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School Work 

Students aren't the only ones back on the job

You don't have to be a kid in school -- or have one -- to know that this is Back to School season. The students themselves are impossible to ignore. The little ones, waddling over the crosswalks with their overweight backpacks; the teenagers, peeling out of the high school parking lots in their pimped-out rides; the college kids lingering in cafes and on park benches, reading Camus and working out differential equations.

But students aren't alone on the back-to-school route. Thousands of adult Vermonters are mobilizing to educate and support them as well. Here's how six of them have been gearing up for the start of class.

Debbie Laforce

Kindergarten teacher, J.F.K. Elementary School,


Much has changed since Debbie Laforce started teaching kindergarten at J.F.K. Elementary School in Winooski 29 years ago. "It used to be all about reading stories, sitting in a circle," says the energetic, blond Winooski native. "Now it's all academic."

Laforce, who attended kindergarten at the now-closed Winooski Memorial School, teaches students to recognize patterns and shapes, to count to 50, and to recognize 50 to 60 words. Hand-lettered flashcards hang on nearly every surface in the room, labeling the "closet," "refrigerator" and "lights." Laforce spent the month of August decorating the space. A bulletin board in back lists her students' birthdays, and class rules such as "Respectful language only," and "Walk, please!" are posted between the windows. During the waning days of summer, Laforce prepared in other ways, too. More often now her kids live in broken homes, or struggle with learning difficulties. Lafaorce read and attended workshops to bone up on best practices; she was re-certified as a kindergarten teacher just last year.

And as Winooski's immigrant population grows, so does the number of her non-English-speaking students. Last year, Laforce had four; this year, six of her 30 students come from homes where little or no English is spoken. Their challenges aren't just linguistic -- some of these kids came to this country from war zones. Last year, during a fire drill, one boy thought he was being bombed, and hid under a picnic table. Before school started this year, Laforce read up on her incoming students' home countries and cultures.

Though her job has changed, it's clear that Laforce still loves it. When her new students dropped by the open house for their first visit to her room, she bent down, smiled, and greeted each one with a loud, unmistakably friendly voice. "Well, hello," she said to one shy little girl who clung to her parents. "You are a beautiful young lady, and your name is so pretty."

She explains that her over-the-top enthusiasm is a requirement for the job. "I'm not going to be any good to them if I'm not excited about somebody's uncle's uncle's uncle's birthday," she confides frankly. "The day that I can't get excited about Uncle Howard's birthday is the day I quit and work at Wal-Mart."

Jay Michaud

Varsity football coach,

Champlain Valley Union High School, Hinesburg

Scanning the lush green practice field on a late August afternoon -- strewn with 70 CVU football players and four coaches -- it was easy to spot Jay Michaud, even from a distance. He was the guy with the funny hat. During pre-season practices, Michaud wears a wide-brimmed straw hat encircled by a broad black band. It softens his tone when he commands his players to "focus up" and "play sharp." "It's still summer," he explains. "It's kind of light. Kind of fluffy."

He'll have jettisoned the silly chapeau before the team's first game September 3, against BFA Fairfax. It will be CVU's first game as the Redhawks -- the Crusaders have gone the way of the Middle Ages -- and their debut as a varsity-level team.

Michaud is psyched. He's worked hard to bring varsity football to C.V.U. He organized the program three years ago, so his two sons could play. He actually has two other jobs -- he works for JetBlue at Burlington International Airport, and owns a gourmet coffee roasting company. But he still finds time to coach varsity, and run the C.V.U. youth-level program for grades 5 to 8. "It's my passion," he says. "I love teaching the kids football."

Michaud loves it so much that he starts prepping for each season two weeks after the previous one ends. By the end of summer, he's picked his team and polished their equipment. He starts meeting with parents in July. By the third week in August, when Michaud starts his grueling five-days-a-week practice schedule, he has to start prioritizing his emails. "If every parent has one question," he says, "that's 160 emails a week."

