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Faith in Vermont: School's Out...Forever

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Posted on May 14, 2019 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



Last weekend, I had the opportunity to visit the District #5 School in East Washington, New Hampshire. This 1849 one-room schoolhouse is now maintained by the Washington Historical Society; it closed its doors in 1938, a year in which there was only one family with school-age children left in East Washington, but it holds a significant place in our family lore. The District #5 School is where my maternal grandmother, Helen Natalie Peasley, began her school career. She walked a mile to the school down Lovell Mountain, where she lived on the family farm run by her grandfather, who grazed his cattle on the mountain. She grew up to work for decades as a teacher, and she always enjoyed telling us about her early days walking to the schoolhouse. 

Now, when I hear about the debate over school consolidation in Addison County, I picture the District #5 School sitting empty, its woodstove grown cold, its rows of seats and chalkboards on display for visitors like my daughters and me. Were my grandmother alive today, she would ride the bus 7.3 miles to Washington Elementary School. 

Because I homeschool all of my children, people often say to me, “You must be so glad you don’t have to worry about that!” They say this about school-related issues like classroom discipline issues, consolidation, and school shootings.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth: I am concerned with all of the above issues. I may be homeschooling my children, but an essential part of being human is caring about things that affect the common good, not just what’s best for our own family at the moment. I want my children to be educated so that they’ll grow into literate and thoughtful people; it is clearly in the best interest of humanity that all children be educated so that they’ll grow into literate and thoughtful people. This is why we pay taxes for public schools and public libraries, whether or not we ourselves use them: Schools and libraries are essential to an educated and literate society. You will never hear me complain about handing over my tax dollars to either institution, but I do appreciate it when my money is well spent. 

And the debate over school consolidation is essentially a debate about how to spend our money. 

On the surface, it’s a no-brainer: Continuing to maintain all seven elementary schools in the Addison Central School District will entail a multi-million-dollar price tag for repairs and upgrades – this in a county where property taxes continue to rise and student numbers continue to fall. Most of the smaller schools in the district, with the exception of Middlebury’s Mary Hogan Elementary School, are operating at between 25-55% capacity. It makes fiscal sense to consider the various plans for consolidation, which range from closing all of the smaller district schools and busing students to Mary Hogan, to combining smaller schools into one to three larger schools. 

But scenarios that make immediate fiscal sense are not always scenarios that make the most long-term sense; often there are hidden costs. The costs in this situation are not even particularly hidden: To bus students longer distances out of their towns of residence every school day will profoundly affect the small, close-knit communities that make Vermont increasingly unique in a country of sprawling, cookie-cutter suburbs. The educational impact is less clear, but it’s hard to imagine that long bus rides and more crowded conditions are in any student’s best interest.

When our family moved to Vermont eight years ago, one of the first things I noticed was how family-friendly the state seemed. In the more urban areas in which we’d lived previously, people saw my multiple small children as annoyances – if they saw them at all. In Vermont, people not only saw my children, but they approved of them. They held the door for my stroller, smiled at my toddlers, made supportive and complimentary comments,and almost every restaurant or office included a stash of children’s books or toys. 

But as time’s gone by, I’ve started to see things a little differently. I’m still shaken by the comments made two years ago in a public meeting about proposed renovations to Ilsley Public Library, in which a community member questioned why we’d bother moving the children’s room out of its current location in a dark, moldy basement, since the number of children in Vermont was decreasing. I’ve seen multiple restaurants, stores, and entertainment spaces that cater to young families close their doors. Downtown Middlebury has no public playground for children. When the new College Park was installed downtown, it failed to include any sort of playground -- but did include some of the best-looking and worst-designed metal picnic tables I’ve ever seen, at which it’s impossible to seat our entire (not-very-large) family of six. Recently, I sat in on a public meeting to discuss the re-design of downtown’s Triangle Park following the railway construction project; although multiple people mentioned including a playspace for children, that didn’t appear in the final design.

Now we’re considering shutting down our small schools and busing children out of their communities. 

Which begs the question: In Vermont, we bemoan that we’re not able to attract or hold on to young people, we recognize that we’re in a death spiral in which rising costs of living drive away young families – which in turn drives the cost of living even higher, but what are we actually doing about it?

I am sympathetic to the Addison Central School Board, which has to make some tough decisions based on their budget. I am sympathetic to my fellow parents of elementary students, who don’t want to see their beloved community schools close.  I tend to be a starry-eyed idealist, which is one reason why I love Vermont, a state that seems to be trying to hold onto its small rural communities with more tenacity than mainstream America. But here is a cold, hard fact: Money will almost always take priority over community. 

So I’d encourage those who don’t want to see their small schools close to do what Vermonters do best, and look for creative solutions within their communities. Rather than petitioning the School Board, the best answer may involve neighbors working together to keep schools open. Perhaps a cooperative model in which volunteers donate labor to defray maintenance costs is something to consider. 

That may sound like more starry-eyed idealism. Or it may sound like a possible solution. But then, Vermont has always struck me as the kind of place where starry-eyed idealism could be the solution. 

 

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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