The FWSU Story: Do you Mindstorm? We do!

In fifth grade at BFA Fairfax, every student completes a 6-7 week Lego Mindstorms robots unit. This opportunity grew from the makerspace that was created by Rhonda Siemons, Kendra Myers, Victoria Reynolds and Sandy Brown in 2016 with the encouragement and support from then FWSU Superintendent, Ned Kirsch and current elementary principal, Tom Walsh. The makerspace was designed to meet the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) standards for all students in grades 3-5. One of the resources used to help students learn were Lego Mindstorms EV3’s. We are fortunate to have enough kits available so that students can work in pairs with one kit. The kits were obtained through grants, one of them being the STEM Challenge Initiative, Inc. abbreviated as SCI. The goal of the SCI board is to provide affordable and meaningful STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) educational opportunities for the communities in Franklin and Grand Isle Counties. It is a great resource for educators.

By working with the robots, from building to programming them, the students learn to investigate problems and find possible solutions. In addition to content specific skills, essential transferable skills such as collaborating and communicating are learned and practiced. From the first lesson on through to the end, students have to understand and interpret two-dimensional learning to create three-dimensional robots. Troubleshooting and perseverance is the name of the game. Mathematical concepts such as estimating and measuring distance, time, and speed are practiced. Fifth grade students will also be programming using Mindstorm EV3’s as part of their Starbase program in the Spring.

Each trimester, one class works with the Mindstorms for an hour a week for 6-7 weeks. Lessons are co-taught by both Sandy Brown and Rhonda Siemons. Students are excited for the “Mindstorm Day” to come. They assemble the robot together and by the end of the unit are programming it to do their bidding (within reason). The hour goes by quickly because students are engaged and challenged. 

In the new configuration of grades 5-8, we are grateful to Sandy Brown for growing this wonderful opportunity and expanding it into BFA Fairfax Middle School. When I asked Ms. Brown to to share a little about herself, she offered the following (next time you see her, please thank Sandy for all that she does-and has done for students over the years): 

“Over a 24 year time span, I have taught in grades 3-8, with 5th grade being the one I have taught the longest. I have a  master’s degree in science education. I lived in Fairfax with my husband and two daughters for 30 years, both daughters graduated from BFA. Our family has grown to include 2 son-in-laws and 2 grandchildren with one on the way. My husband and I now live in Winooski. I am so glad I can still be in Fairfax five days a week. Teaching has provided me with the special opportunity to be with children and work in science and social studies, two subjects that I absolutely love.”

Justin Brown is the Principal at BFA Fairfax Middle School is a regular contributor to THE FWSU STORY.

The FWSU Story: BFA Fairfax Cross Country and Track Athletes Find Motivation and Inspiration In An Evening with Elle Purrier

It’s not often that aspiring high school student-athletes have a face-to-face encounter with a world championship-calibur professional athlete. It’s even less often, and extremely rare, to have that athlete hail from their own backyard. This was just the case on the evening of Thursday, October 17, when BFA Fairfax Cross Country and Track athletes were treated to an up close and personal evening with Montgomery, VT native, and Richford High School graduate Elle Purrier, who now runs professionally for team New Balance. Home for a two week break, fresh off her recent appearance in the finals of the IAAF World Track and Field Championship 5000 meter race, Purrier spoke with starry eyed student-athletes from four Franklin County high schools.  

Student-athletes were inspired by her down to earth reflections on coming from a rural Vermont school, adapting to college at the University of New Hampshire, and balancing the demands of being a student, athlete, and individual. Attendees were able to ask questions ranging from the typical day in the life of a professional runner, to what the differences were like in Doha, Qatar (the site of the recent World Championships). 

BFA Fairfax student-athletes were able to spend time afterward with Purrier, asking questions, getting autographs, and taking pictures with their newfound mentor and hero. Sophomores Nikki Cholewa and Kali Wooster were able to connect with Purrier on a personal level, as they shared their experience of coming in 2nd in the state championship 4×400 race last June by only one tenth of a second. Just this past September, Purrier had narrowly missed a first place finish in the prestigious 5th Avenue Mile race, held in New York City, by the exact same margin. Purrier candidly and playfully responded “it really lights a fire under your backside, doesn’t it?” As simple as they were, those words will forever be etched in the minds of Nikki, Kali and their teammates for the remainder of their careers, and years to come.  