Michaud also spends a lot of time talking with his players. One of the things he loves most about coaching is that he gets to teach kids about responsibility, hard work and community. He talks to his players about the evils of steroids and the importance of homework. "For example," he says, "some of these kids didn't understand that chew is a tobacco product -- it's illegal. Some of the farm kids have been growing up on it. So you have to educate them about that."

Michaud also prioritizes team bonding. During the third week in August, they had what he calls "a heart to heart." Each player affixed an American flag to his helmet, and they discussed the war in Iraq. Michaud says it wasn't a pro or con talk. "It was about pride in community, pride in the team, how fortunate we are," he says. "How we're all part of the bigger picture."

Richard Parent

Assistant professor,

University of Vermont

Richard Parent is an English professor, but you might not guess that from his office decor. Two framed sci-fi posters dominate his closet-sized room in Old Mill -- one from the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still, autographed by the director; one featuring a flying saucer and the legend, "I Want to Believe." On his bookshelf, two robotic Lego action figures strike a defiant pose atop a copy of the Modern Languages Association handbook.

It's hardly a surprise, then, that the first class he'll be teaching as a professor is out of the ordinary. His students won't be parsing poetry -- they'll be podcasting and blogging. The newly minted PhD from the University of Pittsburgh is teaching two sections of a new class called "Digital Composing."

"Composition is a tricky word here," explains the bespectacled 34-year-old Texas native, who arrived in Burlington three months ago. Thousands of years ago, writing meant chiseling letters in stone or putting a stylus to papyrus. Today it can include creating video and audio clips, and composing in a seemingly infinite variety of fonts, sizes and colors -- as well as the ability to publish anything almost instantly for a global audience. Parent is teaching his already tech-savvy students to think critically about how new electronic media affect language and narrative. "No one's really asked them to do that," he notes.

To prepare, he's crafted a detailed syllabus that includes texts such as Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, and former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne's book/DVD work Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information. He also set up web pages and weblogs for each of his classes, though his students will also be creating, maintaining and critiquing their own blogs. And because his students will be video blogging and recording podcasts, Parent has been scrambling to coordinate with UVM's Center for Teaching and Learning to secure microphones and video cameras.

Parent's also done some back-to-school shopping, to make the transition from grad student to professor -- he recently bought some nice slacks at Filene's. And he caught up on the episodes of Battlestar Galactica that he'd captured on his digital video recorder. He knows that once the semester gets going, he's bound to fall behind.

Luciana DiRuocco

Head of security at Nectar's and Club Metronome, Burlington

Of the four people wearing "staff" T-shirts outside the front door of Nectar's, Luciana DiRuocco seems the least likely to be a bouncer. In fact, the slight 27-year-old in the black poofy cap is actually the chief enforcer, the nightclub's head of security.

"I get catcalled," she admits. "I get a lot of guys saying, 'Can I cause trouble in 10 minutes and have you be the one to kick me out?' Um, no." DiRuocco, who holds a B.A. in Psychology from UVM, worked with adolescents in crisis for four years before joining the security team over a year ago. She says she uses social-work techniques rather than the threat of physical violence to defuse intense situations.

Her job gets tougher this time of year, as college students return to town, many of them underage and toting fake IDs. DiRuocco discourages students from using them. "It's a felony," she cautions. Underage drinkers who get past her could cost the nightclubs a lot of money, and their liquor licenses. "It's a big risk," she insists. "I wish people understood that."

After a year of seeing more than 2000 IDs each week, DiRuocco has become a connoisseur of fakes. "You get to know what every state looks like," she says. Many states have adopted UV images to deter counterfeiters, but DiRuocco confirms that in some cases, the designs can be removed and replaced. "The good fakes do have UV images," she says, "but it's not the same quality as a real ID. It's pretty easy to spot with a UV light."

