University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

APEX innovators reflect on program’s impact

Charlie Rathbone and Frank Watson
APEX founders and former education professors Charlie Rathbone and Frank Watson, photograph by Wayne Tarr


APEX innovators reflect on program’s impact

When education professors Charlie Rathbone and Frank Watson launched the American Primary Experience Program (APEX) in 1973 their goal was no less than revolution. In particular, they sought to change the way teachers taught and students learned by infusing experiential learning into educational systems.

Idealistic perhaps, but three years later the soundness of their thinking would be validated with the 1976 Distinguished Achievement Award from the American Association for Colleges of Teacher Education. APEX would become a nationally recognized program that earned Vermont a reputation as an incubator for new educational learning models.

“Vermont was the place to go see hope for the future of education,” Rathbone says. “It was a very exciting time. We wanted to change the world through education. We weren’t just talking about it, we were doing it.”

Alumni of the program, which spanned 1973-1984, gathered in August at the Davis Center for a fortieth anniversary celebration, sharing experiences of their years in the program and careers that followed.

“As I have thought about APEX through the years, it has reminded me that learning is a serious matter, but it does not have to be grim,” said reunion speaker Dean C. Corrigan, who served as dean of the College of Education from 1968 to 1979. “With great teachers like Charlie and Frank, there is no place in the world that can bring so much joy as a lively, humane center of intellectual inquiry where everybody is somebody. This is the view of APEX that has stayed with me.”

Not all understood APEX when it was initially launched. Rathbone and Watson wrote about the philosophical foundations of APEX by tying it to Socrates, who advised Athenians that “knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind” and that to discover the “natural bent” of children, educators ought to “let early education be a sort of amusement.” Other philosophers, such as Plutarch, Jean Piaget, and native son John Dewey (UVM Class of 1879) also spoke to an educational setting for children that was “in keeping with this idea of learning through play and inquiry.”

APEX was sometimes lumped in with the student-centered, open classroom movement of the 1970s for its self-described programmatic structure that “encouraged inquiry, self-direction in learning, and the development of a personal framework of beliefs and values concerning schooling.” But APEX had defined goals and outcomes, starting with students spending time as participant observers at local elementary schools, followed by juniors and seniors learning how to integrate reading, science, children’s literature, mathematics, social systems, health, and physical education in a fifteen-week methods block. A seventeen-week student-teaching experience completed the program.

Alumna Ebeth Scatchard ’76, who helped organize the reunion, says, “APEX was founded in trust, had great depth and encouraged learning through our experiences—just as many of our classrooms would later.”

While APEX may have ended in 1984, it’s clear from alumni testimony that its impact was longlasting and remains strong four decades later. Rathbone says the legacy of the program was captured best by Ellen Baker, the College of Education and Social Services’ current director of teacher education, when she noted that APEX helped set the framework for more recent revisions in UVM’s elementary education program.

“There are some really significant parts of APEX in the current elementary education framework like field experience, integrated curriculum, and the portfolio they do at the end,” Rathbone says, “and that’s pretty powerful.”

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