Purrier at IAAF World Track and Field Championship

BFA Fairfax is so fortunate to have had this opportunity, and would like to thank Elle Purrier, Richford High School Cross Country coach Richard Flint, and Richford High School for hosting this memorable event. We hope to see you in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Elle!  

Geri Witalec-Krupa is an Athletic Director/Assistant Principal at BFA Fairfax is a regular contributor to THE FWSU STORY. You can follow her @GLWit

The FWSU Story: BFA Fairfax Elementary Implements Art Integration Opportunities

BFA Fairfax Elementary is implementing a new learning opportunity this year by integrating art and core curriculum. Every classroom will collaborate to express their learning, make connections and have fun through art integration. 

Research indicates: There are powerful resources for integrating the arts daily curriculum:

  1. The arts make content more accessible.
  2. The arts encourage joyful, active learning.
  3. The arts help students make connections and express personal connections to content.
  4. The arts help children understand and express abstract concepts.
  5. The arts stimulate higher-level thinking.
  6. The arts build community help children develop collaborative work skills.

(Lively Learning, Linda Crawford)

Mrs Knapp’s language arts class was the first group to participate. Fourth grade students explored how animals can have symbolic meaning. Students learned about the symbolism of the tiger in the book The Tiger Rising, then chose an animal to represent or protect themselves. Students researched Native American symbolic meaning of animals, using iPads for image searches. With choice of a variety of art supplies, students demonstrated their creativity through creation of animal masks. They decided what the most important features of their animals were, then came up with ways to use the materials to sculpt, paint and add texture. Finally, they reflected in an artist statement. 

We are really excited to offer this integrated learning opportunity. The results of the first group indicate that students were highly engaged, experienced a deeper understanding of the content, and their creativity was on display for the benefit of all. Thank you to Kim Desjardins and Sandy Knapp for your collaboration and efforts to engage all students. We are looking forward to seeing all the different creative learning opportunities this school year.

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

Contributions by Kim Desjardins and Sandy Knapp

The FWSU Story: GEMS and BFA Go To School Maker Day

This year, students from both BFA and GEMS were able to go to the first ever School Maker Day at the Shelburne Farms Coach Barn, in Shelburne.

Students had the opportunity to explore and engage in experiments and projects around electronics, coding, robots, 3D printing, drones and music. This was a great way to take connect the innovative learning they are doing in classrooms with the maker community.

As an extension of the innovator classes, the middle students were also charged with collecting the multimedia for this blogpost. With the mobile technology of iPads in their hands, students documented several of the activities to compile a brief insight into the day’s festivities.

Angelique Fairbrother is the Digital Learning Coach at Franklin West Supervisory Union. She is a regular contributor to THE FWSU STORY. You can follow her on Twitter @FWSUtech.

The FWSU Story: Advisory and “Flex” Time at BFA High School

As we work to provide support for our students in our proficiency based high school, BFA has started the year with new systems and structures built into our daily schedule. The changes center around our daily “Advisory” time with the goal of improving access to intervention and enrichment for all students.

In the past, our Advisory time was a half hour at the end of every day where students could get assistance from teachers, work on homework, attend club meetings, prepare for their exhibitions, schedule classes, review their academic progress, and hold class meetings. Students were assigned an Advisor as they entered high school and worked with that advisor through graduation. One of the goals of this system was to foster a relationship between the student and their advisor so that every student had at least one trusted adult in the building. 

Having a trusted adult in the building is an important marker of success in high school. Our Youth Risk and Behavior Survey results showed that around 80% of our students reported that they did have at least one trusted adult. At quick glance this seems like a fairly positive statistic, but when you look through the other lens, it means that 1 in 5 of our students reported that they did not have that trusted adult. It seemed that in our quest to have Advisory fill so many needs, we may have lost out on the relationship aspect that we knew to be so important.

