Alternative colleges in Vermont make the grade

Education: Alternative colleges in Vermont make the grade

Marcel, Joyce

Vermont is a living laboratory of creative approaches to higher education. With its exceptionally diverse collection of small and specialized institutions, if one were a fan of marketing jargon, one could call the state a leader in “niche education.”

The state’s history of educational innovation goes way back. The blackboard was created about 180 years ago by educator Samuel Reed Hall of Concord, who also wrote the country’s first teaching manual. Vermont was the home of US Congressman and Senator Justin Smith Morrill, who wrote the Land Grant College Acts in 1862 and 1890. Millions of Americans throughout the country owe their college educations to colleges created by those acts. The state was also the birthplace of philosopher John Dewey, the foremost educator of his time and the leading proponent of progressive education.

The tradition continues today. Norwich University, in Northfield, founded in 1819, is the oldest private military academy in the United States and the creator of the Reserve Officers Training Corps. Goddard College in Plainfield was born out of the back-to-the-land movement of the 1930s and is a leader in alternative education. Bennington College was founded in 1932 and has maintained an international reputation for its teaching methods, liberal student rules, and artistic achievements. Middlebury College hosts the internationally renowned Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Landmark College in Putney teaches students with learning disabilities. The School for International Training (SIT), part of World Learning in Brattleboro, focuses on international issues. Marlboro College features a Town Meeting form of government and places a heavy emphasis on tutorials. St Joseph’s College in Rutland closely ties its classroom education to work in the community. Green Mountain College in Poultney is in the process of creating a four-year liberal arts curriculum based on environmental studies.

“Vermont has an exceptionally diverse collection of higher educational institutions; and we compliment each other in very creative way” said Green Mountain College President Dr Thomas L Benson. “Vermont is a desirable center for people who are interested in creative and alternative approaches to high education.”

Vermont has a large number of alternative colleges, but no way to describe them, said Rod Gander, president of Marlboro College. “There are 17 of us,” Gander said. “On a per capita basis, we probably have more than any state in the Union. Yet, there’s no good name for us. No one likes the word “alternative,” yet it’s hard to come up with a different name for the group. The only thing that ties us together is that we do things differently than the others. The other term is “innovative,” but it doesn’t fit well either. When I think of private liberal arts colleges, I think of schools with 1,400 to 2,200 students, whose curriculums look pretty much the same. That doesn’t mean they’re not good colleges. They are. What sets apart the alternatives is that each has a different approach. But there’s no way to bind us together, because each of us has a different approach from the other alternatives.”

Why are there so many alternative colleges in Vermon? Some are here because of happenstance, and some could be no place else. Norwich, for example, was founded in 1819 by Captain Alden Partridge, a former superintendent at West Point.

“Partridge was born at Norwich in 1785, the son of a Vermont farmer,” said Senior Vice President Richard Hansen. “When he left West Point, he started an academy in Norwich based on the concept of service and the citizen solider. He moved the school to Connecticut and then moved it back to Vermont. I don’t know why Partridge came back to Vermont, but he was a good friend of the senator from Vermont, Justin Morrill.”

Vermont is more open to nontraditional styles of learning, said Rebecca Burk, Goddard’s assistant director for alumni and public relations.

“Non-traditional folks cluster to Vermont because we’re more receptive to alternative ways of thinking and learning here.” Burk said. The founder of World Learning (then called the Experiment in International Living), Donald Watt, came to Vermont because he was a friend of Carmelita Hinton, the founder of another famous leader in Vermont’s alternative education community, the Putney School.

“Watt wanted his children to go there, so he brought his family here.” said SIT President Neal Mangham. “Since SIT grew out of what the Experiment was doing in the ’60s, that’s why were here.”

Some schools draw students because they are in Vermont, and some would draw the same students no matter where they were located. For example, Vermont plays very little part in attracting students to 10-year-old Landmark College, said its president, Dr Linda Katz.

“The fact that the school is in Vermont is not unattractive, particularly for people who like being outdoors and winter sports,” Katz said. “But two of our largest pockets of enrollment are California and Texas, and those students aren’t coming here because it’s Vermont. They like hot weather. They’re coming here because it’s Landmark.”

But Marlboro finds that Vermont attracts students, Gander said.

“An awful lot of students in the Northeast and Northwest really want to go to New England, especially Vermont,” Gander said. “They look for a small college in Vermont because that’s what they want, and they find Marlboro. This is a tolerant state, an attractive state, and a lot of students want to avoid any urban environment. They want to get away. Of course, a lot of other kids wouldn’t come here on a bet. They need the bright lights But some students find Vermont attractive and even romantic.”

