"Life 101"

School News
October 3, 2017
Juggling grades, college applications, standardized tests, athletics, and other activities is a full-time job for college-bound high school students. And while this work is extremely important to achieving scholarly success, it can sometimes be at the expense of developing functional life skills, honing a sense of self, or cultivating a world view to prepare oneself for life outside of a small-town bubble.

This can leave students wanting for more when they graduate—realizing that, while they may have the ability to solve calculus problems, describe biological anatomy, or write a thoughtful, college-level essay, they may not be able to navigate public transportation, to confront issues of race and gender equality, or even balance a budget. This gap between classroom curricula and applicable, real-life knowledge is something with which high school students across the country struggle.

The young alumni of Vail Mountain School highlighted these kinds of skills as an area of need when they gathered for their semi-annual meeting in January 2017:

“Our graduates shared that they were well-prepared academically when they left Vail Mountain School,” explained Maggie Pavlik, the Division Director for the VMS upper school, “But that they wished they had more real-life skills. They shared how keeping a budget, changing a tire, making an egg, and doing a load of laundry were all requirements of life that they weren’t entirely prepared to do. Some alumni also indicated that they didn't feel prepared to have meaningful conversations on diversity, race and sexuality.”

Students work on changing a car tire as a part of the "Life Skills" personal growth class.

While many schools shrug this off as a normal hitch in the transition from high-school, VMS has proactively developed their Personal Growth Program as a response. Think of it as a sort of “Life 101” for young adults that includes a variety of unique elective courses for upper school students that are designed to address the gap that the alumni described. “We recognize our need—and frankly obligation—to go beyond just academic preparation,” says Pavlik.

The Personal Growth Program evolved from a day-long senior seminar that took place during May of 2016. The seminar was offered again last year, along with a new series of classes for 9th graders designed to help them acclimate to upper school and that provided the basis for this year’s ninth grade Personal Growth Program.

Ninth graders at VMS are required to take a full year of personal growth electives. Two quarters of technology and information literacy, one quarter of sex education and healthy relationships, and another quarter of ethics, taught by VMS Head of School, Mike Imperi.

Head of School, Mike Imperi, discussing the "Mad Bomber" dilemma with students in his ninth grade ethics class. 

“It definitely improves my relationship with the students,” Imperi noted, when asked how he liked stepping out of his administrative role for the class. “We have the class right here in my office, and there’s a lot of humor that punctuates very serious conversations about difficult ethical dilemmas. That’s always been a hallmark of my teaching and I think the students enjoy the relaxed atmosphere. They also see me in a totally different light. Which I love.”

The 9th graders at VMS have already taken sex education in middle school, but the conversation in the personal growth sex-ed and healthy relationships elective, which is led by  Science Teacher, Steph Lewis, shifts from facts to social and personal implications.

“I'm trying to have a class for everything the kids can't learn on the internet,” says Lewis. “We do go over basic anatomy and processes, contraception, STDs and pregnancy, but I also try to teach the kids about communication, consent, understanding their own boundaries, how to recognize an unhealthy relationship, and other topics.”

The 10th and 11th grades take personal growth electives together, and they have a bevy of subjects to choose from: mindfulness, personal health and nutrition, standardized test preparation, financial literacy, public speaking, diversity/equity/society, and perhaps most popularly, life skills, where students practice everything from navigating bus routes, to basic sewing, and changing car tires. They even learned how to make breakfast burritos.

“As a school, we have developed these personal growth classes as a way to provide students with practical, real-life knowledge that they wouldn't otherwise receive in our curriculum,” explained Doug Litowitz, an upper school history teacher who co-leads the financial literacy elective with Sam Rosenkrantz, a physics and statistics teacher. “Learning about this information now will hopefully enable these kids to take on things like college loans and credit cards in a responsible fashion.”

As a culmination to the personal growth classes, Seniors at VMS take a semester-long senior seminar focused on the transition to college, independence, and ultimately, adulthood. The class is run by VMS College Counselor, Marisa Ferrara, and Kate Drescher, the school’s staff psychologist, along with outside experts brought in to consult on specific topics. As a part of a recent class, a visiting attorney discussed the legal rights and responsibilities assumed by individuals when they become 18 years old. Dr. Deborah Zwick, a local psychologist, spoke about the final stages of adolescent development, and the class will hear from the Vail Library staff library about identity theft.

The rapid development of the upper school’s Personal Growth Program is reflective of its popularity among students. And student interest is really at the core. By listening to their students and alumni, VMS has taken a significant step toward realizing a balanced, wholesome, functional education. One that actually serves to prepare kids for the realities of the world outside of the Vail Valley, without compromising the scholarly elements of their education.

“We have to give our students exposure and preparation for life ‘outside the bubble’,” Pavlik said, referring to the Vail Valley. “If one of our senior seminar sessions helps a student identify campus resources at college, or make smart decision at a party, or know their rights as an ‘adult’, then we are giving them much of what they need when they leave Vail.”

And that is a virtuous goal. These personal growth electives will put VMS students one step ahead of the pack—because, when they get to college, or into their gap year, or out in the wide world, they will have a leg up on some of the life-skills their peers might be struggling with, allowing them to better focus on their education and personal development.

This story was contributed to VMS News by freelance writer, Will Brendza,  working in collaboration with the Vail Mountain School Advancement Office.