The Future of Education: Peacham’s elementary school future

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(Host) All this week, VPR is examining the future of education in Vermont – from the factors driving up school budgets to different ways to pay for education

Declining enrollment is affecting many schools, but it’s a critical concern to the state’s smallest schools, where the loss of just a few students can put a heavy strain on taxpayers.

Some towns have chosen consolidation as a way to address the problem, others are exploring different alternatives.

VPR’s Steve Zind visited Peacham, where a discussion is underway about what to do about the local elementary school.

(Sounds of school)

(Zind) The one-story brick Peacham Elementary School sits at the edge of a village considered one of New England’s most picturesque. There’s a huddle of cars outside in the parking lot and off in the corner a single school bus. The bus is enough to take the entire student body to and from school and on field trips. There are only 36 students in kindergarten through 6th grade classes at the school.

(Wendy Olcott-Nelson) “When this addition was built in, I believe it was 1993, we had just over 90 students. The number has gradually declined ever since.”

(Zind) Wendy Olcott Nelson is principal of the Peacham Elementary. She says when it reached the point where there were just three or four students in a grade, classes were combined.

The building now also houses about a dozen pre-schoolers. Olcott Nelson says there have been some shrinking pains over the years, but overall a school the size of Peacham’s has advantages in the attention students get and the bonds that develop.

John Bacon is superintendent of the school district that includes Peacham. Bacon says there’s also a downside to the districts smallest elementary school in terms of the economy of scale. A Peacham teacher might have a class of ten students – half the size of an elementary school class in a neighboring town.

(Bacon) “And so the cost of that teacher is spread across fewer students. And if you have a school nurse, a librarian, a guidance counselor, busing, a hot lunch program, a principal, the costs of those are spread out over the total number of students in the school, and in Peacham, cost per pupil therefore goes up.”

(Zind) Bacon says as a small school Peacham does receive additional support money from the state. But declining enrollment in recent years has led to some soul searching by the school board and members of the community.

Last month about 60 people attended a meeting to discuss the future of the school. School board chairwoman Jo Anne Post says there still isn’t a clear consensus about how the community feels about the schools future.

(Post) “We’re still kind of at the stage of collecting community sentiment. I think based on that, we’ll start looking in one direction or another or not looking at all.”

(Zind) What seemed to emerge from the meeting was a strong feeling that having a school is important to the community.

Judy Chypre is a Peacham resident and a former schoolteacher. She says the board should be actively exploring other alternatives so it can present the information to the community. She ticks off a list of possibilities: merging with a neighboring town, tuitioning all students to another school or closing the school and reopening it as an independent or private school.

Chypre says she doesn’t know what the best plan would be, but making the school independent of the district is worth investigating because it could save money and preserve the school, which is important to many people in Peacham.

(Chypre) “There is a strong group feeling that the school should stay.”

(Zind) One of the ideas expressed in last month’s meeting is creating more affordable housing to attract young families and boost school enrollment. Housing is more expensive in Peacham than in the surrounding communities, and that’s an obstacle for families with young children who might want to relocate there.

School officials say enrollment is holding steady in Peacham for the moment. They say they want to take their time and carefully consider any proposed changes.

I’m Steve Zind in Peacham.

Note: Tomorrow night, VPR’s Symposium on Education continues at 7:00pm. The 90-minute live broadcast will include reports and panel discussions exploring the issue of how to pay for education.

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