Letter to the editor: ANWSD middle school teachers oppose process

Dear ANWSD community,

As educators in the middle school, we feel that it is important to weigh in on the conversation on reconfiguration. Despite some hesitancy to stick our necks out, we do this out of a deep commitment to our students, schools, and community. The enrollment challenges in our schools are real, and we recognize the need to consider different configurations. However, we also know that our schools, not merely the physical buildings, but the web of relationships that breathe life into those buildings, are precious community institutions that have been built through decades of care, hard work, and shared history.

Superintendent Sheila Soule met with us on Thursday, Sept. 26, and presented a vision for the middle school next year that, for us, raises serious concerns. First, the proposed cuts of 36 teachers and support staff from K-12, an enormous number in a district of our size, may seriously jeopardize our ability to provide a rich and supportive learning environment for students of all ages, particularly as we still have no information about where these cuts will be made. With the proposed doubling of student numbers in our middle school wing by bringing in the 5th and 6th grades, small spaces (such as the current computer lab) that were not designed as general education classrooms would hold full classes. Crucial resources for students, including space for special education services and social/emotional support, would be pushed out of the middle school wing. With no building modifications, 5th- and 6th-grade students would regularly be sharing hallways and common spaces with high school students, an issue that cannot be addressed adequately through scheduling alone. 

In addition to this, middle school staff learned for the first time on Thursday that the proposed reconfiguration is not really a long or even medium-term plan, but only a first step towards further cuts. Superintendent Soule put merger with another district in the near future on the table. It came as a shock to middle school teachers that we were hearing many of these details from the superintendent for the first time in an informal meeting the day before the board’s vote on school closures.

Superintendent Soule suggested on Thursday that everyone needs to get on board with the “hard work” required to make changes that are “inevitable.” If there is one thing that middle school educators are accustomed to, it’s hard work. However, we are concerned that our hard work could be undermined by sudden changes that compromise the middle school culture and learning environment we work to maintain every day. The relationships students build with peers and adults are essential in the successful navigation of early adolescence. Cuts to staff may hinder our ability to build relationships with students and provide needed supports and interventions. In addition, crowding support services out of the middle school will interfere with our efforts to integrate supports into the flow of the day and could stigmatize students who need to go to a different part of the building to receive needed services.

This trajectory of cuts for our schools will actually exacerbate the very enrollment problems it is supposedly addressing, by discouraging families from choosing to raise their kids in our district. Rather than rapidly gutting our school system, we should be working together as a community towards creative solutions that will be minimally disruptive to student learning. We should be promoting our tight-knit community schools as a draw to the area. We should be joining with other rural districts to push our legislators and state government to make changes to Act 46, rather than accepting its constraints as inevitable. While we know that changes are needed to adjust to enrollment numbers, we believe in the following principles as a starting point:

1. The reconfiguration process needs to be slowed down and democratized immediately.

The community needs time to consider different options in detail, with a full and honest accounting of the implications of all possible options for not only next year, but the next five, 10, and 20 years. The current breakneck pace being pursued makes it impossible for students, educators, and families to be true democratic participants in this process.

2. The first place to cut costs should be expenses with the least direct impact on students’ educational experiences. Savings from cutting costs at the district office and administrative level will have a much smaller impact on students’ daily learning than cuts to teachers, support staff, and programming. Under-utilized building space in our existing schools should start being used to house the district office.

Please contact your board members and join us at the community informational meeting at Vergennes Union Elementary School on October 8th at 6:30 to advocate for a slower, democratic approach that balances state mandates, fiscal responsibility, and, most importantly, the needs of Addison County children.

VUHS Middle School Educators:

Isaac Kreisman, Social Studies 

Melissa Muzzy, Science

Sean Nary, Mathematics

Elizabeth Payeur, Language Arts 

Sara Driscoll, Paraeducator

Bobbie Goldstein, Special Education 

Ralph Bernardini, Mathematics 

Laura Husk, Special Education 

Randy Sweeney, School Counselor 

Elizabeth Brisson, Special Education 

Peter Garrecht, Special Education 

Peter Straub, Science

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Addison County Independent

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Middlebury, VT 05753

Phone: 802.388.4944
Fax: 802.388.3100