New school in Peru

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(HOST) The town of Peru hasn’t had a school for quite a few years, but that may change. And commentator Bill Shutkin says the possibility of a new school has sparked a lively debate about Peru’s future.

(SHUTKIN) It was an odd scene at the Peru Town Hall on a recent evening, where about sixty people gathered to hear about a proposed new campus for Burr & Burton Academy, our local high school just down the hill in Manchester. Burr & Burton, it turns out, is bucking Vermont’s trend of declining school enrollments, and thanks to projected increases, is hoping to expand its facilities by creating a hundred-acre wilderness school where, for one semester, seventy students would be immersed in learning about Vermont’s wild side. Housed in a state-of-the-art green building and surrounded by national forest, the students would have an educational experience unlike any other in the state.

What was strange, however, was who showed up at the meeting. There was only one kid. Most were senior citizens who long ago said farewell to school lunches and PTA meetings. For many of them, the idea of a new school in their midst is an unwelcome trip down memory lane. Been there, done that. Others were part-timers with second homes. They’re more than happy to think of Peru as a “child-free zone.” They already live in communities with kids, schools and big yellow buses and have a hard time reconciling their idea of a quiet, mountain setting with a vibrant campus bustling with tree-hugging teens.

Parents like me, with school-age kids, were in the clear minority. I counted only five, but we were all excited by the proposal. At a time when towns across the state are agonizing over school closings, the idea that Peru might play host to a new one, to say nothing of its visionary program, seems almost revolutionary. But it’s actually more than that. A school is a community’s premier symbol of its own survival, of its ability to reproduce itself over time as a living, breathing, thinking place. This is why a community that loses it’s school often feels it’s also lost its identity. It’s like losing a vital organ or worse, its soul.

To see a school disappear is, for a moment, to see a community’s life flash before its eyes.

But a new school is just the opposite. It’s a life-giving force, an affirmation of the future. Tracy Black, the town clerk, summed it up best. Reciting the latest figures from Peru’s Grand List, she noted that, of the six hundred plus properties on the list, only about one-fifth of them are full-timers. The community, she sighed, is slowly withering away; the school is, to her, an occasion for hope.

The last time Peru had a school the Vietnam War was still raging. A photograph of its final graduating class hangs in a glass case in the Town Hall. When I think about Peru’s future, I wonder if the town itself will one day become a memory, an image on display, or will the town persevere? And then I imagine the sound of school buses. To me, they sound like a heart ~ beating.

Bill Shutkin is president of the Orton Family Foundation and a Research Affiliate at MIT.

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