By Nancy A. Olson
When Lachlan Francis, as a sophomore in a speech and argumentation course at Brattleboro Union High School, began to research the John Collins writing program, he could not have foreseen where his curiosity would lead him.
“As part of my research,” Francis said, “I talked with Ms. (Teri) Appel, who had been my English teacher twice, as well as with other teachers, and I gained an interest in educational policy.”
This interest, and the conversations about policy, continued even after the speech course ended. Eventually, Ms. Appel suggested that Francis consider applying for a student seat on the Vermont state board of education.
In 2000, the Vermont legislature passed a law establishing two seats for high school student members on the state board of education; one student is appointed at the beginning of junior year as a non-voting member. Senior year, that person becomes a voting member, and the governor appoints a new non-voting student.
Isaac Evans-Frantz, BUHS class of 2001, was the first high school student appointed to the state board. In order to initiate the system of rotation, he was appointed as a senior, making him the first high school student in Vermont to be a voting member of the state board, but he served only one year.
With the enthusiastic encouragement of Ms. Appel; Tim Kipp , BUHS social studies teacher at the time, since retired,; and Steve Perrin, BUHS principal. Francis submitted the application, his transcript, letters of recommendation, and a 500-word essay.
After making the first cut, he was among the narrowed field of candidates interviewed by members of the governor’s senior staff.
“The interview lasted about 20 minutes,” Francis said. “I had done a lot of prep, including talking with Ron Stahley (superintendent of Windham Southeast Supervisory Union), who had just won Vermont Superintendent of the Year. BUHS was getting a lot of acclaim because of the collegiate high school program and the career center on campus.”
Francis made a point of discussing his Vermont schooling and the insights he had gained because of it.
“I attended Putney Central School,” Francis continued. “It’s a small elementary school. I saw real dedication. Teachers such as Connie Bresnahan and Mary Anne Deer (both now retired) were always honing their craft. I talked about that experience and about being a student at the high school, a much bigger school, where I also had dedicated teachers, such as Sue Boardman (since retired) and Bob Kramsky. And it probably helped that the governor (Peter Shumlin) is from Putney.”
Although Francis had been told the decision would take up to two weeks, the notice came a day later.
“I got the call from the governor himself,” Francis said. “We talked for 10 or 15 minutes. It was very kind of him. He congratulated me, and we talked about the benefits of being from Putney, of being raised in a village, by a village, and how that translates into a broader sense of public service. It’s part of Vermont’s culture and values.”
At first, Francis felt intimidated at the monthly board meetings.
“Education is full of acronyms,” he said. “I found that daunting. But the board members were incredibly welcoming. I carpooled with Stephan Morse, the chair, and he really mentored me. After a couple of months, I came into my own. Although I don’t have a lot of letters after my name, I’m confident speaking my mind.
“By my second year, I was the fourth most senior member of the board,” he continued. “That created an equality between us because I had more experience than half the other members. At board retreats, we settled in. More than the eight-hour meetings every month, it’s the social events and building relationships that has the bigger impact on how things get done.”
In March 2013, Francis was elected co-vice chair of the board.
“If the Secretary of Education was out of the state, and the chair was absent, I would have run the Agency of Education,” he said. “Although that never happened, I was cc’d on more emails and had more of an inner picture of what was going on.”
Fairly early in his tenure, Francis realized which educational issue was his main focus.
“Education is the key to social and economic mobility,” Francis said. “This is a cultural value we espouse in Vermont and America. That inspired me to take the responsibility seriously.”
The board makes policy, Francis noted, while effective implementation is up to the agency of education and the supervisory unions.
“The work the board did on flexible pathways, dual enrollment (a high school course in which a student can earn both high school and college credit simultaneously), and Personalized Learning Plans (required for grades 7 through 12 in 2015) bears out our goals,” he said. “While I’m painfully aware that these are unfunded mandates, and the board received criticism for requiring the PLP’s in middle school as well as high school, the research shows that in eighth grade, students decide whether or not they will go to college.”
Helping students see themselves as responsible for their own educational direction, Francis explained, makes their education important to them. PLP’s will help teachers and counselors help students “identify what they want to be and provide the scaffolding to help them get there.”
Although Francis expected to bring a student’s point of view to the board, he was surprised at how his views evolved.
“I came to appreciate that students don’t always want what they need,” he said. “Standardized testing, for example. It does have a role as a formative assessment. Taxpayers deserve to know how students are doing. And it has helped us identify the achievement gap and show who is chronically underserved. But it should not be tied to teacher performance or school performance.”
In the fall Francis will attend the University of Vermont as a political science major. He has also been appointed for a three-year term to the Governor’s Council on Pathways from Poverty.
“By going to UVM, I’ll be able to build the networks I’ve already established,” he said.
This summer Francis is coordinating the political campaign of Becca Balint, who is running in the August primary as a Democratic candidate for Vermont state senate.
“I’ve learned from so many mentors what’s valuable about public service,” he said. “Public service is essential to our democracy.”