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Focus On Basics

Volume 7, Issue D ::: September 2005

The Community High School of Vermont

An Uncommon High School in An Uncommon Setting

by Tom Woods
Everyone in Vermont is entitled to a free and appropriate public education, and it must be equal for all Vermonters regardless of race, age, gender, religion, or personal condition. It is a basic civil right written into the state’s constitution. The overwhelming majority of the state’s incarcerated population are high school dropouts. A great many of them are youth aged 17 to 22 years. The state legislature was concerned that offenders, especially young offenders, did not have access to public education. In response, the state enacted in its Public Institutions and Corrections statutes Public Law 28VSA120, which created an independent school within the Department of Corrections, approved by the Vermont Department of Education, able to award secondary credit and high school diplomas. This independent school has come to be known as the Community High School of Vermont (CHSVT).

With 47 full-time teachers and approximately 350 part-time adjunct teachers distributed among the state’s nine correctional facilities, the school offers courses and instruction to youth and adults. The CHSVT is also present in eight community probation and parole sites to allow students to complete schooling they started in prison.

The state law that created CHSVT made education mandatory for incarcerated offenders who are under 22 years of age and who do not yet have a high school diploma or an equivalent credential. School is voluntary for older offenders and high school graduates. As Vermont’s largest high school, CHSVT has a total enrollment of more than 4,100 students: approximately 85 percent male, 15 percent female. Of the 3,206 individuals served in 2004, 2,179 were incarcerated in correctional facilities and 1,027 lived in community settings. These enrollment figures are deceptive, however. That they can be tabulated and readily presented in two sentences might cause one to envision a large, static, and captive population of students that is parceled out into various classrooms from September to June, completing coursework until they either graduate or their sentences are completed. The reality is more complicated. A typical offender may enter one correctional facility, then move numerous times to other facilities within the system. Disciplinary actions, threats of violence, health and safety needs, failure to meet programming expectations, court appearances, and population management all contribute to inmate movement. Offenders who reside in the community under field supervision or on probation can receive disciplinary sanctions that send them back to prison for rule violations, causing individuals to bounce back and forth between prison and the community. It is not unusual to find that one person has moved as many as 16 times in a year.

As well as the student body being transitory, many students are also former dropouts and many have long histories of school failure. CHSVT faculty members have created a structure and delivery system to re-engage students. They have had to cast off many traditional practices of public education because they didn’t work with the students when they were in public school and they aren’t effective with them now. The CHVST delivery system is effective because it: motivates students by providing a pathway to a real diploma; emphasizes student-centered approaches; accommodates individualized student needs; and fosters positive teacher-student relationships.

Individual Graduation Plans

The CHSVT diploma is the same as any other public school diploma awarded in Vermont. To graduate, students must earn 20 credits in the school’s course of study, including credits in English language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, health, art, trades and vocational studies, and computer studies. In addition, students must demonstrate a minimum level of proficiency in reading, writing, and mathematics.

Entering students’ graduation needs vary greatly. Some were expelled from school when they were in the eighth grade and may not have earned any high school credits. Others may need just one or two more credits to earn a high school diploma. At any given time, 40 percent of students have a prior history of being placed in special education classes. In many instances students’ academic skills are significantly behind those of their age peers. Still other students may have completed the required coursework to earn credit in their public school, but were not awarded any credit because they had too many absences. Some students are returning to school after 30 or 40 years.

No matter what the student’s background may be, faculty work with him or her to craft what CHSVT calls an individual graduation plan: a roadmap for attainment of a high school diploma. In the graduation planning process, teachers interview students to learn what their strengths are. Teachers find out what the students want to learn more about, what they have done since leaving school, and what they want to accomplish in the future. The school obtains students’ prior education records and transcripts. Teachers and students devise ways to assess and award credit for the prior learning. Looking at what has already been accomplished and what still remains, the student and teacher map out a strategy for fulfilling the remaining graduation requirements. The students choose the courses to meet these requirements.

The individual graduation plan becomes a working document used to record a student’s progress as he or she earns credits. It includes transcripts, charts showing credits earned and credits needed, worksheets detailing how needed credits will be earned, and a statement verifying the student’s proficiency in the basic skills of reading, writing, and mathematics. The graduation plan resides physically in a student’s education file and follows the student wherever he or she goes in the system.

