The Headmaster's Tale

Harry Chaucer developed a high school curriculum based on continuity and context at The Gailer School in Shelburne

by Craig Bailey


Harry Chaucer decided long ago that "alternative" was one word he'd never use when describing The Gailer School in Shelburne. "Gailer is a highly structured school; it's a very high-demand school," he stresses. "That's not the school most people think of when they hear the word 'alternative.'"

Harry Chaucer decided education reform required a fresh start, so he left public education to found The Gailer School in 1990. The Connecticut native describes the curriculum as "a satisfying, open-ended, intellectual endeavor."

Never mind that comparing Gailer to public institutions is like apples to oranges. Chaucer seems to have invested nearly as much thought in building an image for his college preparatory school as he has in its unique curriculum. As a result he's become the envy of many in his field: Chaucer is a teacher who left public education to found a private school because he thought he could do it better his way. He's spent the last decade proving it.

The Gailer School core curriculum, the so-called Davinci program, takes an interdisciplinary approach. Students don't spend time in separate classrooms studying topics like physics, history, foreign culture and ethics. Instead, a class might blend all topics in a single class by learning, for example, about the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

The interdisciplinary angle is combined with a historical context. As students progress from seventh to 12th grade at Gailer, they focus on sequential periods in history. Seventh-graders begin by studying the origin of the universe; by the time they're seniors, they're focused on the 20th century. "So there's continuity and there's context for what students study," Chaucer points out.

"We try to get kids as close to the action as possible," he adds. "What we try to do is work as often as we can with primary sources -- whether it's a text, a poem, an art piece, or a three-dimensional artifact." Such pieces serve as launching points for discussion before experts are brought in. "It's very, very difficult for a student to think objectively, to look at something afresh, when they've already got an expert opinion sitting there in front of them," Chaucer explains.

The Gailer method turns the conventional teachers model on its head: Instead of teaching a single topic to many students, Gailer core instructors teach a variety of topics to a small number of students. Six instructors focus on the core program, named for the 15th century jack-of-all-trades Leonardo Davinci. (An amusing and revealing ancedote has Gailer faculty throwing Chaucer a surprise birthday party this spring, three months off the mark: They had confused Davinci's birthday with Chaucer's.)

The required breadth of knowledge makes finding teachers a challenge; Gailer's limited budget makes retaining them difficult. "We're not holding people yet as well as I'd like," Chaucer offers. "Our salaries are running, perhaps, 85 percent of the Chittenden County teachers' salaries, but we have an extraordinarily good benefit package." Furthermore, he adds, "I think our teachers find the working environment, the satisfaction of the job here, to be extraordinary."

Dean of students Edorah Frazer thinks the 85 percent figure is optimistic, but shares Chaucer's faith in job satisfaction: "These are peach teaching jobs," she says.

Outside of the core, Gailer students learn fitness, math and Spanish on a conventional schedule. "We wanted to have a common second language for the entire school. We chose Spanish," Chaucer says, "because there's a huge number of Spanish-speaking immigrants in the country."

The school measures success partly through college placements and standardized tests. Gailer has produced two presidential scholars since its inception and Chaucer says his students' SATs run approximately 100 points above the national average. "How well-adjusted, humane and decent they are as people," he adds, "is probably more important than anything.

"It's not uncommon for parents to buy an extra copy of the piece of literature students are reading and then read it parallel to make that really become part of the family culture. That's probably the highest compliment we can be paid."

"The interdisciplinary concept lives at Gailer and the students are thriving on it," according to Kevin Harper, owner of Autumn Harp, a Bristol lip balm company. Harper, a former Gailer board president, had two children attend the school: Son Jesse graduated a few years ago; daughter Sumra will be a senior in the fall.

Harper says Gailer gave Jesse the personalized attention he wasn't receiving in public school. "In a classroom with 10 or 12 kids, he was important," he says. While Harper believes the Davinci program is "imperfect" by the way it demands such a breadth of knowledge from its core instructors, "It's a terrific way to look at history, religion, art, and science: the way it happens -- all together.

"If only I could have had the privilege of learning that way, I can assure you it would have given me a whole different look at life," he offers. "It gives you perspective."

Housed in the former vermont Teddy Bear Co. at Jelly Mill Common, Shelburne Road, The Gailer School has retained many of the building's high ceilings and open beams. A predominance of woodwork gives much of the space the type of warm glow that painted cinder blocks never could. On this Tuesday morning in late May, students work in small classes behind closed doors. Sixteen to 18 is the target class size. Smaller groups meet in open areas partitioned from hallways by dividers. The atmosphere is focused yet comfortable -- casual but studious.