Our approach to address that need while still providing an opportunity for all of the other important work and needs of our students had two components. First, we separated out a part of the day for Advisory based solely on connections and relationships. Second, we acquired a software system that allows students to be flexibly scheduled based on their academic and personal needs.

Ninth Grade Advisory Activity

Advisory is held every morning after block one. Students meet with their advisor for 10 minutes. The goal is to build connections between students and their advisor and among all the students in that advisory. Each advisory group has developed a schedule of activities for the week. The activities might include “Weekend Check-in”, “Trivia Tuesday”, “Game Day”, “Walkabout Wednesday” or “Question of the Week”. This gives students some predictability, purpose, and buy-in. 

Tenth Grade Advisory Group Discussion

“I love it. It’s nice to have one clear focus of connecting with kids for that time everyday”

– Will Brooks, SS Teacher

Every afternoon, we hold a “Flex Block”. On Monday, all students meet with their advisory teacher to develop a schedule for the week based on their academic needs, interests, and goals using the Adaptive Scheduler software. 9th and 10th grade students are scheduled to be with their advisors every Monday and Wednesday to work on Exhibition related tasks. Students are able to schedule themselves for the rest of their week, unless one of their teachers has requested them. 

Sample 9th grade Flex Schedule

Teachers can schedule students to come directly to their room for academic intervention or enrichment. The goal is for students to recognize when and where they will need support and plan ahead. Teachers are able to provide more timely support for students through the scheduling process. 

Students can schedule themselves for club meetings and wellness activities if their proficiency levels are met. This system has eliminated the time needed to check in with their advisor before going to another teacher for assistance. Attendance is taken based on where students have selected. It may sound complicated, but with just a few “clicks” student weekly schedules are developed based on their individual needs. 

Sample 11th grade Flex Schedule

“I like Flex Block a lot better this year. The list system we used last year wasn’t efficient. This year we have our own flexibility. I’m glad we still have Mandatory Monday”

– Abigail S., Grade 11 student

Our work as high school this year is to continue developing a culture that supports proficiency, intervention, and equity. These changes are an important part of that work. We will continue to develop systems to provide timely intervention and enrichment options for our students as they work toward our Proficiency Based Graduation Requirements.

John Tague is the Principal of BFA Fairfax High School and is a regular contributor to THE FWSU STORY. You can follow him @jtague252

The FWSU Story: New Leadership Joins Our Schools

Two schools within the FWSU have new principals joining the team this year. Georgia Elementary and Middle School welcomed Julie Conrad as the Middle School Principal, and Bellows Free Academy – Fairfax welcomes Justin Brown, also as Middle School Principal. Both principals have had a highly successful start to the school year.

Mr. Brown, BFA Fairfax Middle School Principal

Justin is delighted to reconnect with his home community of Fairfax. With a range of experience over the past 10 years in both local and international schools as Principal of Winooski High School, Assistant Principal of Colchester High School and Principal of Vilnius International School (in Vilnius, Lithuania), he is committed to growing BFA Fairfax grades 5-8 into the best it can be. As Principal, Brown often says his primary charge is building a sense of unity and identity throughout grades 5-8 at BFA Fairfax. 

In this new position at BFA Fairfax, Justin brings expertise developing and actively building on a solid foundation of work in the areas of Proficiencies-Based Personalized Learning; sharing leadership and learning among staff and students; ensuring safe, healthy, equitable and flexible learning environments; and involvement of family and community partners. 

He is the first to say that what drew him initially, and now on his return to Fairfax, is the sense of community and focus on what is best for kids. Each day, he enjoys visiting and checking in with students and their teachers throughout their classrooms and throughout the building, as well as at after school activities.

