Tapping Students' Potential at a Vermont School for Children in Need

Everyone has a piece of good news inside. The good news is that you don't know how great you can be. How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is!  
~Anne Frank 

The earliest signs of spring are finally here - brighter days casting long tree shadows that stretch across the surface of the melting snow, the sun lingering a while in the early evening hours before slipping behind the hills in the distance, a splash of fiery red as a cardinal flits through the brush. And then there are the tiny changes below the surface - bulbs shifting slowly in the softening soil, tiny buds forming on thin branches, sap flowing under the bark of the maple trees.

Every small thing seems filled with potential.

For the students at Kurn Hattin, many of whom come from families in need or in crisis, their arrival at this children's home in Vermont is a lot like early springtime - It's a time of transition and new beginnings - a fresh start for young minds, spirits, and lives full of possibility.

Recognizing that possibility and tapping into each individual student's potential is at the heart of Kurn Hattin's mission of transforming lives one child at a time. "There are 105 students here, and 105 different reasons why they're here," says the school's Co-Executive Director Connie Sanderson, "One size doesn't fit all; we really have to take an individualized approach and go with what works for each child."

In fact, doing what works for one individual child involves a number of people working as a team to serve that child's needs and support his or her growth. On campus, members of the residential, counseling, and academic staffs form triad teams, responsible for communicating with one another and supporting the child in every facet of campus life for the length of his or her stay. The student's parents and/or caregivers are also an integral part of this support team.

Academically, Kurn Hattin aims for every child to succeed with a low student-teacher ratio (12:1) and classes where students are grouped by ability rather than age, avoiding the stigma of developmental delays that frequently accompany children suffering from emotional trauma, and helping students feel confident and competent working at their own pace.

English teacher Kristie Lisai says, "We have kids who've never felt really sucessful. They may have been labeled as "at-risk students" or "troubled youth"  in their previous school settings. But because of the support we're able give them at Kurn Hattin, they're finally able to focus on learning, instead of everything they've been dealing with in their personal lives. When I have conferences with parents for the first time, they often can't believe the turnaround."

Classes also incorporate ample opportunities for hands-on learning and real-life application of practical skills outside the classroom, for example, on Kurn Hattin's 123-acre farm. Seventh-grader Chris Deitz started as a day student in September 2013 and is a prime example of the school's flexing programming to help individual students reach their potential. Principal Scott Tabachnick explains how the farm has played a large role in helping to meet Chris’s academic needs. “Many of our students respond better to a more hands-on approach to learning. We’ve found that often combining classroom time with time out on the farm during the day, where students can get outdoors, get moving, and apply what they been studying in class in a very practical way, can really help them put things together and can be really motivating.”  

Kurn Hattin's commitment to helping students achieve their best goes far beyond their time on campus. 2008 graduate, Megan Knight, now pursuing a teaching degree at Westfield State College, says, "Kurn Hattin encouraged me to pursue my dream to be a teacher and to go on to college. Now that I'm in college, they continue to make sure that I have everything I need to continue doing well. If I need help getting my textbooks or a reference for a job, they find a way to help me."

Next week, with spring in the air, students will kick off the 120-year-old Kurn Hattin campus tradition of maple sugaring on campus. Students of all ages help with every stage of the process from tapping trees and collecting the sap, to boiling down the syrup to pour over their pancakes in the cafeteria.

Best of all, through this and all of their experiences at Kurn Hattin, the children are beginning to discover how great they can be, what they can accomplish, and what potential they have.

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tom fontaine sugaring

(Science teacher Tom Fontaine helps a student tap a Kurn Hattin sugar maple.)

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