Here’s a story about a visionary education program called “The Burlington City & Lake Semester.” But first, full disclosure: This innovative program was conceived by my stepson Andy Barker. I have known Andy since he was just eight years old. Always brilliant but not always brimming with confidence as a kid, Andy has fully found his footing; his brainchild is off and running. 

Andy’s career has followed a meandering path, not unusual for bright people who want to live meaningful lives and make a real difference: farmer and history teacher at the Maine Coast Semester in Wiscasset; freelance writer; teacher at an independent school in Vermont; and 10 years as social mission manager at Ben & Jerry’s in Burlington, Vermont, his last step before going off on his own to pursue his dream. 

Put simply, the Burlington City & Lake Semester follows an experiential learning approach. Students in their junior year in high school spend one semester exploring all aspects of the city of Burlington and the environs. Andy explains how the program differs from traditional high school junior year experiences: 

“Our program is deeply rooted in the community. It’s no exaggeration to say that on a typical school day in the U.S., the morning bell rings at 8:00 a.m. and most high school juniors all across the country, from Toledo to Tacoma, are studying Pre-Calculus, U.S. History, Physics, Spanish or French and a lot of the same things that I studied in high school 30 years ago. And typically a book or a computer is at the center of that learning. In the City & Lake Semester, we are studying what’s right out the back door. What is our food system in Burlington? Where does our energy come from and what are the choices we have about its environmental and economic impacts? Why is housing expensive in Burlington and what are the ways to promote affordable housing? How is plastic debris affecting Lake Champlain? What is the mayor of Burlington getting criticized for and why? And so on. 

“Students are co-creators of the experience. We’re getting our feet wet and our hands dirty. We’re talking to the people in our community who run these systems — and the people affected by these systems, which include all of us. That’s relevant and interesting stuff. 

“Our program, which meets every other day in the city, also takes the time to intentionally build community in our group. Everyone knows that people thrive when they feel safe and seen and heard and valued. Unfortunately, there’s not much time or space in the traditional high school schedule to invest in that. So for many of our City & Lake students, this focus on community has allowed them to open up, take more intellectual risks, build a relationship with someone really different than they are. Some of our students have really blossomed in that environment!” 

Andy wanted the program to build meaningful connections between people across lines of difference: race, class, income and religion, to name a few. The Burlington City & Lake Semester is blessed and strengthened by extraordinary diversity. Forty percent of the 24 students in the programs first semester this past fall qualify for Free or Reduced Lunch; 37 percent identify as students of color or bi-racial; and 21 percent are on IEP (special needs) or 504 plan (disability). 

Programs created out of whole cloth, such as the Burlington City & Lake Semester, don’t just happen. Andy spent two years laying the foundation before officially launching the program this past September: talking to people; lining up a faculty; crafting a curriculum; forging a partnership with Burlington High School; finding a non-profit partner (Shellburne Farms) to serve as the umbrella organization; and, no way around it, raising funds. 

In addition to brainstorming with several citizens of Burlington, such as Jerry of Ben & Jerry’s, he reached out to seasoned educators around the country. He shared ideas, for example, with Rick Wilson, Community Outreach and Extended Learning Opportunity Coordinator at Brunswick High School and with Tom Settlemire, a Bowdoin Professor of Biology (Emeritus) and founding member of the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust. 

Andy notes that the community art celebration was the biggest highlight of the program’s first semester. “Over the course of several weeks, our students designed a work of large-scale outdoor projection art on the theme of, ‘what makes a community thrive.’ Students had to learn about projection technology and scout out several buildings in town that we could project on and organize the publicity and the opening event. That felt like a moment when they were so much more than students; they were leaders in 

our community.” The project was sponsored by the Vermont Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Burlington City Art Community Fund. 

Student comments about the successful art project convey the excitement of that experience and the overall semester program. “Although each of us have worked very hard on each of our projects, I don’t think each image will be as powerful as all of the art pieces together. In other words our final art project enhances each of our own individual pieces in a great way” And….’We did everything ourselves and we had to be leaders.” And….’”I like the people because I wouldn’t have interacted with these peers in a normal school setting, but I’m so glad I got to meet them through BCL.” And….”The event provoked people to think about school in a different way and it got people asking questions.” 

Thinking about school in a different way. Learning to ask questions. Wrestling with good answers. Realizing that the best classrooms have no walls, no limits to self discovery. 

Andy Barker’s big idea has taken root in Burlington, and he’s hopeful that the programs early success will inspire other experience-based, educational semesters in other public schools around the country. For more information about the program, go to: www.btvcityandlake.org. 

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