Tucked off a red brick-lined hallway at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, a pocket of classrooms make up Project Vine, the school’s alternative education program.

In one of those classrooms is Danielle Charbonneau, who was recently name a finalist for the Massachusetts Teacher of the Year award.

Ms. Charbonneau has been at the high school since 2016 and is the program’s department chairman and English teacher, she said in an interview with the Gazette early this week. Project Vine is a program based on character education and community building. Students apply to the program and take English, history and math in roughly 15-person classes, and go on field trips together. Teachers stick with their students year after year, meaning Ms. Charbonneau teaches students from their freshman year through graduation.

“It’s got this home base sense for a lot of [the students],” Ms. Charbonneau said. “It’s hard to find that space for some people in a public school.”

As a department head Ms. Charbonneau wears many hats, she said. In addition to teaching four classes, she oversees the program’s application process, handles the occasional disciplinary situation and attends any school meetings her students may have outside of the Project Vine program.

This year marks the second time Ms. Charbonneau has been nominated for the award. She was a semifinalist in 2020, she said. The process is an arduous one. After being nominated, Ms. Charbonneau had to respond to a list of essay questions and submit her resume. Then as part of the semi-final round, she submitted a 20-minute video of herself teaching, answered more essay questions and did an hour-long phone interview.

In the next step, representatives from the Department of Elementary School and Secondary Education will observe her teaching and conduct another interview. The winner will be announced in July.

“I’m excited. I’m looking forward to seeing where this all goes,” she said of the process.

Ms. Charbonneau discovered teaching while working at CBS in New York city, she said. She was assigned to teach a group of kids how to use audio and visual equipment. Her colleagues saw it as grunt work but she loved it; it was the highlight of each week for her. Once it was over Ms. Charbonneau knew she wanted to teach full-time.

Project Vine has grown steadily under Ms. Charbonneau’s leadership. There are 44 students in the program and a wait list to get in, she said. Much like the Great Resignation among adults across the country, Ms. Charbonneau believes the pandemic caused students to reprioritize and pay closer attention to their needs, which she attributes to the program’s popularity.

“I wish we had the space and staff to let everyone who’s interested at least try out this model, but it also lends to the feeling of just how special it is to be part of this,” she said.  Since Ms. Charbonneau teaches the same students through their four years, she enjoys watching their relationships with one another deepen and evolve. She said it also makes her a better teacher because she has more time to understand how her students learn.

“I don’t believe that there’s any one size fits all instruction,” Ms. Charbonneau said. “And knowing a student really well and what they’re good at, what they are still challenged with is how you kind of give them the next step that they need to take.”