By Alice Leeds
*Also published in Addison Independent
Vermont’s Rural Schools are Part of the Fabric of Each Town
In 1989 I was hired to teach a multiage 4th-6th grade class at Lincoln Community School. Though I live in Bristol, Lincoln became my community for the next twenty-five years.
A number of us were new to LCS when I came on board. Over time, our evolving staff formed a cohesive working relationship with an effective means of collaboration. We designed an innovative multiage curriculum, incorporating local experts and the rich natural resources of Lincoln. The school and community thrived.
The community aspect of LCS has grown stronger over the years. Friday morning whole-school assemblies are widely attended by folks on their way to work. Students independently present a sample of their learning each week in the form of poetry, journal entries, dance, song and drama. During the course of the year, each student is publicly commended at assembly for using their mind well in a particular way. Students learn how they are part of a greater whole, supporting and appreciating each other.
Other community events occur throughout the school year. The fall harvest festival shares the bounty of summer gardens. All-school hike day celebrates the natural beauty of our area. Students and staff decorate the multipurpose room for the Thanksgiving luncheon, at which students sit with family, mentors and friends of all ages. Class performances, the annual culture celebration, reader’s theater, and the spring festival are further opportunities for students to share their learning in an innovative way while giving back to their community. A volunteer appreciation breakfast prepared by all LCS staff honors the many people who donate their time to support students. Field days, the whole-school picnic, the first grade boat race in the New Haven River and sixth grade promotion at Burnham Hall are grand finale events each year, all creating a buzz around town and wide participation.
The closeness of Lincoln residents to their school is apparent. Most volunteers and many staff members live in the community. Students often have a relative who attended or is employed at LCS; former students sometimes return to the school for a stint as a volunteer or employee. The firemen who present to students on Fire Safety Day are generally either former students, the parent of a current or former student, or both. And they’re the same folks who toss burgers at the school picnic.
Although I have described the small school I know better than any other, each Vermont town values its school and the young people who pass through it on their way to becoming contributing citizens. Each community school carries its own stories.
At sixth grade promotion each year, Lincoln students stand onstage in front of a packed audience at Burnham Hall and offer reflections on their school experience to a group of people who have known them since infancy and who celebrate their every word and achievement. During this event, the love for the town’s young people is as palpable as the scent of the freshly cut flowers from friends’ and families’ gardens decorating the hall. After the ceremony, sixth graders are carried back to the festivities at school in a hay wagon, younger students running and biking alongside them as parents wave tearfully.
These traditions and connections are the threads that knit the members of a community together and hold us accountable to each other, qualities lacking in many places in our country. We do not want to lose them here in Addison County. Any real solution to the challenge of education funding will honor and include our local communities.
2020 Graduation at LCS looked a bit different than in the past, though the teachers and staff made the experience memorable and just as special as always. All graduates planted a flower in the front garden as one of the phases of graduation. Zealand Jackson here planting a flower in the front garden. (photo curtesy of Bay Jackson)
ARTICLE PUBLISHED ON: vtdigger.org
By Bill Shubart
Bill Schubart, a retired businessman, is a regular columnist for VTDigger.
Many Vermont towns are torn between the financial imperative to consolidate their shrinking student populations into larger nearby educational facilities and their deep desire to retain the cohesive value that these small community schools provide in their communities.
The latter is not a function of privilege but rather of equity, as rich and poor live side by side in many of our small towns, and shared community institutions draw them together and unite them in a common purpose.
But the cost side is equally real. It’s past time to reexamine from scratch what we’re doing in public education. Current costs are unsustainable.
Vermont ranks fifth in the nation for annual cost per public school pupil at $19,340. One might be tempted to brag about this investment in our children, except that the true cost doesn’t reflect equity and quality, but rather the ratio of fixed infrastructure and remediation costs (special ed, counseling, etc.) to a shrinking population of students (now just over 80,000). By various measures, Vermont is not getting the results one might expect and hope for from our substantial investment.
There’s a clear alternative to closure — reinvention. If a building is underused, one can either abandon it or reimagine it, adding additional uses, resources, and purpose to sustain a vital community asset.
Reimagining our schools as community centers focused on the physical, emotional and intellectual growth of our children from birth to careers, as well as for social purposes — such as senior and teen centers, book clubs, writing groups, etc. — would reflect the spirit and needs of the community. And all would enrich the educational mission. Many studies show the mixing of young and old is intrinsic to social development and learning, especially for the very young.
