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EHS STEM program continues to grow, garners national acclaim

The science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) program at Essex High School (EHS) is showing no sign of slowing down as it maintains a trend of growing and providing more opportunities for students.

In conjunction with STEM.org, Newsweek recently ranked high schools from across the country and announced its top-500 list. EHS scored extremely well and landed at 50th in the ranking.

Additionally, Essex High’s STEM Academy has been selected as a state finalist in Samsung’s nationwide Solve for Tomorrow contest.

Academy leader Lea Ann Smith, a math teacher at EHS, believes that the local relationships built through the STEM program have been beneficial for both the students and the community.

“I really want to find ways to creatively help the community,” Smith said. “I want to create connections between students and the community and to help the students to move forward in who they want to be... this allows the community to give back to the students, and the STEM Academy has been a great vehicle for that. As it grows, it’s personally very satisfying.”

When it was started in 2012, the Academy had only four students who were guided by one teacher. Smith took over as the leader the following year, and she has since seen it grow to a current roster which includes 135 students and 12 teachers.

The STEM Academy is a three-year program with students partaking in an internship during their junior year before completing a capstone project during their senior year. The internship is a one-semester elective credit in which students spend 40 hours at a selected site in line with their interests. Prior to going into the field, they work with the school’s Career Center to compose a resume and cover letter and learn about professionalism and ethics.

“The internship class, I think, is mostly what makes it grow,” Smith said about the Academy’s blossoming over the last six years. “Students want to have the internship experience. They really appreciate the opportunity to see their chosen career field first-hand, and I’ve seen many wonderful things happen in these experiences. There’s been an overall focus on it, which has been good, and it has just been getting more and more resources. There’s been a push school-wide, and it’s helped the Career Center grow as well.”

Smith says that as the Academy expands in the number of students being interested, she hasn’t struggled in finding additional teachers to support it.

“The school’s resources are starting to get pooled in a way that’s really made the Academy pretty nice,” she noted, “and as it becomes more visible in the community, more and more people are willing to help. As more students sign up, it’s been easy to find other teachers to help. People do want to be part of this.”

The Academy has three “strands” in which students can focus on: science, medicine, and engineering. Smith says that medicine is the most popular, but the engineering strand has also been grown to the point where she has started a year-long mobile application development class where students learn how to code an app to put on their phones.

The STEM Academy has been resourceful in partnering with local organizations and utilizing them for the benefit of the students.

“The major internship placements line up with the major areas of focus in this community,” said Smith. “I think medicine and coding are technological strengths of this area. People tend to think of Vermont as just cows and maple syrup. But I see the Academy as a pipeline for kids who want to stay in Vermont ... it’s a good way to show them some cool things that are going on in this area.”

Smith also said that she thinks the Academy starts giving students the tools they need to be better prepared and successful more quickly as they move into higher education.

“I’ve heard back from students that what they got here gave them a leg up on what they were going to do in college,” she commented. “[They] go to college and make the right decisions in [their] freshman year; [they] have a little bit more experience. And that’s part of what I really want to do. Just because you like math class doesn’t necessarily mean you want to be a scientist. So, when they go to college, I think they’re a little bit more focused. I also hear from people that they’re a notch above in terms of research preparation. They can really hit the ground running as college freshmen.”

EHS’s STEM Academy was one of the five state finalists selected to move on to the second round in the Samsung competition. There were 300 state finalists picked to advance out of the initial pool of over 2,000 applicants. This year, Essex’s creative proposal, headed by Kelly Hill from the science department, focused on recycling and addressed waste reduction.

Nationally, one hundred state winners will be selected through the second round--receiving a $15,000 prize package which includes Samsung technology and classroom resources. From there, 20 national finalists will be announced and awarded with a $50,000 prize package similar to the state winners’--along with being invited to attend the pitch event in New York City to present their working prototypes to a panel of judges in April. Five national winners will then receive a $100,000 prize package and attend the final event in Washington, D.C.--meeting with congressional leaders in April.

Essex High was the ninth-highest ranked high school from New England in the Newsweek list, as well as the highest-ranked program in Vermont. The next school from the Green Mountain State was Champlain Valley Union High School which was tabbed 695th in the magazine’s top-5,000 list.

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Small rink, big ambition on Pearl Street

It’s the dream for many hockey players to one day own their own rink. That dream recently became reality for Peter Lenes and Torrey Mitchell.

Those names might sound familiar for fans of University of Vermont (UVM) Hockey, as Lenes and Mitchell had stellar careers as Catamounts. They both went on to play professional hockey, but upon retiring, they needed to find a new venture.

In October, the duo opened up a new facility in Essex Junction which is aiming to take training to the next level--with and without ice skates on. Elev802, located at 135 Pearl Street, brings a unique setup to the area.

Nestled in a business plaza, the new enterprise might have passersby unbelieving that it houses an ice rink. However, Elev802 is comprised of a studio-style rink, sized 56 by 36 feet, and a 1,200 square foot training gym. Lenes and Mitchell, along with Chris Line, provide pro-level skating, stickhandling, and personal training services. The rink is utilized by full hockey teams, and it can be rented out for events such as birthday parties--although equipment must be brought by its patrons.

“We’re working on the technical side of hockey here… really breaking it down and not letting bad habits continue,” Lenes said. “It’s always Torrey and myself on the ice for one person, two people, three, or four. So we’re really giving that [tender loving care] which we really can’t do anywhere else without breaking the bank.”

“Honestly, that’s what’s going to separate us from going to your regular hockey practice,” Mitchell said, “because parents go to the practice and they see their kid going through the drill eight times and he or she’s still not stopping on the right side. But here, it’s two-on-one with Pete and me always there. It’s a private lesson. We obviously have experience in skating, shooting, stickhandling, passing. So we know how to do it properly; we’ve been coached properly.

