VERGENNES – The special educator of Regency Union High School Becky Eble won a $ 100,000 grant to foster a safe and inclusive school culture.
She will work with colleagues and students on a three-way project that aims to make restorative justice the center of VUHS’s discipline system, make students’ voices in school affairs stronger and more sustainable, and foster more respectful and productive communication, especially around sensitive issues.
The grant comes from the Roland Foundation, an association now based in Burlington, dedicated to improving school education in Vermont. In early March, the foundation announced that Abel, who is also a member of the VUHS leadership team, will be one of five Roland Fellows for 2022.
This decision gave Mourning and the school $ 100,000 to continue its proposal to strengthen the existing elements in VUHS.
Abel, a 40-year-old VUHS graduate from 1999, will use the scholarship to take a year off from her job and learn how to improve school culture, including by visiting schools in Vermont and elsewhere. VUHS can fund its role at no cost to the district.
“Finding out what works in other schools will be an important part of what we look at,” Abel said. “The Roland Scholarship is a gift of time for the teacher and the school system to have someone who can devote an entire year to research and help promote and create something in which the school is invested.”
Ebel said she would not have continued on the scholarship without backing from staff and students.
“I would say the support is huge,” she said. “I can not think of a person who did not say it was important.”
Her scholarship proposal includes several sentences that describe her goals.
“The focus of this project is to cultivate a safe and inclusive school culture,” Ebel wrote. “The critical work of this project will help us move beyond declarations of aspirations or planned structures and create real systems that work for us on a daily basis and as a profound and permanent cultural change.”
Ebel is the fourth VUHS Rowland Fellow. Matt DeBlois, currently principal of Vergennes Union Elementary School, helped create the VUHS counseling system that includes morning sessions; World Language Teacher Kristin Kirkaldi Advanced Skill-Based Education; And social science teacher Michael Thomas worked to establish project-based interdisciplinary courses.
VUHS has won more Roland scholarships than any other school. Ebel said it speaks volumes about her workplace.
“It means we’re interested in doing things in education that are really student-centered, because the big focus of the Roland Foundation is that there is a positive impact on students,” she said.
These students do want their voice and will see increased restorative justice, Ebel said, adding that what adults hear is students “wanting a clearer and more formal structure on how their leadership is conducted in the school and how they provide feedback to management.”
Makes it work
Several elements are essential to the success of her project, Ebel said. One is that student structure must sustain itself over the years, not just exist through one motivated group – hence the study of how other schools allow students to participate.
Others join the team in respectful norms of communication and behavior and more training for staff and students on rehabilitative justice, after further research has been done.
“This means that professional development, the professional conversations that teachers have are also shaped in this restorative structure, that we are aware of how we organize our meetings and think about the systems we need to engage with if we disagree on something or need to address a challenging issue,” said Ebel.
Usually, rightly rehabilitates, said Abel, a student who was harmed by another student and the student who caused this damage will meet in a circle with students and other staff members. All will be trained in the principles of restorative justice to “engage productively.” Both sides will have people to support them in the process.
Early counseling will teach what the injured student hoped to achieve, such as an apology or a statement that the abusive student understood the harm done. We will also discuss in advance what the offending student was willing to acknowledge or admit.
“There is a whole system that needs to exist to get to this place,” Ebel said. “And that does not mean that others, what would be considered traditional school discipline, could not yet exist simultaneously.”
Ebel’s proposal also talks about “how racism, homophobia and bias affect our school, both individually and systemically,” especially in the wake of the COVID-19 epidemic. She said a greater focus on appropriate norms of communication and behavior can help all parties discuss these issues with less conflict.
“We seemed to need to talk about these things in the community together even if people have different opinions,” she said. “It feels even more important when we think about moving into the future.”
Abel seems fit to see a number of points of view. She comes from a family of educators – her mother was a veteran teacher at VUES, and her father is a principal in South Burlington County.
The Department of Environmental Studies at the University of Vermont found its true calling after being recruited to be a teaching assistant.
“This is where I realized I really enjoy teaching,” Ebel said.
After graduation, she joined the AmeriCorps Vista program, and spent two years on the Walden project, VUHS’s alternative education program. Then came two years in Arizona, where she received teaching certificates from the University of Northern Arizona, and plans to teach English. Instead, she taught science at Walden for eight years.
Then came the transition to special education, where she now teaches English and science classes, as well as works one-on-one on reading and literacy with students on personal education programs, and supports students “in whatever their limitations are and in increasing skills in the field.”
It also works with students’ peers and families to improve student progress and ensure that VUHS does what it can to meet their needs.
Ebel explained the change in her career.
“I’m really passionate about literacy, that everyone finishes high school with a level of functional literacy, and I have the ability to influence that as a special educator,” she said.
Some trauma that COVID-19 caused to the education system, Abel said the epidemic also gave her hope that the system could change after adapting to distance and hybrid learning.
“The plague has shown us that we can really make big changes,” she said.
At the same time, Ebel said, “students’ social lives were completely disrupted,” by demands that separated them from their peers.
These changes, she said, challenged “everyone’s social reality of returning from the plague and adapting” and led to greater difficulty in “having to talk about issues that are difficult issues like racism, sexism, ability, homophobia.”
This difficulty led the VUHS community to think about better handling these discussions and conflicts, Ebel said, and led her to think about her Roland proposal.
“I wrote the offer, and I’m taking the scholarship next year. But it’s really in partnership and collaboration with teachers and students here. I took the momentum that people indicated they felt and I wrote an offer,” she said.
Mourning calls the prospect of significant change coming out of the collegiate endeavors both exciting and hopeful.
“In three years I would love to see us continue to increase our methods,” Ebel said.
“I think it would be amazing to have students who are safe facilitators for both our weekly circles and for rehabilitative justice … to have a really clear structure for student leadership and voice in our school … and (safe) staff to guide circles and navigate difficult issues as they arise.”