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Greene: Consolidation Collective

When we first moved back to Vermont from Massachusetts eleven years ago, we rejoiced in the small schools our sons would be attending. We envisioned individual attention in idyllic, purposeful classrooms. Instead, we encountered unchecked bullying, in classes so small and ingrown that just one new student could threaten their stability.

It was also when the small vs. large school debate was beginning to build up steam. There was a common assumption that small schools are somehow free of the stresses associated with larger, more diverse populations. I remember one teacher insisting that Vermont’s relative ethnic homogeneity meant everyone got along well. But the economic gap and resulting resentment between generational Vermonters and transplants was unmistakable. And strains can even be exacerbated in small schools: when there are five kids in a classroom, there’s no escape. If teachers are unprepared to handle conflict, a small class can be poisonous. So diversity education would seem even more important in small schools.

But at the time, there were no programs to teach diversity or conflict resolution in place. Happily, things have changed a lot since then. I recently spoke to Bill Anton, Principal of tiny Dover School, who assured me that small schools have been working aggressively in the last ten years to teach diversity. He says, “When you get human beings together, with their different needs and stresses, you will have opportunities for collaboration and/or conflict. We teach that differences are natural, they are opportunities to learn.”

Michael Italia is a school psychologist who divides his time among three small schools in Jamaica, Wardsboro and Dover. The issues of diversity, tolerance and bullying are brought up not only in health classes but also in guidance classes, from kindergarten on up. A program called Positive Behavior Support even brings in parents to help role-play appropriate behavior. “Small schools are exposed to differences,” he says. “It might not always be racial, but there are socio economic, cognitive, physical and emotional differences.” As a result of this training, he says that kids do step up and support others who struggle. “Children learn how their health and wellness impact the community. They can see how treating each other with respect improves things for everyone.”

And just as locals come to welcome the new ideas transplants bring, it must also work both ways. Coming from North Carolina made Bill Anton value what he found here all the more. He says, “Those of us who are new to the state appreciate how people who’ve been here generationally have protected what makes Vermont unique. They protected the landscape, the environment. They invested in education and in the power of the individual’s voice. In no other place that I know of can individuals speak at a town meeting and have such influence. I appreciate that,” he says. “It’s the basis of any conversation I have about Vermont.”

Stephanie Greene is a free-lance writer now living with her husband and sons on the family farm in Windham County.
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