By Phyl Newbeck, Contributor

Stephanie Sumner. Photo contributed

Stephanie Sumner. Photo contributed.

Stephanie Sumner just finished what she described as the best professional development experience she’s ever had. Sumner has been the lead principal at Charlotte Central School (CCS) since 2017. Former Champlain Valley Union principal Val Gardner, who together with Peter Burrows co-directs the Snelling Center for Government’s Vermont School Leadership Project, was one of her mentors in her early years at CCS and her advisor for her Certificate in Advance Graduate Studies at St. Michael’s College. Gardner periodically invites those she has worked with to take part in the Leadership Project, and Sumner was happy to get an invitation and participate last year.

“It was amazing,” Sumner said. “I’ve been lucky to participate in really great professional development during my career, but hands down this was the best I’ve ever had and the best growth process.” Sumner praised Gardner and Burrows for their leadership, knowledge and work as facilitators. “It’s a cohort model,” she said “so you are with a group of educators who are your colleagues for 18 months. It’s great to be able to brainstorm and problem solve and learn among people with the same goals. There was a lot of consulting and collaborative learning. It’s like a giant think tank.”

The initial meetings were all at Lake Morey, but when COVID-19 hit, in-person workshops were shut down and the March session was held remotely and had to be scaled back because participants were dealing with transforming their schools to remote learning. “We continued to set up opportunities to check in with each other remotely during the school year,” Sumner said. Participants were given the option of attending the July session in person and Sumner chose to do so, together with roughly half of the cohort. The October and November sessions brought almost all of the participants on-site. “In November we had a closure session,” Sumner said “where we reflected and shared growth stories and wrapped up the work we had accomplished.”

What Sumner really liked about the program was the way it allowed her to focus on leadership skills. “When I think about the entire experience, it really was a process of continually zooming in and out,” she said. “I got to look in at myself and also at the systems we have in place and then how I go into the systems, and then come back out to reflect on what I’ve done.”

Sumner started her teaching career in 1996 with 4th grade students and then taught either 5th grade or a combined 5th/6th grade, with the exception of one year as a math coordinator in 2013 when she first began working at Charlotte Central School. “I’m drawn to the K-4 age group,” she said. “I love to see how our students grow, change, learn new things, and recognize and feel pride at what they’ve learned. Elementary age kids really love school and they are happy to be here and easy to work with.”

Sumner and her husband have two teenage children with whom they love to kayak in the summer and skate in the winter. Sumner describes herself as a “recovering runner” who is getting back into the sport after foot injuries. She worked with Girls on the Run for several years before she got hurt. She is a voracious reader and admits that during the pandemic she has become a bit obsessed with puzzles.

Sumner is pleased with how things have been going at CCS. “We’ve got a lot of things we’ve done well and will continue to do,” she said “and the pandemic has given us the chance to step back, reflect, and prioritize.” Before the onset of COVID, the CCS team emphasized play-based learning and social connections and that will continue to be prioritized. “We got more creative with how we used our campus and outdoor education,” Sumner said “and that’s something we’d like to put more energy into post-pandemic.” The team has also designed a vision for enhanced STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics) education which they hope to continue.”

Sumner said she continues to be gratified by the support she has received from the community.

“Being able to come into a school and be with the students has helped sustain me and my teachers during the pandemic,” she said. “We feel very lucky that we are back in the building as much as possible because being with the kids is a fun and exciting place to be.”