Choosing Courses

Working within the school’s graduation requirements, students decide which courses to take. Teachers are encouraged to teach their passions and, in turn, respond to students’ interests. This has resulted in a wide variety of course offerings ranging from the traditional textbook course to highly experiential, hands-on learning.

Classes tend to be small, with perhaps four to eight students in each. The hour-long classes are usually scheduled two or three days per week; occasionally they run just one day, or every day. The number of classes students take at any one time varies because students have different demands on their time. Some, for example, are participating in programming related to their substance addiction; others have facility jobs or work in corrections industries. As mentioned previously, students under 22 years old are required by state law to go to school if they do not already have a diploma. They must attend courses totaling at least 15 hours of class time per week, or approximately three hours of school per day.

The school enters into independent learning contracts with students. These contracts may follow the prescribed course of study, but the student does some or all of the work independently outside of class. As an alternative, a contract may involve a unique set of learning objectives that do not fit any existing course, but involve an area of study about which the student is passionate. For example, one student found himself in need of just one more English language arts credit, but none of the language arts courses offered at his school appealed to him. He and a teacher worked out a plan whereby the student would study dogs and kenneling, a subject about which he was passionate. They agreed on course requirements that addressed language arts topics of reading, responding, verbal and written expression, and research. The student was excited about coming away with not just the language arts credit he needed but also valuable information that would serve him well when he starts his own kennel: a goal of his when he returns to the community.


Sometimes a new student, who doesn’t know about graduation plans, says, “I don’t want school. I only want a GED [certificate of completion of the tests of General Educational Development].” The CHSVT prefers a diploma, but it will assist any student in attaining a GED if that is the student’s goal. The CHSVT will help students prepare, make arrangements for testers to come to the site, and pay for the tests. Faculty members use this as an opportunity to connect with the students and encourage them to use the GED as a starting point for continuing their education rather than as an end point. The school often finds that goals change for the student who initially “only wants a GED,” once he or she considers new options and is exposed to other students’ ideas through attendance in classes and graduation ceremonies, and looking at transcripts that list newly earned credits. Students see others making progress on their diplomas and they want to experience that success too. Many students who earn a GED go on and work on their diploma.


When students meet with CHSVT teachers for the first time, they often report a sense of hopelessness about their prospects for graduation. They say that their previous difficulties in school make them think it will be impossible or pointless to try to earn a diploma.

The CHSVT faculty motivate students by showing them that getting a diploma is not the impossible task they think it is. Teachers make the school environment a place where students will feel safe and be treated respectfully. In such an environment, there is kindness; there are no put-downs. Teachers work to create the idea that when students walk through the classroom door, they leave the prison environment and enter a world that respects and values learning, in which everyone has something to offer. Confidentiality is respected. In only two situations are teachers required to report to authorities what is said in the classroom: when the teacher believes that a crime is being, or is about to be, committed; and when the teacher believes that an individual’s safety is at risk.

Commenting on the character of the CHSVT, students said: You don’t remind us of teachers. You don’t come in and preach to us. You work around my needs. —J.H.

You treat us like we’re in school, not prison. It’s a student/teacher relationship versus an inmate/guard relationship. —D.S.

At first I didn’t want to come to school, but I got to like it. I even got another person to join the health class. Now he’s in school all the time. —S.G.

Frequent feedback is another motivating factor. Students can monitor their own progress by pulling out their graduation plans. They receive credit awards soon after they complete course requirements, and with everyone talking about progress, credits, graduation plans, and diplomas, even the students who arrived thinking a diploma was beyond reach begin to see that a diploma is possible.

Receiving credit on the basis of what they know or can do rather than on time spent in class is also motivating. Tests, portfolios, projects, and other student-generated products serve as assessments that document students’ knowledge and skills. These products are used to fulfill course requirements necessary to earn credit. For instance, a mathematics course may use a textbook that has chapter pretests and posttests. Students can leapfrog over chapters they already know, or even the whole text, by passing chapter pretests.

