Alumni give extra credit to a Vermont school without grades
By HARMONY BIRCH
Oct. 23, 2017
BRATTLEBORO, Vt. (AP) — Hilltop Montessori isn't like other schools. There are no grades, classes include children within a three-year age range and the curriculum is designed to be individualized to each student.
Hilltop educates children from 18 months to 14 years old. One of the school's favored programs is its middle school, said Lauren Campbell.
"Some students come just for those two years," Campbell said.
On Oct. 12, high school students and alumni were invited back to Hilltop to talk about how their experiences in the middle school program influenced the rest of their education and lives.
The Montessori Outcomes night featured five high school students and one Hilltop alum and teacher. All agreed that Hilltop had been special to them.
The Hilltop middle school curriculum is called, "What does it mean to be Human?" All class subjects are interdisciplinary. Many of the students referenced trips they got to take to Alabama for Civil War studies or Boston for religious studies.
"A great part of Hilltop, for me, was how much trust they give you," Aidan Murphy said. Murphy referenced the ability to just leave and explore during class field trips. "I miss how nice and simple and chaotic it was here."
Murphy goes to Brattleboro Union High School; he said he likes the school but it's definitely different from Hilltop.
"The workload I had at Hilltop was much more stressful than the workload I had at BUHS," he said.
Murphy said that — going to BUHS — his assignments were due earlier but weren't as difficult. Now, as a junior, he's just getting back into the project-based model he's used to.
In addition to encouraging independence in field trips, Hilltop encourages independence within the classroom. At Hilltop, Murphy said, students completed their assignments because they wanted their teachers to like them. Assignments were long-term and interdisciplinary.
Emmanuel Keppel and Sophie Lurz, who both attend Putney School, said the Hilltop model prepared them for Putney's curriculum.
"The thing I learned most was how to manage my workload," Keppel said. "There were lots of long-term projects that you're working on."
Lurz said Hilltop taught her how to think outside of the box and engage in meaningful discussions.
"Students that come from Hilltop learn how to be students," she said. "We learn how to ask hard questions and to be critical thinkers."
At Hilltop, "teachers are there to guide," Campbell said. "Students learn to advocate for themselves."
That was the theme many high schoolers took away. Leah Sutton-Smith, who currently attends Northfield Mount Hermon, agreed that Hilltop taught her how to ask questions, especially when she didn't understand something, and to ask for help when she needed it. "Which has been especially helpful in physics, which I have a lot of questions about," she said.
Others said they graduated Hilltop with an appreciation for education that they might not have had otherwise. One audience member asked the teenagers to give advice to his fourth-grader.
"Make your academics your own," said Darwin Holcombe, who attends Vermont Academy. "You get a great opportunity here to pursue your interests. Whatever your passion is, take advantage of your opportunity to explore it and make learning fun."
This was important to a lot of the high school students.
Keppel said he was really into politics. At Hilltop, he said, he got to study the weirdest political subjects. In high school he continues to study politics. After the 2016 elections, he did a presentation for the entire school about who President Donald Trump had nominated for his cabinet.
In addition to the independence Hilltop gave its students, it also gave them a sense of community.
"Hilltop was like my other home and my other parent, helping me grow," Lurz said.
Nora Gordon, who is Hilltop's middle school science teacher and a hilltop alum, said one of the most important things Hilltop taught her was the value of community.
"I'm still really close with my Hilltop classmates and teachers," she said. "It's a special feeling to know that this is here."
Information from: Brattleboro Reformer, http://www.reformer.com/