbonneau thanked her family, the teachers, and her MVRHS students. “This moment also belongs to the teachers,” Charbonneau said, thanking her fellow MVRHS teachers.
Working at MVRHS and Project Vine was “simply the best job I ever had,” Charbonneau said. However, she said programs like Project Vine “doesn’t exist everywhere,” and some people have had a bias against it because it is an alternative education program. “I hope people hear about what we’re doing here on the Vineyard,” she said of Project Vine. Students once again stood for Charbonneau as she concluded her speech.
According to DESE, the Teacher of the Year 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.” 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 in a previous story that two DESE representatives came in early June to observe her teaching a Project Vine class for around two hours, and asked her questions. The winner is invited to speak on education at various functions around the state, and also has the opportunity to compete for the national title.
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.
Project Vine, which Charbonneau described as 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 are still embedded into the school community, and meet state requirements while doing other project-based assignments and field trips to connect the classroom to the outside world. An example is the Penikese Island trip that Project Vine has been raising funds for. According to Charboanneau, all the students voluntarily join the program, and come with diverse experiences and academic abilities.
During the event, Al and Jill Woollacott spoke to how Project Vine helped their granddaughter, MVRHS senior Jayden Baird, “flourish” in school.
“Her grades have improved immeasurably since joining Project Vine,” Al said, adding how much more enthusiastic Baird was with Project Vine activities, compared with traditional schooling.
Outside of Project Vine, Charbonneau was recognized in the release for being the co-advisor of MVRHS’ Gender Sexuality Alliance since 2018, and member of the school’s Race-Equity and Cultural Proficiency Group.
As the winner of the award, Charbonneau will have the opportunity to share Project Vine’s model to other Massachusetts educators through her speaking engagements.
In the release, Charbonneau was praised by state leaders. Gov. Charlie Baker described Charbonneau as “a caring and committed teacher who supports her students,” a sentiment shared by Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, who said “teachers like Ms. Charbonneau help make Massachusetts a leader on education.”
“Ms. Charbonneau and her colleagues in Project Vine offer an important option for Martha’s Vineyard’s high school students,” Massachusetts Education Secretary James Peyser said in the release. “She has made a welcoming space for students to learn in the classroom and in the community.”
State Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, and state Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth, both expressed congratulatory words for Charbonnea in the release.
“Through a creative, dynamic, and enterprising approach to educating, Ms. Charbonneau has built classroom spaces where students can thrive,” Cyr said.
“Her dedication and commitment to her students is commendable, and we are extremely fortunate to have such an exemplary educator in our district,” Fernandes said.
Charbonneau’s mother, Anne Marie Charbonneau, told the Times how “very proud, very happy” she was for her daughter and the Vineyard.
“My husband and I are just so proud of what Danielle has accomplished here, bringing all of these students together and being recognized,” Anne Marie said. She believes her daughter’s reception of the award “shines a light” on the positive impact teachers can have on students.