After two go-rounds, Leicester is still a wallflower at the school merger dance, having been turned down by Sudbury and most recently by Salisbury. It’s time to invite Leicester’s 60 students and all of the town’s taxpayers to come join us at Neshobe Community School in Brandon. We certainly have the room. The original building on the Forestdale Road/Route 73 campus was built in 1912 and originally served both Forestdale and Goshen, while the children in Brandon town at that time attended elementary school at the old Brandon Seminary, located on what is now Seminary Hill behind the Town Offices. Built in 1833 under the auspices of the Baptists of Vermont, it not only included classrooms, a laboratory and library, but dormitory rooms for 30 students. By 1865, the two town schools, one on Park Street and the other on Grove Street/Route 7 North, voted to lease the site for 999 years and consolidate the town school district.
Overcrowding led to the construction of Brandon High School across from the Seminary building in 1917. It contained a gymnasium, and the nearby Town Hall was used for assemblies, school performances, and other events. But by 1953 even these two schools could not adequately serve the growing population in Brandon town as well as tuition-paying students from Goshen, Sudbury, Whiting, Orwell and Leicester. Students were attending classes in area churches and the Ayrshire Breeder’s Association building that now houses a doctor’s office, a hair salon, and a branch of the National Bank of Middlebury. Then, in 1959, tragedy struck: The elementary school was destroyed by fire. A nascent movement to build a union high school was now put on the fast track, and two years later Otter Valley Union High School opened its doors while Brandon Elementary School moved into the old high school.
The modern elementary school on the Forestdale campus was completed in 1982. It contains a large and well-stocked library and a gymnasium/cafeteria that doubles as a performance space as needed. The art program is located in a separate portable classroom behind the building. The music room has its own space, as does the computer lab. There is a French program that begins in kindergarten and offers an intensive experience for older students. Neshobe also boasts a full-time school nurse, librarian, and school counselor. Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union’s early childhood education program is now located entirely in the 1912 building as of this school year, along with kindergarten and several of the primary grades. The original auditorium of the 1912 building, along with several of the original offices, now serve for small group and individual instruction, while the cafeteria runs both a school breakfast and school lunch program. There are even two playgrounds: Thanks to the hard work and perseverance of a few parents and the pre-school teachers, the youngest children not only have an age-appropriate fenced play space, but their own snow-shoe trail through the woods and farmland behind the campus.
However, Neshobe School’s population has declined in the last two decades. Each year there is a difficult juggling act based on the best of predictions as to whether there should be two classes per grade or three. In order to maintain the high level of diversified services to meet all student needs and continue to provide the enrichment opportunities it offers as well, Neshobe School and the voters of Brandon would be well-advised to welcome Leicester’s elementary student population. In general, the community has been very supportive of its school, both in terms of passing school budgets and in high rates of volunteerism. But a little financial cushion would be helpful in these lean times, especially because so many aspects of any school’s budget are beyond the control of the local school board.
The real winners of a school merger, however, would be the children and tax payers in Leicester. Currently saddled with an aging facility that requires extensive and expensive maintenance, they would be able to send their children to a modernized building that in the last few years was completely retrofitted with energy efficient roofing, windows and lighting They would bear only a fraction of the tax burden of maintaining this incredible educational facility, while their children would reap all of its benefits.
And for the children, Neshobe School is clearly a great place to learn. A tightly knit and highly qualified faculty and staff work there. Everyone from the principal to the cafeteria staff exudes a caring attitude and knows each child by name. The resources simply cannot be matched by a smaller rural school district. While the commute to school would be longer, buses from OVUHS already travel to Leicester to drop off older students. Moreover, Leicester and Neshobe students would be learning the same curriculum; as any union district will admit, aligning curriculum among six small elementary schools is a Herculean task. In fact, RNESU this year added a K-8 Literacy Coordinator to its administrative structure as a response to the low test scores at OVUHS, recognizing that a stronger and more unified approach needed to occur in the lower grades if this is to change. And students who move from Leicester to Brandon mid-year or mid-way through their elementary school career would not face the challenge of starting over in a new school where expectations of what students have already learned are not always the same.
Leicester has been burned twice in the past; now they are awaiting a sign from Neshobe School and the town of Brandon that we are interested in a school merger. Let’s sign their dance card.