“So, we stop them and we say, ‘No, you’re not executing this properly.’ You can’t hide. I understand that: in regular practices, there’s 20 kids. They’re doing drills for seven or eight minutes. This is different. I’m not saying what they’re doing isn’t great; you need that. You have to be on a team… you have to be in practice, be with your teammates--it’s fun. Here, you get to slow down and get corrected.”

Lenes grew up nearby in Shelburne, while Mitchell is a native of Montreal. The two originally met while in high school during an all-star tournament.

Mitchell was part of the first recruiting class formed by UVM head coach Kevin Sneddon--who is still at the helm of the Catamounts. He joined the Vermont squad for the 2004-05 season before Lenes committed to the program for the following season. Mitchell would be named one of the Cats’ captains for the 2006-07 season while Lenes was an assistant captain for his junior and senior seasons (2007-08, 2008-09).

Before heading to Burlington, Mitchell was selected by the National Hockey League’s (NHL) San Jose Sharks during the 2004 entry draft. Following his time at UVM, he would go on to play for five NHL teams during an 11-year tenure in the league. Mitchell also suited up for the Minnesota Wild, the Buffalo Sabres, and the Los Angeles Kings--while also heading home to spend a little over three seasons with the Montreal Canadiens. Earlier this year, he was inducted into the UVM Hall of Fame with a stellar collegiate resume which included 105 points posted through 115 games played.

Lenes went from UVM to a three-year stint with the American Hockey League and the East Coast Hockey League. He then took his skills overseas and played seven years with professional teams in Denmark and Austria. Lenes was one of the first-ever Vermonters selected to represent the U.S. at the Under-16 World Championships prior to his time at UVM, and he then helped the Catamounts reach the Frozen Four in 2009--losing 5-4 to eventual national champion Boston University. Lenes made an impact on those who watched him as he was selected to the Hockey East Fan Favorite All-decade Team.

Chris Line is the only other full-time staff member of Elev802. He isn’t new to the area--being an Essex native who is currently in his third year at the helm of the Essex High School varsity boys’ ice hockey team. He has spent the last 15 years in the fitness industry and focuses on “breaking down movement patterns in order to ensure each client maximizes their time in the gym in a safe and healthy manner.” Line had previously worked at the now-defunct Body Resolution in South Burlington.

“He’s a really well-respected personal trainer in Vermont,” Mitchell said, “and we’re just so lucky to have gotten him.”

Building a rink

“I couldn’t change a light bulb before this.”

That was Mitchell’s initial comment when talking about the process of building his own ice rink.

Elev802 took over a space which had previously held a synthetic ice surface. Lenes and Mitchell tackled an immense undertaking to transform the infrastructure into what they envisioned.

By the end of the remodeling, Mitchell would garner experience in demolition, building walls, padding walls to prevent mold, and painting (as well as replacing light bulbs).

“We did 14-straight 10-hour days painting… but I think one of the hardest things we did was putting these desks together,” Lenes quipped.

Elev802 contracted Greg West Construction, but its founders were willing to help out and get their hands dirty as well. The team installed brand-new duct work, bathrooms with showers, and industrial cooling systems to maintain a real-ice skating surface. The latter was one of the biggest obstacles for Lenes and Mitchell who needed to get approval from the village for the two commercial air conditioning units as there was concern that they would be too noisy.

The project all came together fairly quickly as the pair of former pros retired in April. They worked through the summer and all the way up to their soft opening--putting in the final pieces of glass on Oct. 14 prior to hosting their first team practice the following day.

EWSD searching to complete three-principal model in EES, FMS

The Essex Westford School District (EWSD) has begun a search for a new position which will round out a recently-developed, three-principal model through a pair of elementary schools.

On Dec. 4, EWSD superintendent Beth Cobb sent out an email to the parents of students at Essex Elementary School (EES) and Founders Memorial School (FMS) detailing the new leadership model and giving a brief outline of the search’s timeline.

The added position, which will primarily work at EES starting in the 2020-21 school year, was posted on schoolspring.com on Dec. 6. The listing says that applications will be accepted until Jan. 3, and Cobb’s email stated that she hopes to have the job filled by the February winter break.

Peter Farrell, the current principal at Essex Elementary, will start sharing his time between the two schools next year with a focus on social emotional learning--acting as a bridge between EES and FMS. Wendy Cobb will continue to be the primary principal at Founders Memorial, but she will also provide support for special education services at both.

“The student enrollment between the two schools is 800,” said Superintendent Cobb. “Vermont schools on average have an assistant principal when enrollment reaches between 300 and 400. Instead of hiring an assistant principal at both schools, which would be roughly $180,000 (without benefits), we can hire a third principal and save the district money. Our intent is to work on a seamless transition between the buildings, using a common language, similar teaching practices, and expectations.”

While Cobb’s email to the parents was recent, the decision to adopt the new model came about last winter. Cobb and Farrell presented the proposal to the EWSD Board during its meeting on Feb. 19, and the Board then approved it with a 6-2 vote during its meeting on Mar. 6.

“Both schools using similar teaching practices, learning from a tightly aligned curriculum, implementing similar behavior expectations, and providing common experiences will help our PK-5 students with the transition and give the feeling of ‘one school,’” Cobb said in her Dec. 4 letter.

Cobb also told parents through the email that they will have opportunities to be involved in the search process and that families will be able to meet with the candidates.

When asked why EES and FMS were selected for the new leadership model, Cobb said, “The student enrollment in the other EWSD elementary schools does not call for more administrators.”