Professional development group embraces roots, looks beyond tech

This fall, the University of Vermont's Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education celebrates its tenth year of helping Vermont move towards innovative student-centered school change.

With generous support from the Richard E. and Deborah L. Tarrant Foundation, the Tarrant Institute provides long-term professional development to 70 partner schools, publishes scholarly research, and produces Vermont’s leading educational storytelling platform, the award-winning blog Innovative Education

Among the celebrations marking this milestone, the Tarrant Institute’s #vted Reads podcast will be welcoming a new selection of Vermont luminaries to the show this season, including young adult authors Jo Knowles and Kate Messner, Vermont Humanities director Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup, and Vermont State Librarian Jason Broughton.

In continuing to tailor its services to the needs of partner schools during this unprecedented time, the Tarrant Institute has developed a panoply of remote learning and equity-based resources, as well as launching a new monthly series of online workshops aimed at providing a constructive interactional space for education practitioners. 

The ongoing and emerging projects both represent a continuation of the Tarrant Institute’s original mission: to enable schools and educators to create deeply engaging learning opportunities with students, in school and out. 

As schools nationwide turn to more creative and encompassing remote learning opportunities, the Tarrant Institute continues to provide partners with support for implementing research-driven best practices for students, educators, families and communities.

“We recognize that this moment in time presents unique challenges for schools,” said Tarrant Institute Director John Downes. “At the same time, it provides a unique opportunity for students to create pathways to learning outside the traditional school day and school building. What students engage in and take away from this period of history will inform not just their own lives, but could present a roadmap for schools to provide all students, moving forward, with expanded opportunities for learning in non-traditional ways.”

One example of this support is visible at White River Valley Middle School, located in the heart of Vermont’s rural southeast region. Over the past two years, the White River Valley Supervisory Union has worked closely with the Tarrant Institute in building a new middle school from the ground up. While the area’s elementary and high schools provided students with a rigorous curriculum, district administrators wanted more for young adolescents in their community. Their dream of a dedicated middle school took determination, courage, and quite a bit of community outreach to become a reality. 

Now, the middle school offers students and families dedicated flexible learning opportunities, including a full-time outdoor classroom, which has proved invaluable during the current pandemic. “We were lucky enough to work with some phenomenally passionate educators and district leaders, with the support of a community who’s really engaged,” said Tarrant Institute professional development coordinator Scott Thompson. “They’re as excited as we are to see the promise of truly compelling learning experiences being lived by their students each and every day.”

What will the next 10 years hold for this group?

“We’re looking to expand the number and type of our partnerships,” said director Downes. “What we’re seeing now is the opportunity for many additional schools and districts to think beyond the traditional school setup. We’re interested in continuing to work with teams who genuinely want to partner with young adolescents, and collaboratively construct solutions that meet each situation.”

While the Institute generally enters into three-year relationships with schools or districts, they also create shorter workshops and learning experiences based on both available funding and a collaborative vision for student success. And, encouraged by the transformational results of the schools they’ve worked with so far, look forward to expanding. 

“At the end of the day,” Downes said, “we’re in it to make sure young adolescents can take full advantage of not just the middle grades experience, but a wholly revolutionized outlook on lifelong learning.”


Audrey Homan