Long Trail still solo on I.B.

DORSET - For someone who thought he was retiring after a long and successful career on Wall Street, the past few years have not turned into a relaxing, reflective session on the front porch rocking chair.

Steven Dear was the director of training for the brokerage firm Merrill Lynch before moving to Vermont about 10 years ago with his family. He started his own strategic planning business, then joined the board of directors of Long Trail School, an independent school in Dorset founded in 1975. He became the board's chairman in 2010.

Then things got even more interesting.

He was appointed as interim head of school in July 2012; then, in January of 2013, was named as the school's new permanent head.

"As a board chair, I was at 50,000 feet," he said, referring to the "big picture" issues that come before a board of directors. "Coming into this job as a head (of school), I learn something new every day."

The school he has assumed a leadership role in is one that is adding some new and different programs, while continuing to push forward on one that makes it unique within Vermont - its International Baccalaureate program, or IB. Launched in 2010, Long Trail remains the only school in the state that offers it.

According to the official Web site of the IB program, it's an intensive academic experience that not only pushes students to master facts and information, but also emphasizes critical thinking skills that are applicable internationally and across multiple career paths.

Founded in 1968, the IB program currently is affiliated with 3,640 schools in 146 countries to develop and offer four challenging programs to more than 1,119,000 students aged 3 to 19 years.

Long Trail offers one of the four IB programs; the diploma program open to students who are typically juniors or seniors in secondary school. Students at Long Trail can take their IB curriculum in full, to obtain an IB diploma, or can take specific courses that have a special interest for them, Dear said.

About 23 of Long Trail's students are currently enrolled in their diploma program, with about 35 others taking individual courses.

Students can take part in the two-year IB program starting in the 11th grade, he said.

"Not every child goes into IB," Dear said. "It's not your every day class; there's more research, more homework."

Problem solving, not rote memorization, is the emphasis, he added. Diploma candidates must complete coursework in six subject areas and pass exams in each, according to the IB website. They must also take the Theory of Knowledge course, which focuses on "teaching students how to think, not what to think," Dear said.

Students also must write an extended essay of about 4,000 words, based on the study of an original problem, and complete an extracurricular requirement involving creativity, action, and service.

Students enrolled in IB classes aren't graded or assessed by Long Trail's own teacher; rather, they are scored by teachers from other schools to ensure maximum objectivity. But all Long Trail's faculty are now IB certified, and the mind-set of the program has begun to permeate the overall approach to learning at Long Trail, Dear said.

But the IB program isn't the only thing that's new or different at the school. The school is clearing ground for a greenhouse. There's a new course on navigating an airplane, starting up, as well as more photography classes and after school programs. One that is of special interest to Dear is a "Life Skills" class, where students will learn how to do understanding basic tasks like balancing a checkbook to managing their own business. The school has always had a strength in its arts curriculum, and that is continuing strongly as well, he said.

The school also attempts to provide something for every student who is accepted, whether they may be interested in an IB curriculum or not. Class sizes are usually small, with a student-teacher ratio of about 10 or 12 students per teacher. The atmosphere among the students is very tolerant, he said.

Enrollment is expected to be up to about 165 when school opens in the fall, and Dear is hoping that it rise further, eventually stabilizing around the 185-190 level. The school, which was founded in 1975, offers instruction between the sixth and 12th grades. A large incoming sixth grade class is a hopeful sign, he said.

"I want to move faster -- there's so much I want to do," Dear said. "I think the difference for us is we're getting out there and telling people, and people are saying they want to be here."

For more information about Long Trail School, call 802-867-5717.


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