Middlebury's Gailer School to close doors

MIDDLEBURY — The Gailer School, an innovative independent middle and high school in Middlebury, will close its doors for good this spring, with leaders citing declining enrollment and a strained budget as the primary reasons for the difficult decision.

“Between the struggling economy and the shrinking demographics of Addison County, it has made it really difficult for the private secondary school to recruit enough students,” said Gailer Headmaster Lonny Edwards.

“There’s just not the deep well of population that we need to continue to make a go of it.”

It was in 1989 that New Haven resident Harry Chaucer — a former high school science teacher — established the Gailer School, initially in the living room of his home. Chaucer drew inspiration from Leonardo da Vinci in the creation of Gailer’s curriculum. It’s a curriculum that is history-based, beginning with the origin of the universe and extending into modern times. It is an educational program that has stressed interdisciplinary learning, encouraging students to see connections between science, history, math and other subjects.

Community service also has been a major component of the Gailer School program.

The Gailer School in 1990 moved into the then-vacant St. Mary’s School space off Shannon Street in Middlebury. Enrollment steadily increased there, to the point where the school served more than 80 students during the 1997-1998 academic year.

At that point, more than 75 percent of Gailer’s students were commuting from Chittenden County. The school moved to Shelburne in 1998 to become more conveniently located for the bulk of its enrollees.

But in 2006, school leaders again looked at demographics, costs and competition from other Chittenden County schools and decided to move Gailer back to Middlebury. The school first found rented space at the former Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society on Cross Street. In 2009, Gailer hired Edwards and moved to its current rented space at 54 Creek Road.

Unfortunately, Gailer’s enrollment numbers have declined fairly steadily since its banner year of 1998. The school has a staff of five teachers (two full-time, three part-time) that currently serves 13 students.

Edwards explained that anticipated graduations and departures of some of the current students (including international students) further dimmed the prospect of augmenting enrollment for next year.

“In order for us to make the numbers work we would have had to get up to between 23 and 26 students — and that would have included raising tuition,” Edwards said. “The thought that we would have needed to get 13 or 16 new students… there was no way that was going to happen.”

Current tuition is $10,500 annually (plus $750 in fees) for high schoolers and $8,500 (plus $750 in fees) for middle schoolers.

Gailer leaders explored ways of perhaps continuing the school with small student numbers, but decided they couldn’t make it work.

It was a tough decision, as Edwards and board members believe strongly in the educational mission of the school.

“The financial aspect of the school is not good from a business standpoint, but from an educational standpoint, we have done some really great work,” Edwards said.

“Our kids are happy, they have learned a great deal, will be highly functional and are going to go off and be better for having been here,” he added. “We want to celebrate our successes and responsibly wind down.”

Chaucer was saddened to hear about the impending demise of the school he founded. Chaucer left Gailer in 2000 and is now a tenured professor at Castleton State College and director of Woodruff Institute for School Leaders. He is currently helping a group establish a Vermont-approved school in Shanghai, China, to prepare Shanghai students who aspire to attend American colleges.

“The school served an awful lot of students over the years, and served them very well,” Chaucer said. “I am constantly in touch with former students and am amazed at what they are doing.”

Some, he said, are pursuing doctoral studies or are already established in the legal profession or other careers.

“It is sad that there are students out there for whom other schools are not the right match, and this alternative unfortunately won’t be available to them,” Chaucer said.

“The da Vinci curriculum at Gailer included innovations that took the intellectual purpose of school very seriously without making it stuffy and distant or unreachable for students.”

Ironically, Chaucer has written a book, to be published in April, on the da Vinci curriculum and its successful use at the Gailer School. The school’s run will end just a few months after the book is published.

“The school would be a wonderful exemplar of the book,” he said.

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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