Here’s, a look at some alternative approaches to education in Vermont:

* Goddard. which is in Plainfield, was founded as a seminary in 1863. After going through several changes, in 1938 it became the school we know today, one founded on Dewey’s principles of education. The school’s peak enrollment years were in the 1970s, when the student body was approximately 1,000. Today, enrollment is 500.

Goddard, with a faculty-student ratio of six-to-one, believes that people learn experientially. It substitutes comments and reports from instructors for letter grades, and students design their own degree programs.

“There are no required courses, which is different from, say, UVM,” said public relations assistant director Burk. “At Goddard, you work with your advisor on what you’re going to study. Also, a student can do their own independent study, like taking a course which is not being taught and work with a mentor or faculty advisor. It’s a very different kind of place to study, because you really have to direct yourself.”

Goddard is now experiencing growth with five masters’ degree programs, Burk said.

“They are called ‘low-residency’,” Burk said. “A student comes on campus at the beginning of the term, has an intense one-week with other students and faculty, leaves campus, goes home, and does independent study. Many work over the Internet with faculty members. It’s helpful for a non-traditional learner with a full-time job or a family. In the master’ s degree programs, enrollment is way up.”

* Norwich, with campuses in Northfield, Montpelier and Brattleboro, is 176 years old. It is the largest of the alternative schools and offers graduate and undergraduate degrees. At Northfield, it has 1,600 college-age students, 950 in the Corps of Cadets and the balance as civilians. Four hundred live on campus. Its Montpelier campus, Vermont College, has

.000 adult students at the graduate and undergraduate level. The college features “low residency” programs, where students come to campus for a certain number of days for intensive work and then work at home. The school’s applicant base is very strong, said Vice President Hanson. This year, tee Corps had a 44 percent increase in first-year students and 22 percent increase in civilian students.

Norwich has a unique atmosphere, Hanson said. “Students and parents want a disciplined environment, where academics are encouraged,” Hanson said. “Both civilian and Corps students tell us they like the atmosphere here. Also, we’re known as a teaching institution. We do not have graduates teaching undergraduates. We have a teaching faculty.”

About 50 percent of Corps students enter the military when they finish, Hanson said.

“But people can use the same leadership skills at their first job at IBM, or starting their own business, or at Ben & Jerry’s,” he said. In 1974, Norwich predated the service academies by enrolling women. It garnered positive publicity last year when women started legal proceedings to get into the Virginia Military Institute. Currently, 15 percent of the Corps is female.

“The uniqueness of Norwich is the diversity,” Hanson said. “We have adult students, a military component and a civilian component. It’s a ‘real world’ situation.”

* Marlboro College, in Marlboro, was founded in 1947, after the GI Bill was passed, as a place where veterans could get an education. Three things now differentiate Marlboro from other alternative schools, said President Gander.

“We have 260 students, and that’s damn small,” Gander said. “If we were any larger, we couldn’t have the two other distinguishing characteristics. The second is that all the work in the senior year, and most in the junior year, is done in tutorials, one-on-one. Every student has to complete an intensive, in-depth study of a particular subject under the guide of mentor faculty.”

The third distinguishing characteristic is that Marlboro runs on a New England Town Meeting style of government.

“Most quality-of-life issues, or nonacademic issues, and some academic issues, are debated by the entire college–students, faculty and staff–with each person having one vote,” Gander said.

Marlboro is now within 20 students of its optimum size and cannot grow much larger without losing its character. But it has an applicant pool two and a half times larger than it had 10 years ago, Gander said, when the student body numbered 160.

“We do all the recruiting things that everybody does,” Gander said. “We’re a national college. The majority of out students find us, rather than us finding them.”

* Landmark College, in Putney, is an accredited two-year college which offers an associate degree to students with learning disabilities, including dyslexia and attention deficit disorders. It is a true niche school, said its president, Dr Linda Katz.

“People come to Landmark because of Landmark.” Katz said. “There isn’t another school like it.”

While two other schools in the US have programs for people with learning disabilities, their teaching philosophies are not the same as Landmark’s, Katz said. The others try to bypass learning disabilities, while Landmark tries to correct them.

“In Landmark, the approach is to remediate,” Katz said. “We work with students at the levels they are on, and teach those skills that are lacking.”

