A Year of Innovation, Part 2

This is the second in the series featuring the unique innovative lab spaces enhance learning at FWSU.  FWSU is proud to offer innovation spaces in all three of our schools. and how each of them impacts student learning. Today, you can learn about the multiple BFA Innovation Labs.

Cricut 1

Last year, BFA designed two innovation lab spaces for both the elementary and high school. Throughout the year, students had the opportunity to learn and explore in each of these innovative learning environments.

Cricut 2

Prior to the school year, Technology Integrationist Rhonda Siemons, along with the middle school team, worked hard to initiate a new learning space for grade 5-8 students.

To begin the year,  middle school students have had an opportunity to explore the MS BFA Makerspace Hub to provide an overview of resources.  This initial experience allowed students to become familiar. Students were encouraged to make connections with using these resources to support their learning while exploring the following guiding questions: How can these resources connect to what you are doing in your classes?  How can these resources extend your learning … your passion?


A schedule has been created to support Flexible Learning time where students will be using many of these resources in support of their personal learning plans including green screen equipment, e-textiles, GPS, Cricut’s, robots, and many other resources. In the future, there is a group that is planning to participate in 3D Vermont using 3D design and 3D printing.


In addition to the Makerspace Hub in the MS, BFA has also increased the capacity of the High School innovation space with the addition of newly hired Technology Integrationist Sean Theoret. Now High School students will have additional opportunities to use the space with new classes as well as a resource for the core classes.


We are looking forward to all of the innovative learning projects that will be created in the new innovative spaces at BFA!

Welcoming New Paraeducators to FWSU

Paraeducators are an integral component to ensuring the success our of learning community. All paraeducators provide valuable services to students in need of additional support. They fill many important roles in supporting the academic and behavioral needs of students. The roles of paraeducators vary depending upon the needs of the students. They provide individualized support to students in need and are essential to the educational team. They inspire, encourage, advocate, and support all learners.

We would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge and thank all of our wonderful paraeducators for their important work supporting all of our students!  Their contributions are valued in FWSU.

  • New Paraeducators at BFA Fairfax  
Crystal Maynard

Crystal Maynard

Kori Caldwell

Kori Caldwell

Erin McKechnie

Erin McKechnie

William Pebler

William Pebler

karissa peltier

Karissa Peltier

Anna Phillips

Anna Phillips

Shannon Arnzen

Shannon Arnzen


  • New Paraeducators at Fletcher Elementary School
Caroline Hassan

Caroline Hassan


  • New Paraeducators at Georgia Elementary Middle School 
kaitlyn adams

Kaitlyn Adams

Anthony Lorenzo

Anthony Lorenzo

Virginia Gonyeau-Gutkopf

Virginia Gonyeau-Gutkopf

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith

Beatrice Potter

Beatrice Potter

Amy Popovitch

Amy Popovitch

Beyond the Championship Banner: How BFA Fairfax Defines Success in Co-Curricular Athletics


Pep rallies, homecoming events, last-second winning shots, bonfires, and state championship games – these can embody some of the fondest and exciting memories of our high school years.  BFA Fairfax has been extremely fortunate to experience immense success in our athletic programs.  Multiple state championships, numerous league titles, and dozens of individual all-league and all-state selections are the result of driven and talented students, as well as passionate and knowledgeable coaches.  However, team talent is often cyclical, and inevitably a team will have a period that doesn’t quite meet some people’s notion of success as it pertains to the win-loss column.  


In a December 2016 article published by the National Federation of State High School Associations, Dr. David Hoch writes “A basic premise of education-based athletics is that winning is not the only or ultimate objective.  Instead, the growth and development – and this does not mean sport-specific skills – of student-athletes is the most important goal.”  At BFA Fairfax, this commitment to growth and development through athletic participation includes fostering skills in leadership, sportsmanship, communication, overcoming adversity, humility, perseverance, group success over individual success, and service to others.


Dr. Hoch identifies leadership, sportsmanship, team community service projects, and participation rates as some of the important indicators of the success of a school’s athletic programs.  I’m proud to outline these indicators as they relate to BFA Fairfax.



Each November BFA Fairfax sends eight student-athletes to the VPA/VSADA Student Leadership Conference.  This annual event hosts hundreds of the top student-athlete leaders from all Vermont high schools.  During two intensive days of training in leadership, goal setting, and life skills with renowned athletic and motivational speakers from across the country, our students gain valuable knowledge and insight to bring back to their school and teams.  The leadership skills and commitment to service demonstrated by our student-athletes in recent years have been a direct result of our students attending this annual event, and the countless dividends continue to be paid forward to our school and the greater community.



BFA Fairfax takes great pride in the multiple state Sportsmanship Award banners hanging in the Richard A. Brown Gymnasium.  Our teams, athletes, and coaches are often known as humble and compassionate, finding ways to avoid running up a score against a struggling team, or demonstrating respect to officials during a match or game.  Frequently it is our student-athletes who are identifying inappropriate fan behavior on the sidelines or stands in the midst of a game, and reporting it to coaches to have it addressed.  Although there is always room for improvement, BFA Fairfax makes every effort to embody the concept of sportsmanship throughout our athletic community.


