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On Martha's Vineyard, state Teacher of the Year has a message: Let's change how we think about alternative education

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Jennette Barnes
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CAI
Students stand and cheer as Dani Charbonneau, an English teacher and coordinator of the Project Vine alternative education program at Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, is named Massachusetts Teacher of the Year for 2023.

Cheers and applause erupted from the audience at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School yesterday as alternative education teacher Danielle “Dani” Charbonneau — in a surprise for her students — was named Massachusetts Teacher of the Year for 2023.

Charbonneau teaches English and coordinates Project Vine, a voluntary alternative program for students who feel the classic model of school isn’t a good fit for them.

“What kind of a job could get me up at 4 a.m.? … Simply the best job I have ever had,” she said. “It's a job, though, that doesn't exist everywhere. And that's really what I've been on about through this whole Teacher of the Year process.”

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Jennette Barnes
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CAI
Martha's Vineyard Regional High School teacher Dani Charbonneau, right, greets her mother at a reception for Charbonneau after she was named Massachusetts Teacher of the Year for 2023.

Unlike many alternative education programs, Project Vine is integrated into the high school, with the same curriculum and hours, and takes place in the same building. Students take some of their classes together and meet regularly to create a close-knit group.

“In most schools in the state, and in the country, that's not an option right now,” Charbonneau said. “I believe strongly in creating and nurturing different ways to do high school, because the traditional ways don't work for everybody.”

Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley visited the Vineyard to announce Charbonneau as Teacher of the Year.

During the assembly, grandparent Al Woollacott spoke about how important Charbonneau’s work was in the life of his grandson, Jake Baird.

“He was always enthusiastic about learning, but his first couple of years in high school, it just wasn't working,” he said.

Jake wanted to transfer into Project Vine. The family was “a little leery” of the idea at first, Woollacott said.

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Jennette Barnes
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CAI
Martha's Vineyard Regional High School teacher Dani Charbonneau was named Massachusetts Teacher of the Year for 2023.

“But Dani convinced us to give it a try,” he said. “Dani was right. Jake flourished. Dani had rekindled that enthusiasm that had been lost for a couple of years.”

This week, she and some of the Project Vine students are taking an overnight field trip to Penikese Island.

“Overnight field trips to uninhabited islands? It's, like, pretty close to magic, something that can often feel in short supply, especially in some students’ educational lives,” she said.

She hopes her time as Teacher of the Year is a chance to share that magic, she said.

“I hope that people hear about what we're doing here on the Vineyard and they go, ‘Hey, our school should have that choice. We should do something like that.’”

Teacher of the Year recipients have the opportunity to do public speaking and attend conferences as part of a national program sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Jennette Barnes is a reporter and producer. Named a Master Reporter by the New England Society of News Editors, she brings more than 20 years of news experience to CAI.