University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Philadelphia Freedom

Zachary Wright
Zachary Wright, photograph by Ryan Brandenberg

Alumni Profiles

Philadelphia freedom

by Jon Reidel

When Zachary Wright ’05 describes his UVM undergraduate experience he uses words like “transformative” and “transcendent.” His hope is that students in his twelfth-grade English and AP literature courses, many of whom come from some of Philadelphia’s tougher neighborhoods, get to enjoy a similarly powerful college experience.

“My years at UVM were extremely significant, and it remains an incredibly special place for my wife and me,” says Wright, whose spouse, Laura Salmon ’05, created an internship for students at the Vermont Respite House as an undergraduate. “The more you did, the more the school did for you. When I’d propose an idea, my professors were like, ‘Let’s go for it.’ I came away feeling that this is a place that has to be shared.”

Wright, who teaches at Mastery Charter School, one of about a dozen Mastery Charter Schools in the Philadelphia area that take over failing schools slated for closure and turn them around, decided the best way to share his alma mater was to load up an old van with eight of his students and drive eight hours to Burlington.

“They slept through New Jersey and woke up near Glens Falls, New York,” Wright recalls. “As we approached Vermont, they started seeing cows and forests for the first time and just couldn’t believe how peaceful it looked. Most of them had never been outside of Philadelphia and live in areas where hearing gunshots is normal. They were amazed to see how people could live so carefree and not have to worry about being safe.”

After three years of making the trip with his senior students, Wright decided to call the UVM Admissions Office to inquire about Discovering UVM, a program assisting high school seniors from under-represented groups with their college search by exploring academic and extracurricular offerings at UVM during a two-day immersion program.

Things flowed from there. Deborah Gale, associate director of diversity and international admissions, helped initiate the relationship between UVM and Mastery Charter. Future meetings with staff, faculty, and top administration generated ideas for how some of Wright’s students could afford to attend UVM.  The result was the Mastery Catamount Scholarship, which allows for up to five Mastery Charter School students to attend UVM on grants, scholarships, and work-study with student loan responsibility not exceeding $5,500 per year.

“I was actually thinking about stopping the trips because I didn’t want to create dreams that weren’t possible because that would have been irresponsible of me,” says Wright. “But now with the creation of the scholarship they can live out that dream.” The first two students will enter UVM in the fall on the new scholarship program.

For his leadership in this effort, Wright was named 2012-13 Outstanding Teacher of the Year by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. He was among forty teachers and counselors nominated by principals across Philadelphia and received the award at the Top of the Class Ceremony in Philadelphia, along with three other teachers.

“While I was, of course, honored, the recognition would be incomplete without passing it along to those at UVM who were absolutely essential to the creation of this partnership,” says Wright. “I am certain that we all found ourselves in the world of education because we all in some way wanted to help children, improve our communities, and be a part of social change. Most educators never get a chance to see the impact they’ve made, but we, through our work together, have and will continue to change the lives of these young people from West Philadelphia.”

Wright plans to bring more students on visits and wants them to stay with the first group of scholarship recipients to see how they are making it in college. “I expect them to give back by hosting students and by talking about their experiences at UVM with students back home.”

Wright is optimistic about the number of students from Mastery Charter who will attend UVM in the future, but also wants to make sure they are successful.

“It’s a huge move and will be a major culture shock,” says Wright. “For 95 percent of the kids in Mastery Schools, places like UVM probably aren’t for them. But for the other five percent who really want out of here and to be in special place like Burlington, it’s a perfect fit. I wouldn’t want my kids to go anywhere unless they are loved, and UVM does the little things that will make them feel that way.”


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