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Hancock and Granville shutter tiny schoolhouses after historic run (with slideshow)

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waving(3).jpg
SOME OF THE 32 students at the Hancock-Granville Village School wave goodbye last Wednesday in the school's final end-of-year concert. The Hancock and Granville schools, which have each been operating for more than 150 years, closed last week. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

By KATHRYN FLAGG
HANCOCK — “Our school will shine tonight,” belted out students of the Hancock and Granville village schools last Wednesday night, taking the stage in the packed Hancock Town Hall to the thunderous applause of parents, teachers old and new, and alumni of the tiny village schools.

Wearing t-shirts emblazoned with pictures of both the Hancock and Granville schoolhouses, the 32 students threw themselves into their last hurrah: an end-of-year concert that held a special note of finality this year.

Shine they did — though the lights went out just a day later in the two tiny village schools, which shut down permanently last week after dwindling student numbers and rising costs persuaded residents in both towns to close the two elementary schools, which had operated as a joint school district since 2004.

“It’s been a really good run,” said lead teacher and principal Mary Sue Crowley on Wednesday, a little sadly. “Two hundred and eight years isn’t anything to sneeze at.”

The two-room Hancock Village School had been in continuous operation since 1801. A few miles up Route 100, the one-room schoolhouse in Granville also shut its doors for good last week after educating children for 152 years.

But history, it turned out, wasn’t enough to keep the schools open. On Town Meeting Day this year, Hancock residents voted to dissolve the joint school contract between the two towns, with many residents citing concerns about the rising costs to educate children in such small schools.

With each school facing closure, the 2004 agreement pooled resources as a way to keep the two schools afloat. For the last few years, fifth- and sixth-graders from both towns have studied in Granville, with younger students taking up residence in two classrooms in Hancock.

But after Hancock chose to shut down its half of the joint school, residents in Granville faced a tough choice: keep their one-room schoolhouse open another year, educating 13 students ranging from kindergarten to fourth grade with just one and a half educators, or close up shop.

On April 6, they made that tough choice: parents at a school board meeting then said they loved the joint village school, but they worried returning to a one-room schoolhouse with limited resources would mean shortchanging the town’s students.

Though educators and parents have expressed deep sadness at the decision, Wednesday night’s final school concert was marked by a sense of celebration. Student drawings of the two schoolhouses hung on the walls of the town hall, emblazoned with childish scrawl that pronounced “We love this school.”

Catherine Denis, one of the school’s two kindergarten students, shimmied her way through a song and dance number called “Walk Right In” that welcomed townsfolk to the event. Then the entire student body launched into an enthusiastic rendition of “School Days.”

As the students sang songs from American history, they also marched through a chronological tour of the presidents punctuated by brief glimpses back at the history of their own two schools.

In Hancock’s case, it’s a history that stretches back to Thomas Jefferson’s time as commander in chief.

Donning calico aprons and kerchiefs, the students wheeled and stomped through contra dances, accompanying “Alabama Girl” and “Chimes of Dunkirk.”

But the evening also included a few tearful acknowledgements of the fact that this year, unlike years past, the end of the school year marked an end to something much more.

Tammi Beattie, the president of the Parent Teacher Organization and the chair of the Village School board, presented each teacher with an apple — symbolic of the gift of apple trees that the PTO and board arranged for each educator.

Later in the evening, Crowley also doled out certificates that certified each child was a member of the last class to attend the village school.

“We’ve had a fantastic school year,” Beattie said tearfully.

By the time students reached their last musical numbers — including a rendition of “My Favorite Things,” tweaked from the “Sound of Music” version to rattle off beloved memories of the Hancock and Granville schools — more than a few eyes in the packed town hall were damp, including those of a handful of students who sniffled through the final verses.

“Bus drivers, history and social studies, memories we’ll have of our very best buddies, parents and teachers who gave us our wings — these are a few of our favorite things,” the students sang.

Despite the tears, the Wednesday night celebration of the two schools was ultimately a happy one, teachers said after the performance.

Teacher Amy Braun, who headed the kindergarten, first- and second-grade classes in Hancock, said that in her six years there, she was always impressed by the community’s commitment to the school. Every student was present for the final concert, she said, and every family represented.

“It’s been amazing,” Braun said. “In a small school, there’s a lot of warmth, and it’s like a home. The school was like a home to us.”

The last week was deeply sad, Crowley said, but the students and teachers kept busy practicing for their final performance.

Crowley taught in Hancock for 10 years in the 1980s and early 90s, and returned to the school in 2001 after a stretch in Barre.

Crowley worries that, as students sang earlier in the evening to Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” the townspeople in Hancock and Granville “won’t know what they’ve got ’til it’s gone.”

She also said she thinks that residents will soon realize that paying to tuition their students to schools outside of their own town won’t be any less expensive than keeping open the village schools.

Now the students have their summer vacations to enjoy before trundling off to new schools next year. Many will head to the elementary school in Rochester, about four miles away. They’ll take one of their teachers with them: Crowley will assume the position of lead teacher at the Rochester Elementary School next year.

“There’s a silver lining, which is that Rochester now will be able to keep their school open,” Crowley said.

But parents in Granville and Hancock can choose where to send their students, and some children may head north to Warren. That means that after years spent together in the two cozy schoolhouses, the children won’t be classmates for much longer.

Braun is confident the students will do fine at their new schools.

“Kids adjust. They’re very versatile,” Braun said. “I just hope that they have as much joy as they experienced here, and the closeness they felt with their colleagues and their friends.”

She wasn’t so sure how the towns of Granville and Hancock would react to the change, though.

“Some people will notice,” Braun said. “Some people won’t. After a little bit of time, when there aren’t any children outside, it will start to be recognizable.”

But Braun, for one, has hopes for the residents of the two towns much like those hopes she holds for their schoolchildren:

“I know that it’s a very difficult time for the town, because some people felt strongly about closing (the school) and some people felt strongly about keeping it open,” Braun said. “I hope the situation ends just like tonight did, with a dance, and that (the towns) go forward to the next journey joyfully.”

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