In a creative writing course, the requirements may ask a student to compile a portfolio of a variety of types of writing. The writing must show evidence of proper use of writing conventions, use of the writing process, and clear expression of ideas in final drafts. A student may write very quickly outside of class to produce the finished portfolio. It sometimes takes time for students to get used to the idea that, in CHSVT, they can work through the requirements very quickly if they so choose. This provides a strong incentive for students to study outside the classroom.

The school recognizes learning that takes place everywhere. Teachers assess prior learning through tests, portfolios, and assigned tasks that require students to demonstrate skills or use knowledge. Prior learning credits are powerful motivators. They jump-start a student’s education, particularly when he or she has no academic credits to begin with.

Instead of using grades, the school measures progress by assessing students’ proficiency in fulfilling the course requirements. In a history class, for example, a student may be asked to demonstrate certain skills in archiving and handling old documents. This could be met by observing the student as he or she uses proper techniques. In an oil painting class, one requirement may ask a student to use elements of composition such as line, texture, and negative space. A teacher might assess the student’s ability by asking him or her to point out these elements in his or her completed paintings. In a math course in which the course objectives include performing basic operations with whole numbers, a math test that asks the student to perform these operations will be a suitable assessment. A defined minimum score on the test would signify proficiency. The important point is that if the student does not demonstrate proficiency, it doesn’t mean the he or she has failed. It just means the student has not yet reached the necessary level of proficiency to receive credit. The student is given as much time as he or she needs and is encouraged to keep trying until he or she succeeds.

Open Entry/Open Exit

The CHSVT has adopted a model it calls open-entry/open-exit to make it possible to accommodate students who enter and leave in midstream. In this model, as much as possible, courses are designed so that each lesson can stand alone. A “stand-alone” class can be envisioned by thinking of a guest lecture series at a museum, or a guided nature walk with a park ranger. People attending such activities need not have attended previous sessions to benefit from the current one. In the CHSVT History of the 20th Century course each decade is addressed separately over just a few classes. A student may not have been present for the 1920s lessons and started sometime during the 1960s lessons. The student can start anywhere in the course and will eventually be able to pick up all the lessons when the cycle repeats. This works very well for most subject areas, and enables teachers to award partial credits when students leave before completing a course.

Mathematics requires both scope (what is taught) and sequence (in what order) because a student must work through a definite progression of math concepts and skills. In a CHSVT mathematics course, each student works at his or her own pace. In the classroom some students may be learning place value, others fraction addition, still others algebra or geometry. The teacher does not say, “today we are going to study ______,” but instead cruises among students, providing individual help and feedback as needed.

Both stand-alone and the self-paced individualized methods of instruction are extremely well suited to the transitory nature of the student body. Both are also very conducive to adaptations and accommodations for students with special needs or those with large gaps in their knowledge base. They allow teachers to work with the student at his or her level rather than force teachers to aim for the middle of the class’s range of abilities. Each student gets exactly what he or she needs.

Because failure in school has been such a big part of CHSVT students’ lives, the school works very hard to remove the possibility of failure. Most students who were once labeled as learning disabled or emotionally disturbed in public schools do just fine in the CHSVT regular education program. This is because features common to special education programs, such as individualized self-paced instruction and small groups, are built in and available to every student.

Challenges Old and New

CHSVT has had its bumps. Corrections education in Vermont was essentially born of a problem. The state’s youth who ran afoul of the law and ended up in state correctional facilities were not being educated under local educational jurisdictions. Moreover, the local school district did not want to pay for students’ education once they were under the custody or supervision of the Department of Corrections. The legislation that created the school opened up an alternative way to provide education to the state’s incarcerated youth. The political battle remains over how to pay for it: should it be funded with general fund tax dollars as it is now, or should education funds be used to pay for prison education?