Team Community Service Projects

Service to others is one of the core covenants of the BFA Fairfax athletic program.  In any given year, there are multiple athletic events geared toward giving back to our community or the greater world.  Recent student-driven service initiatives have included the annual Pink Zone cancer fundraising basketball games, Melanoma Society awareness games, Homecoming week events supporting the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the American Cancer Society, and Hunger Free Vermont, as well as more local initiatives such as officiating youth sporting events, offering free sport clinics, and assisting with upkeep of our school athletic fields.  


Participation Rates

For the past five years, annual participation rates in co-curricular activities (including non-athletic activities) at BFA Fairfax has steadily remained at 65-80% of our student population.  According to Dr. Hoch, “While some might argue that young people are more likely to be a member of a winning team, a survey of athletes will likely reveal that they participate because they enjoy being with their friends in a positive learning environment.  When a school’s teams are filled to capacity and offer every team level possible, success has occurred regardless of the seasonal win-loss records.” With research consistently demonstrating the intangible benefits of co-curricular participation, the 65-80% participation rate at BFA Fairfax is something of which we are extremely proud.  


As a former high school and collegiate athlete, I would be remiss if I said I did not enjoy winning.  However, as a coach, athletic director and administrator, my idea of athletic success has greatly transitioned since my playing days.  Empowering students to be confident, contributing members of society, who embrace a “we before me” mentality, and learn valuable life skills THROUGH athletics, is the ultimate definition of success. The championship banners and league titles are just icing on the cake, and if you do all the little things right, you’d be surprised how much icing you truly have.  


Hoch, D. 2016, December 20, Ideas on measuring success in high school athletics, National Federation of State High School Associations, retrieved September 19, 2017 from https://www.nfhs.org

Geri Witalec

Geri-Lyn Witalec is an Athletic Director/Assistant Principal at Bellows Free Academy Fairfax. 

A Belief in What is Possible: Why We Tell Our Story

Six years ago we launched THE FWSU STORY. We decided it was important to share the story of our schools each and every day with our communities and stakeholders. Our initial goal was to use blogging as a platform to broadcast the “good” news and build awareness of our system. Our goal remains the same and as of today, we’ve had over 109,000 views of our blog! 

THE FWSU STORY stats dashboard in WordPress

Along with telling the good news of our districts, we also wanted to report on and document the work of our schools towards our new centralized FWSU Action Plan. The plan started a change in our system. The plan looked at how we operate our schools and what was important for our students’ future. It looked at creativity, innovation, global understanding/interaction, community partnerships and leadership as regular parts of our instructional practice. It was a systematic belief in what is possible. Four target areas were identified for our action plan:

  • Proficiency-based student-centered learning
  • Leadership
  • Engaged community partners
  • Flexible learning environments

The beauty of the targets is their simplicity. They are simple to grasp, easy to believe in, and made our schools feel more human and less industrial. Since the initial plan was launched it has been revamped; under the direction of the FWSU Board, however, the targets have remained the same. The board made a decision because of the evidence of the positive impact our plan is having in our district. Some of the examples include:

  • FWSU has been named an Apple Distinguished twice in the past 5 years. The designation is reserved for programs that meet criteria for innovation, leadership, and educational excellence.  FWSU is the only system in Vermont with this designation.
  • FWSU is also one of 83 districts nationwide to be a member of the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools. Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools.
  • FWSU has been named a school of distinction by IVECA (International Virtual Education). IVECA Center for International Virtual Schooling focuses on the concept of intercultural competence in our education program. Superintendent Ned Kirsch was invited to speak on a panel this summer at the United Nations on our schools work in this area. 
  • FWSU launched Innovation Labs in all of our schools. Innovation Labs offer students a more intense focus on design thinking and innovation enlarges our capacity to integrate sets of skills such as coding, research, fabrication, making and gaming to solve the authentic problems our world is now facing.
  • FWSU was one of ten schools nationwide featured in the Education Elements competency (proficiency) based education playbook. FWSU (BFA Fairfax HS) was recognized for its leadership in building a personalized system for our students.
  • FWSU is a finalist for P21 designation as an exemplar system this year (schools nationwide will be notified in November). If accepted, FWSU will be the first district in Vermont with this designation. P21 also featured a blog written by BFA Fairfax students on student leadership.
  • FWSU was one of three districts in Vermont invited to participate in the Early Learning Networked Improvement Community of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). Four states are participating in this work building knowledge and capacity for strengthening early literacy and mathematics instruction. GEMS administration and teachers will represent our system.
  • BFA was named Vermont’s ACT College and Career Transition Exemplar for the 2016-2017 ACT College and Career Readiness Campaign. ACT identified BFA Fairfax as one of a select group of high schools in Vermont for the ACT College and Career Transition Award. High schools were identified based on ACT test data and high school demographics. ACT State Councils—comprised of education and workforce professionals from all 50 states—chose the school for state exemplar designation.

