By MICHAEL FRIEL
Like many other towns in Vermont, Guilford has seen significant changes in its character and composition over the past several generations. Not too many years ago Guilford was strictly a farming community, with over 25 active dairy farms operating within its borders. However, over the past several generations the face of Guilford has changed considerably. More a residential community than a farming community. By the turn of the century in 2000, there were now but six working dairy farms in town. This change from a farming to a residential community was not been an easy one for the town.
As I began my tenure as principal at Guilford Central School in 1990, the town was going through what seemed like a major catharsis. There existed a clear tension between residents that reflected the changes the town was experiencing. In an attempt to better understand the dynamics of the town I now worked in, I spent one afternoon talking with the long time minister of the local church. She shared with me how elders in town had broken into tears over the loss of a sense of community in their town. These citizens, who grew up recognizing everyone in church on Sunday, were deeply saddened as more and more of the faces at Sunday services were unfamiliar to them.
They bemoaned the loss of the tightly knit community where everyone knew everyone else, watched after each other’s kids and never worried about locking their doors. Their town was slipping out of their control, and it did not feel good. Like it or not, the school was part of this change process. The challenge for the school was to respond to these changes in a manner that worked for students, parents, community members and teachers, and if possible help bring people together, not drive them further apart.
Although our efforts with our Service-Learning Project at Guilford School were not initially developed as a way to address all of these issues, we did feel that our activities responded directly to the clear need to improve connections between the generations.
In this sense the service-learning program at Guilford School developed organically, growing in size and focus as it began to strengthen links between the school, its students and the community. These links had been greatly weakened during times of change. Our service-learning activities and realted programs helped the community find a way to understand itself and celebrate its rich heritage, held so dear by our community’s elders.
Primary goals of the program were to help students better understand the rich culture and heritage of their town, to connect students to the real life operations of the town, and to have these connections be integrated into the academic program of the school. The pursuit of these goals resulted in numerous activities that helped bind the school to its community and visa versa. Middle School students were now seen as a resource and welcomed visitors in the primary wing of the school as they work as tutors and assistants to younger children. Students were actively learning about life in Guilford in years past through their interviews with town elders. These interviews were the beginnings of an archive of that will help to enhance the permanent history of the town.
The agricultural heritage of our town was brought home to students through a study of soil in which students visited a local farm to take and measure soil samples. Community members are actively involved in the school in a number of new and exciting ways. Parents, and community members served on the Partnership Advisory Board which oversaw and supported the service-learning program. They worked hand in hand with teachers to develop activities that incorporate service learning with academic studies through the development of gardens at the school, a nature trail open to all community members, and a study of weather that has generated significant contributions of equipment to the school from interested community members.
From my perspective, this program, and our attention to our community, had a number of tangible and important results. First of all, students became seen as resources in the town as more ways are developed for them to address real community needs. Conversely, students were able to see themselves as valuable members of the community with something to contribute. Secondly, the community and the school became more closely connected than they had been in years. We are approaching what John Goodlad calls the “educative community”, in which all parts of the community work in a common concern for educating all its youth. Lastly, the school’s efforts to celebrate the heritage of the town have in a small way helped its residents celebrate its past while saying goodbye to parts of it at the same time.
About the Author Michael Friel is the former Principal of Guilford Central School (GCS) in Vermont. He was principal at GCS throughout the formative years of Guilford School’s development of an award winning and nationally recognized service-learning program. His intuitively inclusive and democratic leadership style made it uniquely possible for his faculty to innovate and take risks, drawing on their own passions, talents and creativity. This was likewise true for their students. Michael was both an enthusiastic participant and protector for the service-learning program at GCS as he and his faculty navigated the ongoing waves of “educational reform.” Among the finest achievements during his tenure at Guilford was a community newspaper published by 7/8 students for more than 21 years. School principals like Michael Friel who are possessed of a sense of #RealLeadership remain few and far between.
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