DiRuocco says she's particularly vigilant this time of year -- it's important to spot fakes at the beginning of the school year, so the clubs don't get a reputation as an underage hangout. She's responsible for seeing that her staff is trained to spot them, and has to make sure they're certified by the Department of Liquor Control. "I've gone so far as driving people to Stowe to get their D.L.C. training," she says.

Still, DiRuocco points out that she and her staff bar more people from the clubs for being too drunk than for being underage. And she says students are hardly the biggest troublemakers. Of the half-dozen physical incidents she's witnessed in the past year, most have involved 30-to-45-year-old women. "They can be very feisty," she says.

Andrea Kelley

Counseling Director,

Johnson State College

Andrea Kelley is busiest during the middle of the fall and winter semesters, when stress over midterms is peaking. But for her, the new student orientation marks the second most hectic time of the year. "We're going from zero to 60 this week," she says.

Adjusting to dorm life can be difficult for college freshmen living away from home for the first time. Kelley provides mental-health services to make sure that transition is "as easy and as exciting as possible."

That means orienting her six graduate interns. They'll staff the counseling center in the basement of Senators Hall, where students can drop by to talk. And she's spent the summer creating "virtual pamphlets" for the counseling center's website. "We'll have a couple pages for every major category," she explains, citing social anxiety and gambling addictions as examples. "We'll offer ways in which students can self-help."

Kelley, who came to Johnson five years ago, also trains JSC's residential life staff to help students manage their nervousness and anxiety. She runs workshops for the "front-line" residential assistants on recognizing substance-abuse issues, eating disorders and suicidal language. "A big thing we watch for is isolation," she says. "No matter what presenting problem students might have, lots of times the common denominator is that they're not connecting with other people."

Kelley puts a human face on the counseling center services by hanging out in the dorms and the dining hall as students are getting settled on campus. She stands in line with students as they get their meals in the cafeteria, and strikes up conversations to let them know who she is and what she does. "The more that they see me on their turf, so to speak," says Kelley, "the better."

Bob Mathis

School bus driving instructor,

Addison Central Supervisory Union

Bob Mathis spent part of the last two Saturdays in August watching the same horror movie. In it, a careless school bus driver accidentally stops his vehicle on a railroad track. The oncoming train doesn't have time to stop. It smashes into the bus, killing and injuring several students. The camera pans over bloodied children on stretchers, and then stops on a notebook, its torn pages fluttering in the wind.

The grisly film, a state-sponsored primer on defensive driving, is part of Mathis' eight-hour workshop, which all school bus drivers must take every four years. Ten men watched the movie with him one recent Saturday at the Trinity Baptist School in Williston. When another computer-animated bus got smacked by a tractor-trailer, several men gasped in horror.

Forty-nine-year-old Mathis, a pastor of the Whiting Community Church, works part-time for Bet-Cha Transit in Middlebury. He's also a 17 year school bus-driving veteran. He transports first through twelfth graders on a 77-seat bus in Shoreham. He started teaching the safety workshops over a year ago to pick up some extra cash; he taught two in the past couple week, as schools rushed to train their drivers.

Throughout his class, Mathis emphasizes the high stakes of a bus driver's task. Though he doesn't know anyone who's been involved in a serious accident, he says a few have occurred in Vermont. "We really stress the railroads," he says. "It only takes one mistake."

Mathis says he realizes his job is at the bottom of the school-district totem pole. Still, he observes, "If it doesn't hold, the whole thing falls apart." He points out that he's the first school representative his kids see every morning, and the last one they see at the end of the day.

But the clergyman also has a healthy sense of humor. His teaching supplies for the workshop include a wiffle ball bat and a roll of duct tape. "I joke around," he says. "I tell them that these aren't forms of discipline."

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About The Author

Cathy Resmer

Cathy Resmer

Cathy Resmer is a former staff writer and currently an associate publisher at Seven Days, and is one of the organizers of the Vermont Tech Jam. She's also the Copublisher and Executive Editor of Kids VT, Seven Days' free monthly parenting publication.


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