Ms. Conrad, Georgia Middle School Principal, first day of school

Julie Conrad comes to GEMS this year having ten years experience as a high school math teacher, served 3 years as the State Mathematics Coordinator for the Vermont Agency of Education, a project manager and instructor in the Vermont Mathematics Initiative at UVM, and the last five years as the Mathematics Coordinator at Mount Abraham Unified School District. She has also been an educational consultant with various schools and districts around Vermont and New England. Julie has received her BS in Secondary Mathematics Education from the University of Vermont and a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership. She has special interests curriculum, assessment, and instruction; brain research; proficiency-based learning, restorative justice, and integration of technology into K-12 student learning. Aside from work, Julie loves to spend time with her three children playing board games. She can also be found creating and enjoying the arts (visual and performing), baking, swimming or being in nature. 

Ms. Conrad with Thomas & Amelia Weber

From Ms. Conrad… “The start of the year has been going well, largely due to the amazing staff and educators that make GEMS a great place to work and learn. My personal focus for my first year at GEMS is to strengthen our learning community through developing strong relationships. This means I am actively working to build my relationships with the students, adults, and families that make up the GEMS community. I have enjoyed getting to know the teachers and students through daily interactions, welcoming them to the building, visiting with them in lunch, and visiting their classrooms to look at the learning. The Middle School students at GEMS are amazing resources that are constantly curious and offer great ideas daily about how they think we can make GEMS better from them as learners and people. It is also my hope to strengthen communication and collaboration between parents and our school. Open House is a great start to meeting our GEMS families and sharing with them about goals around proficiencies as this will be on-going work for our school in the next few years. “

Donald Van Nostrand is the Interim Superintendent of Schools at Franklin West Supervisory Union. He is a regular contributor to THE FWSU STORY. You can follow him on Twitter at @dsvannostrand

Be sure to follow FWSU on Facebook and #FWSU on Twitter to see more exciting things happening in our schools!

THE FWSU Story: BFA Fairfax, “A great place to learn and grow”

Dear Families and the FWSU Community:

Almost unbelievably, we are approaching October. I am happy to share that students throughout BFA Fairfax are deeply engaged in learning and their classroom communities.  Throughout grades 5-8, walking through classrooms, visiting with students in the hallways and in the lunch room have offered countless reminders as to why BFA Fairfax is a great place to learn and grow.

Over our first few weeks, students have learned about Growth Mindset, delved into historical research using primary and secondary sources, thoughtfully discussed ancient mythology, set learning expectations, designed their portfolios, analyzed plant species, sung and played their hearts-out, visited the Farm to School Program, along with simply connecting and reconnecting with their peers and the BFA staff & faculty.  It has also been great to see so many students involved in co-curriculars from athletics to the arts after school and on weekends, both as participants and as supporters.

At BFA Fairfax, we pride ourselves on rigorous and engaging learning both within class and in the broader community. In the near future, 5th Graders are preparing for a trip to the Stowe Performing Arts Center; 6th Grade is on their way to Science on the Green excursion in Montpelier; 7th Grade is preparing for a team-building trip to Craftsbury; and in 8th Grade, preparations have begun for the annual trip to Boston. Beyond these, there are many other opportunities to come.  For any of our learning opportunities, in the event that you would like to volunteer, I encourage you to complete the FWSU Volunteer Agreement form. This can be found at under the Human Resources tab. Please consider completing this form immediately, as you only have to do this once per year. Volunteer Agreement Forms MUST be completed at least 48 hours in advance of any event.

In other exciting news, BFA Fairfax (and FWSU) has successfully moved to round II of a grant to receive two electric school buses. This grant opportunity will allow BFA Fairfax to collect important data on the feasibility of non-polluting electric buses for our community and the state of Vermont. This opportunity comes at NO ADDITIONAL COST to us over the price of our conventional diesel buses. The cost of the charging station and the installation is no additional cost to us! If (when) we win the grant, driver and mechanical/maintenance training are also included- at no cost to us. If this is an opportunity you support, please write to Patsy Parker ( so that we can include letters of support in order to strengthen our application.  

Thank you for the opportunity of allowing us to work with your young people.  We appreciate all of the support you, as families and as a community, offer to us in our work every day.

Educationally yours,

Justin Brown

Justin Brown is the Principal at BFA Fairfax Middle School is a regular contributor to THE FWSU STORY.

Be sure to follow FWSU on Facebook and #FWSU on Twitter to see more exciting things happening in our schools!