Schools Debate How Small Is Too Small

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Across the state, many towns are now having discussions about the future of their schools. These are being spurred by Act 153, a bill that encourages towns with small schools to discuss the possibility of merging with other school districts.

A big part of what’s behind this is a 20-year decline in school enrollment.  In 1997, there were 107,000 kids enrolled in public schools in Vermont. This year, there are fewer than 87,000. Nowhere is this more visible than in rural towns, where the schools are small, and getting smaller.

VPR’s Samantha Fields recently visited the elementary school in one such town in Addison County.

(Fields) To get a sense of how small Weybridge Elementary School is, let’s walk into a classroom.

This one includes the school’s only kindergartner, and six first and second graders. On a good day, when no one’s out sick, there are 11 kids in this class.

(Christina Johnston) "The school age population of Vermont is dropping, and has been dropping for several years. And I don’t believe there’s an upswing in sight."

(Fields) Christina Johnston has been the principal at Weybridge for 19 years. In that time, she’s seen the school’s population fluctuate significantly. It peaked at just over a hundred students five years ago.  Now, there are 51.

(Johnston) "That’s part of the reason it’s really important for communities to think about how they’re educating their children and the role of the school in the community."

(Fields) The town of Weybridge has been thinking about that a lot. It recently finished a series of community-wide forums about the future of the school.

(Armando Vilaseca) "At what point is it not in the best interest of the students?  Because, really, that’s what we’re talking about here."

(Fields) Armando Vilaseca is Vermont’s education commissioner. He says that when a school gets too small, it can be limiting for students, when there isn’t a wide range of courses and services.

Vilaseca says Vermont’s per pupil spending is around $17,000.  That’s one of the highest in the nation. But he also says that’s not the driving factor.

(Vilaseca) "Ultimately it’s not about money savings.  It’s about better and more opportunities for our students."

(Fields) Vilaseca says when schools can’t offer as many courses, they put students at a disadvantage when it comes to college admissions.

Weybridge principal Christina Johnston says that even at the elementary level, it’s important to have classrooms that are a mix. She says students benefit from hearing different experiences and points of view.

(Christina Johnston) "When you get too small, there isn’t an opportunity enough for students to really think together and solve problems and learn together.  And that’s really, really important. Children talking with each other around material, and grappling with new ideas and solving problems is the core of learning. And you need a reasonable group to do that."

(Fields) At this point, Johnston says Weybridge is still big enough.

But the school relies on part-time teachers for gym, special ed, music and art.

The Spanish teacher, speech and language pathologist, and school nurse are also part-time.

And three of the four classes at the school are multi-grade, so that they are big enough that they can have those robust, thought-provoking discussions. For now, Johnston says, they’re doing just fine.

(Christina Johnston) "But I do think it’s something that people need to keep in mind. That if populations are very, very small, then there do become concerns about the social aspect of learning, which is really, really, really important."

(Fields) That’s what it ultimately came down to in East Haven, a little town in the Northeast Kingdom. Last fall, East Haven voted to close its elementary school after this year. School board chair Michael Moore says the school has just 11 students, in grades K through 6.

(Michael Moore) "It was nice that the decision this time wasn’t solely based on money.  A lot of it was the social aspect for the children. When you only have 9, we’re looking at 9 kids next year if we’d kept it open, it’s more towards a home school than a school. We think that there’s a lot of benefits to having kids be social and learn how to work in group settings or be around other kids their age.

(Fields) There were mixed feelings in town about closing the school.  But Moore says it came down to facing reality. There just aren’t many young families left in East Haven. But it’s still a loss.

(Michael Moore) "It is hard. I mean, for us, there’s not much left in East Haven. There’s a post office, but there’s really no reason for people to come to East Haven. So that is difficult."

(Fields) And that’s one of the things people in Weybridge keep coming back to.

(Megan Sutton) "When you have a small town that has a sense of community, and you take out that school, you don’t really have any single entity that ties you together."

(Fields) Megan Sutton is the librarian and technology coordinator at Weybridge Elementary. She also lives in town, and participated in the community forums about the school’s future.

(Megan Sutton) "Then there’s the other piece. I spoke about this the other day. You get emotionally invested in the way things have been."

(Fields) That is something Commissioner Vilaseca is hoping that towns can get beyond.

(Armando Vilaseca) "This wasn’t an act of God or a lightening bolt that came down and said this is the way schools will have to be forever. No. We have the ability and the knowledge to be able to improve it."  

(Fields) In Weybridge, people say they’re open to hard conversations. They’re open to the possibility that there may come a time when keeping the school as it is, is no longer in the best interest of the kids.

But Leigh Harder, Weybridge’s 3rd and 4th grade teacher, says that that decision is about so much more than numbers.

(Leigh Harder) "I think it’s really important for people to reflect on the quality of education and to sort of take stock. Why do we educate children? What is that like? And how does it affect the future?"

(Fields) Many people in Weybridge really like the way education looks now. When the entire school has an assembly in the gym, there’s space for everyone to sit along the wall.  And they can all see and hear everyone else.

For VPR News, I’m Samantha Fields.

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