The Bridge Interviews Superintendent Brian Ricca

by Ivan Shadis and Nat Frothingham

The Bridge: You’ve recently returned from a conference of educators. What was that like?

Brian Ricca: It was great. It was an opportunity to connect with my colleagues who do things differently, sometimes better. But for the most part I hear people are envious of the way we’re doing things in Vermont.

The Bridge: Why are they envious?

Ricca: They’re interested in our flexible pathways and personalized learning plans — they recognize that the industrial model of school isn’t working and they’re envious that Vermont has legislation that not only validates that, but also encourages us to do it better.

The Bridge: What does ‘industrial model’ mean?

Ricca: The industrial model of education is where you come in at 7:30 a.m. and you leave at 3 p.m. That model doesn’t account for the remaining waking hours you could be learning. In the industrial model the teacher is presumed to be the keeper of the content, and that’s simply no longer true. It doesn’t encourage us to provide evidence that you learned except for grades, which, depending on the teacher, could be based largely on performance and not on what you learned.

The Bridge: If we’re taking a different approach, what is it bringing students that it wouldn’t otherwise have brought them if we used a traditional model?

Ricca: It used to be you go to high school and you get a diploma, then you go to college and get a degree, then you get a job. That’s not the only way to find success in 2016. The chances of a student graduating from Montpelier High School in 2016 and having only one career are pretty slim. K–12 needs to be a place where students gain a certain set of skills that transcend traditional boundaries. Think about the jobs that are going to exist in 2030, half of which haven’t even been created. We need to prepare a child to go out into the world and have a certain skill set, to be able to get along and learn the expectations of that future job. Students need to be able to problem solve, they need to be able to work collaboratively, they need to be able to take apart an argument and write something thoughtful as a response to it, they need to be able to push back in a healthy way.

The Bridge: When you say it’s diverse here, what do you mean?

Ricca: I’m talking about diversity in terms of the need for mental health services. Some of our students are very willing and able to talk about that and access those services. Some others, not so much. We have a lot of young people for whom this [winter] break, which is the longest break that we have, is at the most unpredictable time of the year. Will there be heat? Will they be abused in some way? Will they have a meal in any shape or form? Who will be caring for them? That’s the diversity I see. Some kids are coming to school with a lot on their shoulders that impacts how they learn. I see more kids than I’m comfortable with who are worried about things they shouldn’t be worried about at their age.

The Bridge: You are able to see these students in a way that many people can’t because we don’t have a space or a forum to collectively witness what’s going on. What responsibility do you feel toward being an advocate and to whom do you advocate?

Ricca: We need a community conversation about mental health. I haven’t done enough to advocate for that. The leadership team and I advocated very articulately that we needed another social worker in next year’s budget, so we could have a social worker at each of our schools and not share one between two schools. Your point is a valid one, I am privy to information that the general public isn’t privy to, but there’s also information out there that calls on this community to do better. There needs to be candor and honesty about the issue of mental illness and about things that are affecting our young people. There are still stigmas about mental health in 2016 despite all the research. I think it is incumbent upon us as leaders in the community to say, “Depression is a real thing, and it really impacts people, and if a kid is witnessing that and they’re worrying about it when they come to school, they’re not going to learn as well as they possibly can.”

The Bridge: Can you tell us more about what’s going on in the buildings today?

Ricca: At the elementary school you would see direct instruction in literacy and remedial instruction in literacy, direct instruction in math and remedial instruction in math. We did not take on the universal pre-school last year, so we’re in the process of applying to have one classroom of pre-school at Union Elementary School. We are prepared to financially support anyone living in Montpelier who wants to take advantage of the voucher to attend a pre-qualified preschool anywhere in the state of Vermont. We have no geographic boundaries on that.

Although our enrollment is rising, it is going to be leveling soon. Then each of our buildings will have around the same number of students — so we can comfortably serve them.

The middle school will use a team approach — multi-age teams for seventh and eighth grade — but a traditional approach will be used for fifth and sixth grades. If you walked into the building you would see a variety of learning experiences for students. In particular, at the middle school the students go to the senior center and members of the senior center come to the school for computer education.

If you came to the high school you would see we’ve committed to recess and recommitted to the teacher advisory program. We’ve expanded that over the last couple of years to try to give students a safer place in which to share some of those worries I mentioned earlier.

You would see a facility staff that is recognizably changing the tenor of stewardship in this district from “Oh, those are the guys who clean up after us,” to seeing students in all of the buildings being more proactive about taking care of their space. You would see a support staff that works tirelessly in terms of instructional support — working with students who are the most vulnerable in terms of their learning goals — but also a support staff that does all of the day-to-day business to ensure that we do our very best to sit with somebody for an hour or two. And you’d see a school board that cares very deeply about good governance in a place where families are passionate about good education, a board that emphasizes process so that the ends are met. This board is doing a really good job of recommitting itself to policy governance. It works with me on a regular basis to get data on what we say we are doing. From top to bottom you’d see some of the finest adults working to make sure the mission is achieved.

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