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Declining Enrollment, Part 2: Two Small Schools Meet Challenges In Different Ways

Charlotte Albright
David Schilling and Gail Curtis help a student at Cabot School figure out how to create an electric circuit with conductive tape. Cabot is one of the small schools in Vermont facing consolidation and budget cuts with proposed legalization this year.

As lawmakers grapple with education funding issues and ponder consolidation plans, small schools are growing concerned about their futures. In Part Two of our series, Declining Enrollment, we look at the challenges two very different small schools face.

It's not unusual to hear drum beats spill out of one of several small buildings on the campus of the Cabot School in northeastern Washington County. Arts and technology are often taught together here. There are about 175 students in Pre-K through 12th grade — only 55 in high school.

In another class, fifth and sixth graders are learning from teacher Dave Schilling how to use conductive tape to draw glowing pictures — like the Statue of  Liberty.

“This is such a simple project but ... you can do so much with it. We really try to focus on how we can keep arts in the mix. On a lot of schools art’s kind of the first thing to go,” Schilling notes.

In fact, this school itself almost went away a few years ago. It survived a closure vote in 2013.  Since then, Cabot has been getting national kudos, including a $10,000 award for designing energy-efficient theater lighting for a school play. 

The winning science teacher, Michael Hendrix, says tight resources foster creative problem solving by teachers and students who know each other well.

"I don't want to say you can't do it in bigger schools, but I know the level of commitment and personalization that we have here would be difficult to accomplish in a larger school if we were consolidated." - Michael Hendrix, science teacher at Cabot School

“I don’t want to say you can’t do it in bigger schools, but I know the level of commitment and personalization that we have here would be difficult to accomplish in a larger school if we were consolidated,” Hendrix says.

Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR
Michael Hendrix, science teacher at Cabot School, shows a cluster of lights that were developed for a school play and will be recycled for other purposes. Hendrix and his students won $10,000 for Cabot School in a contest sponsored by Donors Choose.

Many of Cabot’s students have been going to school together since they were very young, but teachers say they work hard to make sure newcomers feel at home, including recent transfer student Makayla Tiffany.

“I came here from a big school in Barre and I was bullied a lot so coming here and being welcomed like I've been here forever, and just making friends right off the bat, it feels really good,” Tiffany says.

Cabot’s school board chair, Chris Tormey, thinks if more lawmakers visited schools like this one, they might question proposed legislation that would require all school districts to have 1,100 students, cap expenses and remove extra financial support for small schools.

“Our concern is that to have that forced makes an awful lot of schools maybe sacrifice what they are doing well to conform to something that may or may not work,” Tormey says.

Losing the $100,000 small schools grant it gets from the state, Tormey says, would be devastating. So Cabot, with other small schools, is trying to win financial and political support with a website called Vermont Schools Rock.

"The minuses [of a small school] are not having as many courses offered." - Isabella McCallum, tenth grader at Cabot School

But small high schools do have drawbacks, says Cabot tenth grader Isabella McCallum, as she studies alone in the library. She likes it here, but needs to take some classes online to follow her interests.

“The minuses are not having as many courses offered,” she says.

Dave Schilling, who will be principal next year, would like to find a way to erase district lines so students could choose from a bigger menu of courses, without closing strong small schools.

Cabot, he says, creates unusual opportunities to learn both inside and outside the classroom, with lots of hands-on activities. But some students, he concedes, might do better in a more highly structured, traditional setting.

In Concord, students may spend public money on a private school if they believe Concord High School does not meet their needs.

“It would be great to have the support of being able to have students who learn in a more traditional manner be able to go somewhere else, and having students who learn in a more expeditionary style come here,” Schilling says.  

Farther east, Concord's been offering limited school choice in a different way. There, students may spend public money on a private school if they believe Concord High School does not meet their needs. The school board has just closed that loophole. So Harold Lunnie, a parent, is leading a petition drive to close the high school so that sending tuition to other towns is the only remaining option.

Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR
Concord School educates about 200 students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. Some residents are petitioning to close it and instead let families choose a nearby, larger school.

Lunching at Concord’s only sizable restaurant, Lunnie says he wishes he had been able to choose St. Johnsbury Academy, as his kids now do.

“I never realized the opportunity I could have gotten if I had gone somewhere else,” he laments.

But chatting with classmates in the principal’s office at Concord High, Senior Emily Harran says she tried attending nearby Lyndon Institute for a short time and hated it.

"The classes were a lot bigger [at Lyndon Institute], you didn't have as much one-on-one time with the teachers, you weren't as well known, I guess." - Emily Harran, senior at Concord High School

“The classes were a lot bigger, you didn’t have as much one-on one time with the teachers, you weren’t as well known, I guess,” she explains.

So Harran and her friends are working on a power point presentation in their economics class, hoping to convince voters to keep Concord High School open.

The vote will be held April 28.

"Declining Enrollment" continues Wednesday with a look at what happens after a school closes.

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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