As a parent then living in Lincoln, it was critical to me to have my young children nearby in my community. By the time they were 10 or 11, I was comfortable with them traveling to a better-resourced educational facility. And for college — the farther from home the better. My evolutionary job as a parent was to love and raise an independent, resilient adult to go forth in the world.
Our current educational vocabulary — preschool/nursery, kindergarten, grade school, middle school, junior high, and high school — falsely chapters a narrative that flies in the face of what we know about child development. These old and arbitrary divisions (and their silly graduations) distract us from the individual learner’s needs.
We must start by pushing our educational investments upstream — that is, down in age. A shift in investment into our local community schools in education and physical and mental health will pay huge dividends by mitigating the downstream costs of “special ed” and the criminal justice system.
Vermont’s special education population has the largest share of students with emotional disturbance of any state in the nation— and nearly three times the averages of neighboring states. The share of Vermont students with other health impairments also exceeds the national average, but is on par with neighboring states.
Since 2013, there has been a 75% increase in the number of individual education plans qualifying for extraordinary cost reimbursements from the state. In 2016, Vermont’s supervisory unions and school districts spent an extra $21,840 per special education student. That is one and a half to twice as much as the average excess cost per special education student in other states.
Our international standing is equally shameful:
All this argues for investing upstream in our local community schools where learning begins and education should.
Our community schools should subsume “child care” and be open to children from newborns to college-bound. “Lower School” would be mandatory at age 5 and beyond. It would remain hyperlocal and continue through grade five. “Upper School” might indeed be consolidated regionally and run from grade six through a final year at grade 11. In the last two years, every student would secure and maintain a business or nonprofit internship, vocational or technical apprenticeship, or a defined course of custom study, dispensing with the last wasteful year of high school, which alone would save some $100 million a year.
Ideally, education cost would include a semester abroad at any of a network of international schools.
Assessment of a student’s acquisition of “transferable skills” — that is, defined proficiencies and performance indicators, along with common-core exposure — would determine entrance into college, which could occur at any age when the student has demonstrated these proficiencies. Students could also attend college while completing their final year in Upper School, as some do now.
Based on aptitude and choice, Upper School graduates could enter the workforce or continue on to a professional institution to pursue professions in health care, law, finance or education. Alternatively, they could enter a STEM institution to pursue advanced education in engineering, IT, math or science. Or they could opt for advanced vocational disciplines like construction skills, hospitality, or food systems. These career institutions would look more like Quinnipiac University, Community College of Vermont, or Champlain College, with clearly defined career paths. Or they could opt to attend a liberal arts and humanities institution like Middlebury or Wesleyan.
Having described such a vision for sustaining our community schools, I still believe the greatest determinants of educational progress in the best school system we can devise are the learning culture within the home and community, as well as the economic security of the student’s family.
We therefore must not only redesign our schools, understanding the diversity of learning styles, but we must also examine our attitudes at home — the example we set for our children and the respect we instill in them for what happens in school. Tax-grousing, helicopter-parenting, “self-esteem-builders,” “edutainment,” trigger-warnings and other risk-eliminators are all enemies of true learning. Our children will, in fact, be who we are, not who we tell them to be — at home or in school.
Finally, imagine if we got this right and Vermont became a national model for public education excellence. School quality and intact communities have always been a major driver of in-migration. Gov. Scott’s inaugural speech addressed Vermont’s “demographic challenge” (read low birth rate and shrinking population). Lower taxes and less regulation may attract some business, but a healthy environment, strong communities and excellent community schools are often cited as the main rationales for relocation.
Lincoln was the town I chose to live in after I began teaching at Mount Abraham Union High School the year it first opened. My young children went to the Lincoln Community School until they were 10 and went on to Mount Abe. It’s painful for me to watch my former community struggle to retain its wonderful community school in the face of a forced consolidation effort.
Let’s get this right. With some vision, discussion and leadership, we can better invest costs, sustain and support our rural communities, and significantly improve educational equity and outcomes while broadening the reach of our community schools. We might even solve our demographic problem along the way.
* VIA Front Porch Forum
Bill Finger • Selectboard Chair, Lincoln
When: Jan 12, 2021, 6:30 PM to 8:30 PM
Town of Lincoln Special Selectboard Meeting
This meeting will be held virtually, on-line via GoToMeeting.
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This meeting is expressly and solely to provide a forum for constructive public discussion of concerns, ideas and opportunities for response to the Mount Abraham Union School District Board and District Superintendent Reen's recent recommendation to "re-purpose" the Lincoln Community School, effectively closing the building as a school and sending Lincoln Community School students to distant communities for elementary education.
