As a charter school, Appleton’s Valley New School (VNS) provides students in grades 7–12 with a learning environment much like Lawrence’s. It’s a place where they are encouraged to pursue project-based learning, community engagement and independent thinking.
The Lawrence connection to VNS goes even farther than a shared vision. It was the creativity and foresight of alumni Jennifer Kosloski Plamann ’95 and David Debbink ’72 along with colleagues Steve DeMay and Nicole Luedtke that helped get the innovative school off the ground. On any given day at VNS, sprinkled among its students, you’ll find a dedicated group of current Lawrentians assisting as volunteers and tutors.
“Alumni are great ‘in the field’ resources for college students,” said Plamann. “While much can be learned through secondary research, connection with a live resource offers meaningful insight and new perspectives. Educators at Lawrence and in the K-12 system provided me with information and inspiration as a prospective educator. I hope that I, and Valley New School, can offer Lawrence students valuable opportunities and experiences that might encourage, provoke thought and help them find their passions.”
Sasha Ross ’13 started volunteering at VNS during Winter Term of her freshman year. She approached Lawrence’s Volunteer and Community Service Center for help in balancing her desire to get out into the community with her interest in secondary education. VNS was a perfect match. For the past three years, Ross said that she’s spent an average of 12 to 15 hours a week at VNS.
“Before VNS, I wasn’t sure if I had what it takes to be a teacher,” said Ross. “I didn’t know if I could command a classroom or win the trust of students. In my years here I’ve tutored math, science, history, writing, Latin and Greek. I’ve coached students through the last steps of a major project and helped them choose a new one. I’ve also tried to be a mentor to students who need an ear. This experience has helped cement my desire to become a teacher.”
Kristi Hill, director of Lawrence’s volunteer and community services programs, said the partnership with VNS is a win-win for all involved.
“Lawrence has worked very closely with VNS, resulting in meaningful employment and volunteer opportunities for our students, resulting in days of service, and shared events and presentations,” Hill said. “We work collaboratively to hire a Lawrentian to serve as a volunteer coordinator for the school, a resource the school wouldn’t otherwise have.”
“I’m happy to be a part of such a great school
and to continue serving the community
by keeping the connections going.”
Ross served as the VNS volunteer coordinator a year ago. This year, the torch was passed to Raena Mueller-Dahl ’15. It’s a crucial position for the school, as the coordinator is charged with working with Plamann and others to identify tutoring needs. The coordinator then reaches out to the Lawrence community to find work-study and volunteer tutors to meet those needs. Hill said that this year Mueller-Dahl has already recruited 30 Lawrence student volunteers for the school. In addition, Mueller-Dahl helps organize parent volunteers and community helpers, and aids VNS students in finding service-learning positions in the community. VNS students also make frequent trips to campus to listen to speakers, attend concerts or participate in other events.
“In my view, I’ve found the perfect job for a college freshman,” said Mueller-Dahl. “I love working with kids, and I feel like this coordinating experience will help me in the future. It is tough work finding specific needs like a Latin tutor that would get along well with a seventh-grade boy, and then coordinating their schedules, but I’m happy to be a part of such a great school and to continue serving the community by keeping the connections going.”
Other projects Lawrence volunteers have helped VNS with include the establishment of a small music ensemble, organizing current-events discussion groups, facilitating foreign-language tables during the lunch hour, and undertaking aesthetic improvement projects such as painting, cleaning and organizing various sections of the school. No matter which type of activities the Lawrence students are involved in, Plamann said the impact of their presence at VNS is profound, and the enthusiasm, contagious.
“Our students have received valuable individual help with their academic pursuits,” said Plamann. “Also, and perhaps most importantly, connecting our students to college students has influenced many of their post-high school plans. It has planted
the idea that college is an option. It has inspired some to pursue a Lawrence education or learn more about small, private liberal arts colleges.”
Beyond the volunteers and paid and volunteer tutors, Lawrence has been able to place education students at VNS to complete their observation/practicum hours, and students undertaking anthropology and sociology projects have studied the VNS community as part of their research. For Plamann, it’s a satisfying way to continue to “pay it forward” for the many ways she’s benefitted from her Lawrence education.
“I hope students who have connected with Valley New School have been inspired to find their passions and take action. I hope they are moved to create and participate in innovation. I hope they value education—their own and education in general. As an alumna, I also enjoy their energy!”
Both Ross and Mueller-Dahl agree that working at a local school provides them with greater insight into the City of Appleton, and has strengthened their ties to the community and to Lawrence. It’s a relationship they look forward to continuing.
“Jennifer has set up such a great school, with unique opportunities for the students to get involved in the larger community at a young age,” said Mueller-Dahl. “I’m happy to be part of it.”
Ross added, “Nothing has ever felt better than helping the students and witnessing that moment of epiphany, whether it’s about adding fractions, the Oxford comma, or some more personal issue they’ve confided in me. My hours spend at VNS are the best I’ve spent in Appleton.”