A Game Changer for Burlington's "OnTop" Program

Updated: Mar 19


Imagine a life where you always felt diminished and insignificant. Further imagine, because of mental health needs, poor self-esteem, social-emotional deficiencies, and traumatic life experiences, the school system that was supposed to support and hold you, constantly felt like they marginalized, failed and gave up on you.


When students and families arrive at OnTop, that is often how they viewed their life and school experiences.


We have begun to transform the OnTop program, making progress towards the vision of creating consistent and compassionate educational settings where students can heal from trauma and make progress towards their educational goals. Moving from a punitive system our team is creating an environment that engages the whole child, including partnerships with mental health agencies, artistic partners, youth serving organizations in Burlington offering therapeutic support during the school day, alternative vocational based opportunities and others.


Our goal is to empower students and create a passion and interest driven education environment. Due to their needs, our students, in the past, were often overlooked as students and simply seen as behaviors. As a result, they were often excluded from school, fell further behind and a cycle of failure and exclusion were created.


While we were making continued programmatic changes, the physical environment we occupied was a major stumbling block to student buy in. In a dark hallway, on the top floor, far away as possible from the students experiencing traditional schooling, sat OnTop. The students typically referred to the feel and vibe of the program’s layout and placement, as prison. They viewed the physical space as just another way the system continued to discount their worth.


This year, aside from the pandemic, the high school was forced to go fully remote and bypass even a hybrid in-person model, due to an environmental toxin identified on the school grounds. We were informed of this closure on a Thursday and knew immediately a fully remote learning program for our students would not best serve their needs. I made a phone call to Paul Habersang at Rock Point on Thursday afternoon, and OnTop at Rock Point officially started on the following Monday. It has been a game-changer!


The physical environment now creates a welcoming feeling and comfort that supports learning and care for all. Teachers can concentrate more on teaching and therapeutic care and less on crisis intervention. The locale at Rock Point has focused on improving morale for both students and staff. Rock Point removes the stigma of being in a far off hallway, allowing students to lower their guard and feel better about being at school. It truly is a therapeutic setting. A walk in the woods, seeing the lake from classrooms, feeling the fresh air or listening to the birds chirping, all allow for new ways to regulate one’s emotions in the school setting. It’s beautiful to see students feel better about themselves and connect more deeply with their natural environment. To that end, as part of our project and interest-based learning, we are developing new ways to engage with nature and use the beautiful resources around us as part of the classroom.


The physical and social environment in which staff and students spend a high proportion of every weekday has profound effects on their physical, emotional, and mental health. The surrounding physical environment can either alleviate or exacerbate stresses our students are already experiencing, both in and out of the classroom. The World Health Organization defines a health-promoting school as “one that constantly strengthens its capacity as a healthy setting for living, learning and working.” For the first time in our student’s life, the school setting truly fits that description and mission. The environment at Rock Point opens possibilities for our community and creates a space of hope. Something our students do not often have the opportunity to envision. As stated earlier in this text, it’s been a game-changer, and we are so grateful for the partnership. It’s truly changing lives.


Submitted by Bobby Reilly, Principal, “OnTop” Program for Burlington High School

For questions and information on "OnTop", please email Bobby at briley@bsdvt.org


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