There are many ideas, opinions and suggestions as to how our community can act to protect and preserve the many acknowledged and celebrated strengths of LCS while understanding the need to be fiscally responsible within the town's resources.
This meeting is a follow-up to a special meeting held on December 18, 2020. It will provide opportunity for reports and updates from Lincoln groups, organizations and individuals to report their progress and to collaborate and coordinate for a rational, powerful unified community message to the MAUSD Board. Constructive new thoughts and ideas are always welcome.
Please come, listen and participate.
It is your school, your town and most importantly your community!
VT Digger Article
By Lola Duffort
At least four towns across Vermont will vote in the coming weeks on whether to secede from their unified school districts, a first wave of district breakups that could herald more.
For David Major, the former Westminster School Board chair who helped organize a petition for his town to vote Jan. 5 on secession, it is fundamentally a question of local control. Westminster has already collaborated with its neighboring towns on such services as food service and special education, Major said, and has seen no added benefit to being forced to combine school boards with Athens and Grafton under Act 46....
READ THE COMPLETE ARTICLE
I appreciated the way Patrick Reen introduced his recommendation with a charge to be innovative, and to honor and value students’ voices and their relationships with teachers and community members. The video he shared insisted upon these things and that we apply what we have learned from the past year under conditions that required flexibility and the opportunity to try new things. At LCS some of the things (new and old) that we have learned the value of include:
-integrating cool diagnostic technology for individualized skill development
-the importance of community and relationships
I believe that LCS is uniquely sized and located to meet the important charges he made via the video.
Our size allows for kids to be part of a close community of learners who share school wide values publicly in tangible and meaningful ways. Examples include interactive assemblies where all students perform / present as individuals, multiage interdisciplinary cultural studies that allow students to select and pursue an area of interest, a casual environment that is palpably welcoming, kind and respectful to all, where kids can develop a strong sense of agency, social skills and independence. I believe it would be much more challenging to achieve this in a school with more than 120 students.
Our location allows us to easily access and learn from all of Lincoln’s natural and human resources:
-the adjacent river, woods, fields trails and structures
-actively engaged community experts, volunteers, mentors, coaches...
Thanks to our physical location and the amazing outdoor learning spaces at LCS students now spend much more of their learning time outdoors. This is is feasible, again because of our location and size. Being outdoors has been a vital anecdote to our students’ digital reality. Outdoors, students learn more by doing and interacting with the real world and benefit, of course, from the piece of mind we all feel from being active outdoors.
As for human resources, community members feel well connected and are well-woven into LCS. They are regularly involved with students. The school enhances the community and the community enhances the school. This is invaluable and also relates to our location within our community.
I recognize that we have falling student enrollment and that changes are inevitable. As decisions are made let’s not prohibit the very conditions that favor the innovative, student-centered learning that Patrick Reen is calling for.
Let’s find a way to bring more students to LCS!
Let’s keep elementary kids in small, relationship-rich, place-based schools where they can more naturally be seen and shine!
Patrick Reen made a recommendation that was not one of the four scenarios laid out during the community engagement process; I believe this opens the door for more creative problem solving like he demonstrated. I strongly encourage the school board and select board to refuse Phase I of Patrick Reen’s proposal and pursue other creative solutions that meet economic needs and preserve small, rural schools. If consolidation needs to happen to amass more students, let’s do it on small rural campuses.
- Lincoln resident
*Originally posted on Front Porch Forum
Thoughts on Closing Local Community Schools
No matter how you say it, when the elementary school of a town shuts its doors on its students and sends them to another community, that school is closed. Changing the name of the local school building or its purpose doesn't change that fact.
I am working hard at not being cynical about the intent of the proposed "innovation sites." There's enough cynicism in our country without my adding to it. Besides that, it doesn't feel good. However, accepting the stated intent of the proposed innovation sites presents a heck of a challenge.
The teachers I know in our district are very capable of innovative teaching and of creating and gathering innovative materials for their kids. What they need to be more innovative is support in the form of time and funding. While I am delighted to hear that our district supports innovation, I can't believe that establishing distant outposts to which students are occasionally bussed is a viable solution.
I haven't heard anything about what the innovation priorities are except that they might include hands-on experiences. Hands-on teaching and learning need to occur every day, especially for younger students who are making the transition from the concrete to the abstract. (Perhaps we all are.)