The 12th-grade room sits empty. The class is en route from a 10-day trip to Japan where it presented before-and-after models of Hiroshima the students created while studying World War II. "Most of those trips cost extra," says Chaucer. He hopes tuition will eventually include a trip to a Spanish-speaking country as part of the Gailer curriculum, "but we're not there yet," he concedes.

Annual tuition and fees at Gailer are $12,750 per student, up from $5,000 when the school opened in 1990 with eight students. "Non-profits in general, in vermont in particular, have a habit of undercharging for their services," offers John Canning. Canning is president of Gailer's 12-member board of directors, responsible for overseeing the school's $1.4 million annual budget. "The past few years I've been on the board, we've operated with a deficit in our budget. We probably plan to do that again for another year or two," he says, "but we have a plan."

Canning, founder of Physicians Computer Co. in Winooski, says the more realistic tuition level combined with a new focus on fund raising and grant writing will turn things around. "I expect that the school is going to see a break-even point sometime in the next year," he says. Then Gailer will begin to build an endowment.

The Gailer School moved from Middlebury to Shelburne in 1998. Board president John Canning says work with an architect is continuing to "recapture that sense of community we had in the old building."

Part of the budgetary challenge is the high level of scholarships Gailer provides students: 44 percent received some level of scholarship from the school during the 1999/2000 year. Gailer designates approximately 20 percent of its tuition income to scholarships, compared with a national average of 15 percent, according to Canning. Financial aid helps assure the school is accessible to a diversity of students, one of Chaucer's prime goals.

"We're looking for kids who are interested in the world around them, and who are also willing to do academic work in order to explore that world," according to Frazer, who serves as director of admissions. Academic excellence isn't always at the top of the list, which makes the selection process a challenge. "We're looking for a spark of intellectual curiosity. That may or may not have manifested itself in the past in stellar academic performance," she says.

One-quarter to one-third of applicants are turned down, even though, with 80 students, the school is approximately 15 percent short of capacity. The faculty of Gailer isn't willing to relax standards to fill seats. "It's a matter of finding the right students," says Chaucer.

For Chaucer, Gailer's devotion to student diversity is more than lip service. That's evidenced by the $281,000 in scholarships budgeted for next year that helps assure the school doesn't focus on what Frazer calls the "economic elite." Chaucer cites a project initiated by the eighth-grade class to smelt copper from copper ore. The job required the students to research the process, build a kiln, bellows and other apparatus before tending the fire during a 14-hour burn that went into the night.

Students learned they couldn't have completed the project without the diversity of skills found in a class composed of students from farm backgrounds to suburban environments. "You've got the heterogeneity of the classroom working to real advantage -- kids unable to carry out their work without each other," enthuses Chaucer.

Student initiatives like this are part of the Gailer curriculum Chaucer hopes to keep flexible and dynamic. "In that situation, the teacher's job is not so much to be lighting fires, which is what the rest of the curriculum is," Chaucer offers, literally and figuratively. "In this situation, the teacher's job is to standing there with bellows waiting for an ember and then pumping like crazy."

Student initiative is built in to the Gailer model. Students devote Wednesdays to community service work for non-profit organizations of their choice. Each also pursues an "inquiry," an apprenticeship project with a mentor of the student's choice. Students sit on the Gailer board of directors, attend weekly forums with faculty and staff to determine school policy, and take part in hiring Gailer's 12 full-time instructors. Chaucer says, "We try to take every opportunity for students to be able to make assertions and defend them," which, he maintains, is the foundation of nearly any occupation.

Chaucer's notion of what a school should be was formed early in life. "My parents grew up in institutions," he says with a laugh. "Now I've got to clarify that statement!"

His great-aunt on his father's side, Esther Gailer, ran Miss Gailer's School in New Haven, Conn. "The family home was a three-story victorian home in New Haven. The first floor was the school; the second two floors were the family home. It was very similar in basic philosophy" to Chaucer's school, he says. "It was very open-minded, innovative."

Chaucer's mother was the daughter of Harlan Paine, a nationally known head administrator of the Grafton State Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Worcester, Mass. "She grew up in the administrative wing of that hospital, which was off a patient floor, so she had to go through patient floors to get to her home," Chaucer explains.

