Vermont Report: Shaping the Soul of a School

By Deborah Fallows

By Deborah Fallows

I found Principal Brian Williams in the lunchroom of the Sustainability Academy, a pre-K – 5 magnet school in the Old North End of Burlington, Vermont. He was easy to spot, the biggest guy in the room, sitting on a very small chair, talking with an 8-year-old tousled-haired boy who was having trouble with his writing. It was noontime, and Principal Williams asked me if I would like some of today’s lunch: “Beef stew. I made it myself.”

I was about to chuckle a “Sure, sure” when I stopped and thought that actually, maybe he had made the stew himself. It seemed like such a place where the principal might also be the cook.

Just 5 years ago, the Sustainability Academy (SA) was known as the Lawrence Barnes Elementary School, one of two failing schools (the other was H.O. Wheeler) in the needy, sketchy part of Burlington, where about 95% of the kids were on free or reduced lunch (the nation’s most reliable proxy for poverty), test scores were very low and enrollment was declining.  The school’s neighborhood is home to a mix of the down-and-out, the frontier-pushers, and is also the first stop for many of Burlington’s constant influx of refugees and immigrants.

The town and school district were fraught about what action to take for the failing schools. One side suggested the traditional approaches: redistrict or bus kids or shut ‘em down. The other side said transform Barnes and Wheeler into magnet schools so good that parents from all over town will be knocking down the doors to send their kids there. They went with the latter, and Barnes and Wheeler became the first magnet schools in Vermont, with themes of sustainability (Barnes, which is also the first sustainability-themed public elementary school in the US) and integrated arts (Wheeler).

By last year, every measure was trending in a positive direction: test scores at SA were way up, as were attendance and morale. The percentage of kids on free or reduced lunch dropped into the 70s. There is a rich ethnic mix of students, including roughly 46% white, 22% black, and 26% Asian. Or as Principal Williams put it another way, 50% from families traditional to the neighborhood; 20% who believe in the mission of the school; 30% new arrivals to Burlington from around the world, and speaking 15 different languages.  There was a waiting list for kindergarten enrollment. The report from the middle school where the kids go next -- that you couldn’t tell SA kids apart anymore -- was perhaps the biggest compliment of all. (Some of the statistics cited in this post are from here. )

So here I am eating beef stew, sitting on a tiny chair, talking with a little boy who said his problem was that he didn’t know what to write about. I told him that I just write down what people say, and that might be a good way for him to start, too. He took a blank page from my reporter’s notebook. What I was really looking for, beyond the starting point of all the official numbers and mission statements, was a window into the soul of his school.

Sustainability Academy is a lot of syllables for the name of an elementary school. But in Burlington, where if there were a word cloud of words spoken, “SUSTAINABLE” would be in the biggest font, no one bats an eye. I heard the word all over town— in the community agriculture and “localvore” movements, in the leading-edge walkable-only commercial zone, about the smart and user-friendly recreation developments, in the entrepreneurial ventures, City Hall, and on and on. At the school, “sustainability” is broadly, if vaguely defined as improving everyone’s quality of life, not only environmentally but also economically and socially.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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