Landmark just celebrated its 10th anniversary with an international “state of the art” conference at Mt Ascutney Resort on learning disabilities, Katz said. Its first class had 77 students. This fall, the school had its largest enrollment ever, 240 students. Its intention is to grow to 350 students over the next five or six years.

Although Landmark does not have a strong Vermont background, it makes a large economic contribution to the state, Katz said.

“We’re a very large employer,” Katz said. “We have probably the highest student-teacher ratio in the country, under three-to-one. This makes us a very expensive college. We have nearly 100 full-time faculty. Also, the majority of our students are from out of the state. We have a lot of folks coming into Vermont as consumers of goods and services that otherwise wouldn’t be here.”

* Another niche school is the School for International Training at World Learning, Inc, which offers two masters programs and one bachelors degree. The school, which is based in Brattleboro, has a tight focus on intercultural and international education. The school’s B.A. is for students who have completed the equivalent of their freshman and sophomore years elsewhere. Master’s degrees in intercultural management and English as a Second Language combine coursework with long internship programs.

“We work in a couple of areas, in language teacher training and in educating people whose focus is working in not-for-profit community organizations here and abroad,” President Mangham said. “We’re trying to help folks from other cultures understand each other. The world into which our graduates go has changed. More of them work inside the US. Now, because more organizations have been founded at the local level here to try and address the same kinds of problems that have existed in other parts of the world. Also, abroad, the local population is now trained to do that work. There’s not the same job market.”

Program enrollment is increasing, Mangham said.

“We have a very large College Semester Abroad program that focuses on places other people don’t go, like Vietnam, China, India–developing nations, places south, where there is not a network of established colleges.” SIT is better known outside Vermont than inside, Mangham said. “The fact that we’re here adds an international aspect to the higher educational landscape,” Mangham said.

* Green Mountain College, in Poultney, was founded as a junior college in 1834. Now a four-year undergraduate liberal arts college, it is dramatically changing its curriculum.

“We ate moving to link the liberal arts with environmental studies in a state with a rich environmental heritage,” said President Benson. “We offer the full spectrum of liberal arts opportunities, but we are providing a special place in our studies for environmental themes and values.”

Environmental studies have been added to the curriculum in many ways. The school’s core group of courses is built around environmental themes. Benson said he believed that Green Mountain is the only school in the country which offers that. The school has strong environmental majors and minors. In every academic area, clusters of courses related to the environment have been developed. For example, in literature, there are courses in wilderness literature and nature writing, from Thoreau to Annie Dillard. And from freshman year on, students are involved in outdoor activities, service projects relating to the environment, recycling, developing conservation values, and other aspects of the environment. The college is not to be stereotyped as a bunch of “tree huggers,” Benson warned.

“We have people here who are tree huggers, and God bless them.” Benson said. “But we want to have a large tent here, where many different perspectives are represented. We teach Plato, Aristotle, Jane Austen, Confucius. Our courses are in the great liberal arts heritage of both the East and West.”

The school currently has 560 students, with 15 percent more new students than last year. “This represents the early returns on the remake,” Benson said. The school wants to have 1,000 students over next six to eight years.

* St Joseph College, in Rutland, with 500 students (200 full-time and 300 part-time), is a four-year liberal arts school, mainly undergraduate but with master’s in two fields, education and counseling/psychology, While it is closer to a traditional college than an experimental one, it sets itself apart, said President Frank Miglorie, by developing programs which are “connected to the real world.”

“We’re pretty focused on a blend of liberal arts with career-oriented training,” Miglorie said. “That’s been our calling card since our development in 1950. It’s created the base for our success. Quality education involves not only theory and practice, but also applied knowledge from extensive field work. In our human services and psychology programs, our students will do two field experiences with human service agencies, and are actually engaged in delivering services. Also, we have extensive community service volunteering, from freshman year on. Students are actually using the community as part of a learning laboratory.”

For example, Miglorie said, the political science faculty has just developed three internship positions in US Senator James Jefford’s office next year. And the school has recently designed and implemented a program in resort and recreation management in connection with area ski resorts.

St Joseph’s is growing, Miglorie said. This year, freshman enrollment has increased by 30 percent. Since 1987, the school has added 50,000 square feet of expanded classroom space, a theater, and a $3 million athletic facility. It is now working on a new library and student center to be completed before the year 2000.

Copyright Lake Iroquois Publishing, Inc. d/b/a Vermont Business Magazine Dec 01, 1995

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