Education Outside the Box
Valley Collaborative offers alternatives to traditional schooling methods.
Math teacher Glen Costello teaches students at Valley Collaborative. The school promotes physical education as well as classroom study.
Photo by Katie Noble
In 2011, Billerica’s Valley Collaborative was at a crossroads. The special education collaborative, at that time known as the Merrimac Special Education Collaborative (MSEC), had been working closely with the nonprofit organization Merrimac Education Center (MEC) since the school opened its doors in 1976. In 2011, however, a state audit of MSEC revealed that officials at both MSEC and MEC had severely misused taxpayer funds; moving forward, the state installed accountability structures that allowed a wide-spread reform led by current director Chris Scott, formerly the superintendent of the Lowell School System.
First and foremost, Scott says, “We’re a good-news story—we’ve turned around a bad situation. I take stewardship and accountability seriously, and since 2011, we’ve been able to provide top-quality programming to students, while maintaining costs and lowering expenses each year.” The Collaborative’s reforms included severing ties from MEC, and a 2013 vote by the school’s Board to downsize from six facilities to three, “in order to focus on our nine member districts,” says Scott. “Our goal is not to be the biggest education collaborative, but rather to provide the highest quality programming possible to students from the districts we serve.” Among the nine member districts who send students to Valley Collaborative are Billerica, Dracut, Chelmsford, Westford, and Tyngsboro; additionally, individual students from districts across the state may attend the school.
While Scott’s reforms initially focused on improving the school’s financial health, for her and other Valley Collaborative staff, the focus is on the students and the program at all times. “Our staff are so committed, dedicated, and mission-driven; you don’t work here unless you believe in what we do,” Scott explains. The Collaborative’s programs reach a wide array of students who have not succeeded in a traditional public school environment, for a variety of social, emotional, physical, or educational reasons. Three Sites, housed at the Billerica facility, serve students from kindergarten through high school, each offering a tailor-made experience that allows students to meet individualized goals.
Site One, the Valley Collaborative Vocational High School, combines academic and vocational programs that allow students to earn their diplomas while learning valuable life skills. “Students usually spend three days working on academic study and the other two days in vocational training,” Scott explains; programs include wood shop, car detailing, culinary study, and landscaping. This blend of hands-on and academic education benefits students who haven’t found success in a traditional classroom setting.
The Alternative High School, Site Two, offers small class sizes and hands-on instruction in typical academic subject areas, for students whose comfort levels range widely from subject to subject. “In general, our teacher-to-student ratio is about 1:3,” says Scott. “This really allows instructors to develop meaningful relationships with students, and address any challenges students may have with customized approaches from faculty.” For Site Two math teacher Mike MacDonald, the small class sizes are crucial to each student’s success: “It’s so important to be able to pay close attention to how each student is progressing toward their goals throughout the year,” he explains. “In a class of five, each student’s goal might be completely different, either academically or socially. Where one student might be accelerated and prepared to move on to higher levels of instruction, another student may need the year just to catch up to their grade level. It’s not as straightforward as a traditional high school setting.”
Site Three, the Intensive Special Needs program, caters to children from kindergarten through grade 12 with “significant emotional, behavioral, or physical issues,” explains Scott. Students have the benefit of one-on-one education and staff attention at all times, from teams of experts that that include social workers, nurses, psychiatrists, physicians, behavior analysts, and occupational, physical, and speech therapists, among others. Each student has an individualized education plan that caters to his or her own challenges, developing basic life skills and encouraging peer interaction. “We’ve had such great success with this program, and students tend to benefit immensely in a very short period of time,” says Scott.
The challenges and rewards of teaching at the Collaborative bear little resemblance to those of a traditional high school environment. MacDonald, who began teaching at the Collaborative in 2013, recalls his initial adjustment period: “I went in, like most teachers, with a plan of how the year might go, a week-by-week curriculum and day-by-day lesson plans,” he explains. “That lasted for about a week.” On a given day, MacDonald may have a different lesson plan for each of the five students in his typical math class. “It’s a more adaptive type of teaching,” he adds. “I may go in with a plan for the day, but I have to be ready to adapt that plan or scrap it altogether.” For some students, MacDonald has observed, a “win” would be “a kid who was nonverbal or nonparticipatory in class at the beginning of the year, starting to form relationships, talking with other students, and going on class trips by the end. The Collaborative takes into account not just on academic success, but also on a student’s effort and social and emotional growth throughout the year.”
MacDonald’s experiences echo a key point that Chris Scott has stressed to staff in all three of the school’s sites. “We focus not just on the IQ,” she explains, “but also on the EQ—the emotional quotient of a student’s learning process.” This philosophy extends the Collaborative approach well beyond the four walls of the classroom. For students in all three sites, class trips both during and after school are a regular occurrence, each excursion tailored to the individual students and their relative abilities. The Site One vocational school has introduced an innovative experiential physical education program, which includes weekly opportunities for students to rock climb, raft, ski, and visit local parks with staff members; “It really encourages staff and students to bond with each other, and helps students develop their social and communication skills,” says Scott. In addition to similar experiential field trips, Site Two students are offered the opportunity to pursue community service experiences with organizations like the Lowell Humane Society, the Lowell Transitional Living Center, the Wish Project, and the Southern New Hampshire Services Food Commodities Program. For Site Three students in the Intensive Special Needs Program, Scott and other staff members have developed tailored extracurricular experiences that are therapeutic as well as social; a recent success for Scott included a therapeutic trip to a horse barn.
“Our students’ success and the Collaborative’s success as a whole is dependent on our enhanced curriculum,” Scott explains. “Staff involvement, parental engagement, after-school and summer programs, and community support have made us what we are today. I’m so proud that we’ve been able to put together an incredible team to make a difference for kids in our community who really need the extra support.”