As a result of his family tree, Chaucer says he's "always been a student of institutions." Growing up in Fairfield and Glastonbury, on both sides of New Haven, Chaucer lived too far away to attend Miss Gailer's School. "We used to play in the school weekends and holidays. I grew up thinking of schools as being places where you had very well-educated people -- all the classics on the shelves, Oriental carpets. I didn't realize there were about six family members all working day and night to buy those half a dozen Oriental carpets," he says with a chuckle.

Gailer's alcohol and drug policy results in instant expulsion for possession or consumption. "The tuition bill is still due," says Harry Chaucer. "We want that to be such a big mistake that parents and kids will talk about it." Only two incidents have been recorded at the school.

"That was clearly an important influence in my life. I recall getting into conventional schools as a young kid and thinking to myself, 'They've got it all wrong.'"

Chaucer's dissatisfaction with education grew when he started his undergraduate work at Northeastern University, a Boston institution with 45,000 students. "I remember the exact moment I decided to leave," he says. "I always made a point of getting to class early and sitting up front," he recalls. One day, circumstances beyond his control made him late, so he slipped into the back of the huge, tiered lecture hall to avoid disturbing the class. "The teacher was about this big," Chaucer demonstrates with his fingers an inch apart, "and he was lecturing about the ineffectiveness of large group instruction. I said, 'I'm outta here.'"

His search for something different led him to Plainfield's Goddard College in 1969. "Goddard was a school that allowed me to experiment with my education in a way that very few schools did," he says.

Shortly after graduating in '72 with a bachelor's degree in botany, he began his master's work at the University of vermont. He completed it in 1976 in New Haven, where his first wife was finishing her graduate work at Yale University.

Chaucer then worked at the Yale Psychiatric Institute, a special-education school, before growing tired of city life. He returned to vermont in 1978 to teach at the high school where he accomplished his student-teaching seven years earlier: U-32 High School in East Montpelier. From U-32 he went to vergennes Union High School, and finally Champlain valley Union High School (CvU) in Hinesburg in 1982.

At CvU Chaucer became curriculum director, with one-third of the school under his command. "The next phase was beginning to think about reform," he says. "After five years of doing that I found that there really was resistance all around." He likens reform to trying to convert a rear-wheel-drive vehicle to front-wheel drive -- while it's speeding down the road. "That metaphor sort of drove me to say, 'We've got to shut the line down -- redesign from scratch.'"

After leaving CvU in 1989, Chaucer started doctoral studies at UvM. (He received his Ed.D. in 1996.) Spending long hours in the attic office of his Middlebury home, where he still lives, he planned for the non-profit organization he would name after his great-aunt's private school. When a group of parents caught wind of Chaucer's project, they persuaded him to open in 1990, a year and a half before he was scheduled to, in leased space at a Middlebury convent. With the help of his second wife, Andrea Torello, and a volunteer math teacher, Chaucer taught eight students.

"This is a classic start-up," he says. With a cordless phone in his pants pocket he'd occasionally interrupt class to answer the phone in those early years. "The capital that went into this was one $10,000 CD upon which I and my family had to live the first year and start the school," Chaucer says. "It was lean -- very lean."

Chaucer credits luck with a role in getting his school off the ground. A cover story in Teacher magazine in September 1990 "brought the school into a kind of legitimacy. That story captured the imagination of hundreds and hundreds of educators," he says. Letters poured in from every state in the union.

Harry Chaucer says Gailer instructors "are people who have ability to create curriculum and to look at things in a fresh and open way." Also pictured: teacher Elaine Anderson.

In 1991 Gailer moved to St. Mary's School, a former parochial school in Middlebury. It remained there for seven years, building a student and faculty base, before moving to Shelburne Road two years ago. "It's easier to attract students (here) than it was down in Middlebury," according to Canning, citing Shelburne's closer proximity to the interstate.

"We've had to kind of rebuild our faculty, our board and our student population," Chaucer says, since some weren't interested in commuting to Shelburne. "We're in the process of rebuilding to full capacity." He expects to achieve full enrollment next year: 90 to 97 students.

Chaucer is engaged to Kathleen Ready, director of the health center at Middlebury College. He'll turn 50 this month. As he approaches that milestone and reflects on Gailer's recent 10th reunion he says, "very few people have the chance to create something sizable in life. This has been an absolute joy -- to be able to walk through the building and see those seeds that were planted a decade ago growing on their own."