Corrections issues are sometimes at odds with education issues. Security may deem it necessary to lock down a living unit, at worst putting a halt to all education for the day. At best, students come to classes, but they are agitated and distracted. The school can live with lock-downs and other security concerns. A more pressing and serious concern is attitudes. A few individuals (fortunately a very few) believe that inmates are incapable of change, that they will always con you if you let them, and that the only effective means of management are punishment and force. This attitude is out of step with the Department of Corrections’ mission and runs counter to fundamental beliefs of the school. To combat this attitude, teachers try to inform all corrections personnel of the school’s activities. They seek to involve staff in individual student matters, for example, inviting officers to attend a graduation ceremony, asking officers to assist in reminding a student to attend a class, or to provide encouragement. A continual public relations campaign is waged in which corrections staff are reminded that the school’s successes with students are made possible by the help and cooperation of all staff, and that the school assists security by taking the young, difficult inmates and engaging them in productive activity rather than allowing them to be idle.

A form of détente has evolved between the CHSVT and Department of Corrections. The school does not make corrections decisions. Corrections does not make education decisions. Occasionally the lines are crossed, but, for the most part, the détente holds.

Looking ahead, many challenges remain. The school has recently completed what it considers to be its core curriculum, and now must decide how that core should be implemented at all of its sites. Faculty members are also working to define better the methods for awarding credit for prior learning, in much the same way that prior learning credits are awarded at the college level. The school is attempting to expand its use of course syllabi, which will improve the practice of making credit requirements explicit for students and keeping track of students’ progress.

In the future, we will attempt to resolve our longstanding dispute with the state Department of Education. The funding issue, especially funding for special education, is thorny. Since more than 40 percent of our students have a history of receiving special education services, it must be determined whether the student continues to be eligible for special services while incarcerated. Making these determinations and complying with special education law requires personnel and resources. The school has difficulty keeping up with the paperwork requirements. In most cases, however, because of the school’s model of education delivery, in which all students can work at their own pace and receive individual help when it is needed, students don’t need special education services while at CHSVT. They are able to make progress through the regular education program successfully. As a result, the school receives very little special education money from the state Department of Education. In fact, CHSVT special education has been level funded since 1987, despite a threefold increase in student numbers.

The special education issue leads into the much larger and more complicated issue of providing education at the school’s eight community sites. The CHSVT is at loggerheads with the Department of Education over who pays for special education at the community sites. While accepting financial responsibility for special education students who are incarcerated, the CHSVT maintains that youth in the community on probation are the financial responsibility of the community, and local school districts must pick up the tab. The Department of Education disagrees. The result of this impasse is there is no special education for youth in the CHSVT community sites.

Hiding just under the surface of this disagreement is another issue. Right now, in a very few cases, local school districts are referring students to the CHSVT community sites, as an alternative placement, and the students want to attend. The school was never intended to serve youth who are not under the custody or supervision of the Department of Corrections. At present the CHSVT has no authority to bill school districts for services rendered. This has not stopped CHSVT from accepting community students. Where this will lead and whether it is good for Vermonters is as yet unclear. CHSVT faculty members have expertise with students who have traditionally been labeled as difficult, and the school has established practices that help meet these students’ needs. The larger issue of governance will need to be decided. Vermonters will have to ask themselves: Do we want a statewide school to serve some of our citizens? If so, to what standards will it be held accountable? If not, how will we enable local schools to educate all of our youth?

A Decade

Meanwhile, CHSVT is entering its tenth year as an independent school. Last year it awarded 106 diplomas. That’s a long way from the 18 diplomas awarded in its first year. The school has changed attitudes of offenders from one of “I dropped out when I was 16 and you can’t make me go to school” to one in which an offender enters a new correctional facility and stops at the school office to ask, “Where is my grad plan, where are my credits?” The school has seen its students participate in rowing races on Lake Champlain; history students have worked in cooperation with museums and town historical societies to help organize and preserve their collections; CHSVT art exhibitions have been held on college campuses; horticulture students have entered prize-winning vegetables at state fairs. Graduates don their navy blue robes and mortarboards as the school itself dons the common trappings of a high school in a most uncommon setting, helping to ensure all Vermonters’ constitutional entitlement to an appropriate public education.

About the Author
Tom Woods is member of the faculty of the Community High School of Vermont, where he works as a corrections instructor and special education instructor at the Caledonia Community Work Camp, a minimum security correctional facility in St. Johnsbury. Tom also serves on the school’s Curriculum Policy and Practices Committee.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL