The Fretful Visionary
Teacher Harry Chaucer is living out a dream, running a Vermont school with an innovative curriculum and top-notch students. So why is he still losing sleep?
Many teachers dream of starting their own schools, but most never go beyond fantasy. For Vermont high school science teacher Harry Chaucer, however, the notion nagged at him, growing stronger with each frustrating year he spent in the public schools. Although free to do what he wanted in his own classroom, Chaucer could not leverage structural changes in the education program. "The politics became real sticky," he says.
So in 1989, just as he was turning 40, Chaucer swallowed hard, quit his job, and began to build a school of his own.
When we wrote about Harry Chaucer in the late summer of 1990, he was just weeks away from the launch date. He had crafted a rigorous interdisciplinary curriculum, leased an abandoned parochial school in the town of Middlebury, and signed up 10 9th graders--his first class--for the fall. He had also picked a name: the Gailer School, after his great aunt Ester, who in the early 1900s founded the well-regarded Miss Gailer School in New Haven, Connecticut.
During this planning year, money was a top concern. Chaucer and his family got by on his wife's teaching salary and his $8,000 graduate fellowship from the University of Vermont, where he was pursuing a doctoral degree. Beyond that, the school was going to have to make it on student tuition and grant money.
Once, Chaucer woke up in the middle of the night, terrified. What if I don't get any students, he thought. What if I hold this party and nobody comes?
He needn't have worried. This fall, Gailer will open with nearly 90 kids in grade 7-12. And by most measures, they are thriving academically. Gailer students score well above national averages on standardized tests, including 100 points above the national norm on both parts of the SAT. And of Gailer's 70 graduates, nearly all of them have gone on to college, many to top-notch schools like Vassar, Pomona, Reed, and Columbia.
Chaucer, who serves as Gailer's headmaster, has 13 teachers and five administrative staff member on the payroll. The school's annual operating budget has climbed from $35,000 in its first year to $1.1 million this year. Tuition, meanwhile, has jumped from $5,000 to $8,750, and the school rakes in between $200,000 to $300,000 a year in grants. Yet money continues to be a problem. "I've lost thousands of hours of sleep over it," Chaucer concedes.
Last year, the school moved from the facility it was leasing in Middlebury--the quintessential New England town with church steeples, rustic inns, and a village green--into a defunct retail complex in Shelburne, a suburb of Burlington, one county over. It was a hard decision, driven largely by economics. Middlebury and its environs simply didn't provide the kind of enrollment base needed to bring the school up to its 150-student goal. Although Gailer lost a number of students and one teacher to the move--they weren't willing to make the 25-plus mile commute--the new location puts the school within striking distance of more school-age kids.
"Middlebury is a warm, charming town; it was a heartbreaker to leave," Chaucer says. "But developing a school requires a mixture of staying with the vision and being flexible and adaptable enough to go with opportunities as they arise."
Over the years, the Gailer academic program has stayed remarkably true to Chaucer's original vision. Students study mathematics, science, and Spanish in small classes. They discuss contemporary, personal, and school issues during a daily seminar and spend two and a half hours a week working with a mentor on individually designed projects.
But the crown jewel of the Gailer curriculum is the "Da Vinci" program. A historical 7th-12th grade sequence of courses that begins with the origins of the universe and ends with the 20th century, Da Vinci integrates the natural and social sciences with the arts and humanities. Seventh graders studying the origins of the universe, for example, examine the cosmological theories typically taught in astronomy and physics, but they also explore mythology, religion, and other subjects. Seniors studying World War II learn about nuclear physics, read Hiroshima by John Hersey, and debate the decision to drop the bomb. "We expect to graduate poets who understand the second law of thermodynamics and engineers with a love of Tolstoy," Chaucer explains.
Perhaps the greatest testament to Gailer's success is the experience of Dylan Voorhees, one of the school's original 10 students and a member of the school's first graduating class. Voorhees went on to Columbia University, where he excelled as an athlete and archaeology and anthropology student. Last year, without any coaxing from Chaucer, Voorhees returned to Gailer as the 8th grade Da Vinci teacher.
"As a student," Voorhee says, "the greatest thing Gailer gave me was an enthusiasm for learning. And that is exactly the reason I came back, to work with kids who have an enthusiasm for learning. I've been at public schools where being interested in your studies wasn't cool, but that wasn't the case here."
Coincidentally, Chaucer's son Ben, a 5-year-old when his father launched the school, was in Voorhees' class last year. "That was fun," Chaucer says.
Teacher's story about Gailer drew hundreds of calls and letters from all over the country. "I still occasionally am approached at conferences or by phone as a result of that article," Chaucer says. "It seems that every teacher identifies with beginning their own school."
Though it's been tough, Chaucer wouldn't trade the experience for anything. "If the entire school folded tomorrow," he says, "I would still feel that it has been a great accomplishment. I can see a system of human lives that has been significantly influenced. Sometimes I stand at the window and look out at the whole thing and get a little teary eyed."
Vol. 11, Issue 01, Page 80Published in Print: August 11, 1999, as The Fretful Visionary