University of Vermont

APEX Alums Celebrate 40th Anniversary of Nationally Lauded Teaching Program

APEX reunion
Reunion attendees respond to Dean Corrigan's recollections of UVM during the initial years of the APEX Program. (Photo: Wayne Tarr)

When education professors Charlie Rathbone and Frank Watson launched the American Primary Experience Program (APEX) in 1973 they wanted to change the way education was delivered by teachers and received by students by infusing experiential learning into educational systems across the state and beyond.

Idealistic perhaps, but after APEX won the 1976 Distinguished Achievement Award from the American Association for Colleges of Teacher Education -- the most prestigious professional association of colleges of education in the U.S. -- it became 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, we were doing it.”

Alums of the program, which spanned 1973-1984, gathered in August at the Davis Center for a 40th anniversary celebration, where they shared their experiences while in the program at UVM and after graduation when they started teaching at schools across the country. “The stories and reflections of the people at the reunion really showed the impact the program had on them and the students they taught over the years,” Rathbone says.

“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.”

Understanding APEX

Not everyone 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, John Dewey and Jean Piaget, 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 Thayer and Wheeler Elementary schools in Burlington and Shelburne, followed by junior and seniors learning how to integrate reading, science, children's literature, mathematics, social systems, health, and physical education in a 15-week methods block. A 17-week student teaching experience completed the program, leading to an APEX diploma.

At the reunion, Rathbone recalled trips to Boston in a van filled with students to “loot the Education Development Center (where Watson had worked) of learning prompts no longer being used” -- like batteries, bulbs, kitchen physics, geo blocks, mystery powders, sand and screens, and cardboard carpentry. A PowerPoint presentation showed how these were used to teach the key elements of APEX: physical, material, social, intellectual, instructional, bureaucratic and curricular. Programmatic aspects included blocked curriculum; multi-age groupings; content integration; accountability to self and self-directed learning; and giving each other leeway to fail as learners. “I was stunned by the number of people at the reunion who talked about risk-taking,” Rathbone says. “They learned to take risks in the classroom and that failure was a step on the road of learning, not something to get in trouble for in their school."

“Our reunion weekend vastly surpassed anyone's expectations,” says APEX alum Ebeth Scatchard ’76, who helped organize the event. “We were immediately transported back to the community that we built while in APEX. It was one that was founded in trust, had great depth and encouraged learning through our experiences -- just as many of our classrooms would later.”

Bringing APEX to the classroom

One of the topics of discussion at the reunion was how much each alum infused APEX into their classrooms. Very few were able to adopt APEX wholesale, but almost all included some aspect of it in their curriculum. Suzy Mills Klinefelter ’75, who taught for 34 years in Bradford, Barre Town and East Montpelier, says her science classes involved measuring things outside while building nature trails and conducting experiments. “What I used from APEX was the concept of integrating the curriculum so everything wasn’t taught in isolation,” Klinefelter reported at the event. “So I tried to mix in reading, writing and calculating into my science lessons.”

Wayne Tarr ’76, who taught in Highgate before retiring and starting a photography business, shared that multi-age reading and multi-age classrooms in Highgate were directly related to his student teaching experience in APEX. “The meaningful and thoughtful way that Frank talked about education has always been in the back of my head,” says Tarr, who served as official photographer of the reunion (see photos here). "It was amazing to hear about the different directions people went in after APEX. Almost everyone stayed in education in one way or another, but applied what they learned in APEX in different ways.”

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, at the reunion when she said 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.”

"As I watch what is happening for children in schools today I realize how important the APEX program was and still is," says Watson. "The energy of this reunion group clearly illustrates the energy that is necessary in our schools today. I am proud to be part of the APEX family. I think John Dewey is proud that APEX happened on the University of Vermont campus."