Vermont boasts first sustainability-themed elementary magnet school

Article published Jan 3, 2010
Vt. boasts first sustainability-themed elementary magnet school
By JENNIFER CIRILLO Herald Correspondent
Last September Vermont's first magnet schools opened in Burlington. The Sustainability Academy at Lawrence Barnes and the Integrated Arts Academy at H.O Wheeler, both elementary magnets in Burlington's Old North End neighborhood, are intended to attract families from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.

Magnet schools are public schools with specialized themes that draw students from across the normal boundaries defined by established school districts. They first appeared in this country during the 1960s as a way to eliminate racial segregation in schools.

After a recent community-wide debate in Burlington about having two (out of six) high-poverty elementary schools in the district, the residents opted to pursue the magnet school option. In August 2008 the school board decided to support the development of two magnet schools (formerly Lawrence Barnes and H.O. Wheeler, which had both historically served high-poverty populations).

During the 2008-2009 school year the staff, families, and community partners at both schools worked on developing curriculum based on two themes — sustainability and arts. Now in their first year of official implementation, the magnet schools are developing new practices which will serve as models for the rest of the district's schools, the state and beyond.

The Sustainability Academy at Lawrence Barnes is unique not only because it is one of Vermont's first magnet schools, also because it is the country's first sustainability-themed elementary magnet school. The school has defined sustainability as "the shared responsibility for improving the quality of life for all — socially, economically, environmentally — now and for future generations."

The term sustainability is not new. It has been defined by many different groups and is perhaps best described by the Brundtland Commission's 1987 report "Our Common Future" as "... development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." The United Nations declared 2005-2014 to be the "decade for education for sustainable development."

The Sustainability Academy community has identified several key concepts that shape the curriculum, including community, cycles, systems and diversity. But the curriculum is not the only unique feature of the Kindergarten-5th grade school — the pedagogy (teaching practice) is also different. Teachers, staff and families at the academy have been working with their community partner Shelburne Farms for over five years as part of a Shelburne Farms program to encourage sustainability in schools. With the official recognition of the school as a magnet, certain aspects have received special attention: teacher and staff professional development, whole school visioning, parent engagement, and opportunities for student civic involvement.

A visitor to the school located on North Street might first notice the peace garden and several other small plots tended by students and families. The lobby is decorated with murals illustrating the school's theme, and a seating area features information about the curriculum and projects. Anne Tewksbury-Frye, the sustainability coach at the academy, greets visitors with a group of enthusiastic students who offer school tours. (The students have talked with just about everyone who has visited the school recently, including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Senator Patrick Leahy, and Vermont Commissioner of Education Armando Vilaseca.)

The two-story building hosts approximately 180 students each day in ten classrooms. The kindergartners learn about community, and on any given day they may be talking with a local farmer, artist, engineer, dancer, city employee, or firefighter.

The fourth and fifth graders often leave school to attend local conferences on social studies, where they discuss their investigation of the city and the service-learning projects they have completed.

A typical project in the first grade would be investigating food cycles with Shelburne Farms educator Sarah Kadden, who often brings animals for the students to meet.

The second and third grade classes explore systems. A visitor to their class might hear about their recent trip to a local pond or their current investigation of the school's "living machine," a model eco-system similar to an aquarium. As part of these projects, the third graders enjoy drawing in their science notebooks and using field guides to identify the creatures they find.

The sustainability theme is reflected not only in the curriculum but also in other campus practices. The Burlington Schools Food Service has made a commitment to using local and fresh produce. At the salad bar the students can choose the carrots they helped a local farmer dig up at a local farm. Farmers regularly visit the cafeteria and classrooms for taste tests, and these children are often seen devouring kale, spinach and other greens.

The cafeteria is linked to the curriculum in more ways. Students learn about the importance of composting food scraps and the cycle that drives that process. They visit the Intervale Center compost system down the road, where they meet with a Shelburne Farms educator. Back at school they apply the "black gold" to their school gardens.

The Sustainability Academy participates fully in state and local assessments and in additional evaluation by both the local school district and Shelburne Farms. Results from these assessments confirm that this approach supports student learning and student engagement in school, promotes school-community partnerships and enhances teacher practice. And teachers report that students are more interested in learning when they are out in the community and interacting with resource people and each other on projects. When students are engaged in learning they perform better academically — but more importantly, they build the skills and knowledge to be global citizens contributing to the development of healthy communities.

Both magnet schools are hosting open house nights for prospective families to visit and decide if a magnet might be the right option for them. To learn more about these two schools visit Or schedule a visit either during the open house or by calling the schools for a special tour — you'll be amazed to see how this kind of learning is helping the students develop skills to carry them through their school careers and well beyond.

Jennifer Cirillo is the director of professional development at Shelburne Farms, an environmental education center. She is the co-chair of Vermont Statewide Environmental Education Programs and of the K-12 and Teacher Education Sector of the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development. Jennifer lives in Monkton and can be contacted at


Sustainability Academy at Lawrence Barnes

National movement in education for sustainability

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