Gerald Masterson speaks to the taxes that he and the rest of us must pay and he states that he is moving from Lincoln as a result. He makes an eloquent case for the value of local schools and their heritage. I hope that he changes his mind about moving away from Lincoln. Whatever I pay in taxes to various authorities, I know that the local portion is the best-spent. The Lincoln Community School is truly an outstanding school by any measure and I am proud to support it. Our school has a gifted staff who care deeply about our students and our students flourish. In no way will their experience be replicated in another out of town school building. That doesn't mean that other schools don't serve their own students well but even transplanting trees has mixed results.
The pandemic has brought the Zoom medium to the mainstream. It has helped to keep some institutions functioning albeit with substantial limitations. In no way do transactions on Zoom have the same quality as people being together in the same room. To make a decision as momentous as closing local schools via input from Zoom, emails, polls and letters is a really poor idea. There's absolutely no doubt that the Town of Lincoln will be forever changed if the Lincoln Community School closes. I urge the Mount Abraham Unified School District Board to postpone any decision to close any school until everyone concerned with this issue is able to meet in person, review all of the pertinent data together and thoroughly discuss the many ramifications of closing local schools.
* Originally posted on Front Porch Forum
I have deep concerns about the process being used to make the decisions on the future, or lack thereof, of schools in our district.
My concern is that the information the Board and the residents of the district are using is vastly incomplete, and coming almost entirely through the Superintendent's office, which clearly has an intention of driving a particular decision.
The Board is being asked to make a life changing decision for the hundreds of families across the entire district without seeing a written proposal, or independent financial information. The Board cannot give informed consent without information!
I am asking the district Board to inform the Superintendent's office that it will not consider voting on anything until they have seen and discussed with their constituents, a formal, written proposal with independently sourced, and verifiable financial information, including complete costs of facilities and transportation incurred by these proposals, with comparisons to current expenditures.
We also need to know, in great detail, and with long term projections what "repurposing" means, other than avoiding a vote on closing schools.
I am also voicing my objections to the bizarre timing of breaking all this out during this time of unprecedented pressure and distraction on the people in the district . How can we be expected to make a clear decision about the entire future of our towns at this time? It is hard not to think of it as deliberately making it difficult for the community to engage, and looks just as faulty as the rest of this process.
The survey the district is using to measure community opinion is not a survey at all. It is a classic push poll, designed to drive responses to predetermined outcomes and should be discarded along with any 'results'.
One has to look no further than the completely anti democratic process by which it only takes one town to veto the votes of every other town in the district to see that Act 46 is custom designed to remove the voices of voters and towns in order to achieve predetermined goals.
The legislature completely ducked the hard questions about how to properly finance the education system and is forcing towns into impossible decisions.
We need to pressure our legislators and be willing to replace them if they won't address this problem at the state level this session.
Until these concerns can be addressed , I implore the Board to refuse a vote.
Article from the Addison Independent:
Lincoln mulls legal action against the Mt. Abe school district
LINCOLN — The town of Lincoln says it may pursue legal action against the Mount Abraham Unified School District, which is now weighing the possibility of discontinuing elementary education at the Lincoln Community School. At a special meeting Friday night the Lincoln selectboard voted unanimously to hire an attorney to represent the town “in our legal case against the school district.” At issue is MAUSD Superintendent Patrick Reen’s recent proposal to consolidate the district’s five elementary schools into two — Bristol Elementary and Monkton Central. If that plan is approved by the school...
Article from the Addison Independent:
MAUSD withholds school consolidation financial information
BRISTOL — This fall, as a subcommittee of the Mount Abraham Unified School District board discussed which school-closure and other cost-saving options it should recommend to Superintendent Patrick Reen, Starksboro resident Herb Olson showed up to meeting after meeting, expressing the same concern. In September Olson told the MAUSD Facilities Feasibility Study Subcommittee (FFSS) he thought there was a lack of financial information in their proceedings. In October he asked about projected savings for closing elementary schools and suggested the committee needed to work with cost information,...
Article in the Addison Independent:
MAUSD faces major cuts in staffing
BRISTOL — If the Mount Abraham Unified School District consolidates its five elementary schools into two, then merges with the Addison Northwest School District, it could save enough money to preserve programming and keep property taxes from skyrocketing, according to Superintendent Patrick Reen. Those savings would come almost exclusively through staffing cuts. In his Dec. 7 presentation to the MAUSD board, Reen estimated that the MAUSD would need to eliminate 75 to 91 positions over the next five years if, contrary to his recommendation, the district continued operating its elementary...