The work that has been accomplished could only have been made possible by supportive communities, strong school boards, visionary administrators, fabulous teachers, and outstanding students. FWSU continues to be guided by a belief in what is possible. As a learning community, we are leveraging all of the elements for success and want to inspire our followers to dream big dreams and believe in what is possible as well.

It’s one reason why we keep telling our story every day!

THE #FWSU STORY: Why Shared Leadership Matters

August 29, 2017, marked my 21st opening of school as a public school educator. It is one of my favorite days of the year. There is the excitement of watching students reconnect with their friends and staff members and the newness of establishing routines, expectations, and building relationships that will serve as the foundation for a successful year.

Shared LeadershipHowever, the work that leads to success is a result of extensive collaboration and a significant amount of planning throughout the previous school year and during the summer. At BFA Fairfax, we have begun implementing shared leadership teams to orchestrate the work of our school.

What is shared leadership?

“Shared leadership involves maximizing all of the human resources in an organization by empowering individuals and giving them an opportunity to take leadership positions in their areas of expertise. With more complex markets increasing the demands on leadership, the job in many cases is simply too large for one individual.” (Marshall Goldsmith, Harvard Business Review)

Never has this been more evident at BFA Fairfax and throughout Franklin West Supervisory Union. The days of a principal being the sole decision-maker and instructional leader have passed. The complexity of public education and the coordination of systems requires the input and facilitation of all members of the learning community. Shared leadership teams at BFA Fairfax have been instrumental in fueling our transformation and building our capacity for supporting our work around professional learning, Proficiency-Based Graduation Requirements/Flexible Learning Opportunities, budget development, curriculum development and oversight, data and assessment, positive behavioral interventions and supports, multi-tiered systems of supports, and supervision and evaluation practices.

BFA Fairfax Sign

Through our ongoing efforts to build leadership capacity we are experiencing increased decision-making that reflects all voices,  increased instructional coherence, increased coordination of resources to support learning for all, more focused collaboration using data to support instruction, and more sustained buy-in to school and district initiatives.

Any success achieved at BFA Fairfax is the result of dedicated teams of people working together to continuously improve our school. I feel so fortunate to work in a community and a learning organization that holds the belief that everyone is capable of leadership and is responsible to be a leader. I am so optimistic that our positive beginning to year will continue as a direct result of shared leadership.



Thomas Walsh is the Principal of BFA Fairfax Elementary Middle School and is a regular contributor to the FWSU Blog. You can follow him on Twitter @educatamount

Getting Comfortable with Data


Using data is essential in today’s classroom to improve instruction. To help achieve this goal, FWSU has launched a new resource for all teachers. Alpine Achievement is a secure data analysis warehouse for K-12 Schools that we began using in a small pilot last winter. Our experience was so successful we are launching the system across all of our schools.

Screen Shot 2017-09-14 at 2.29.33 PM

You may be wondering what is a data warehouse? It is a centralized repository of all school measurement data available in one, easy to use, location. Currently, our data is housed within several secure systems, but they are not all linked together. Linking the data into one easy-to-use dashboard will benefit both our students and our teachers.


A group of FWSU educators spent the last two days becoming a trainer-of-trainers in preparation for our upcoming inservice in October. At our upcoming inservice, each of our teachers will receive training in Alpine and will come away with a better understanding of how to use data to make decisions regarding instruction.


Alpine Achievement has been working with schools around the country to integrate data into their practice for over 18 years. Since FWSU began working with Alpine last year,  seven other school districts in Vermont have also decided to join us and use this innovative data warehouse. We forward to moving forward with data, understanding the stories that data can tell us and taking immediate action to improve learning for every student.

Target 2 – Leadership: FWSU students and staff lead innovative, personalized learning opportunities, both locally and globally.

Indicator of Success – Staff design and implement plans together.

Action Step – Shift teacher roles from director of teaching to facilitator of learning.


Over the summer a large television was added to the GEMS Middle School Lobby in preparation for an exciting new Innovation Lab project called GEMS TV.

Students create and produce content for GEMS TV

Students create and produce content for GEMS TV

The purpose of GEMS TV is to showcase the great work that students are doing in their classes across grade levels along with other informational content. A group of enthusiastic students will lead the technical implementation of GEMS TV as well.

As the school year begins, Mr. Hadd and Mrs. Payne are working with two classes to jump-start GEMS TV. One class focuses on content creation and the other is implementing the programming. Throughout the year, an Innovation Lab Advisory Group (AG) will meet each morning to curate and organize content as well as provide leadership for the project.

GEMS Innovation Lab Advisory Group

GEMS Innovation Lab Advisory Group

So many of the products created at GEMS are digital or live performance and often don’t lend themselves to being displayed for extended or repeated viewing. GEMS TV will bring this student work to new audiences as well as inform students, staff, and visitors about school information and events. GEMS TV has the potential to be a powerful communication tool.


GEMS TV on display at the school

Currently, a continuous 6-minute loop of images and video are on display on the middle school television. Soon this programming will be broadcast on a television in the main lobby as well. A future web stream may also bring selected content to other school devices and even home audiences over the internet. Once again, students will take the lead in developing and implementing the technical processes to make these innovations possible.