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Tiny Jamaica Elementary Wrestles With Merger Fallout

Students seated in the gym of Jamaica Elementary School.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
There are about 60 students in Jamaica Elementary School this year, but the student population is expected to drop to about 35 next year. One teaching position will be cut and the principal will be moved to half-time.

Debates about school district consolidations elicit strong feelings, on every side of the issue.

Opponents of Act 46 say it is destroying small communities. Supporters say it’s the only way to address declining enrollment and cut costs.

But for smaller schools in newly merged districts, the reality is often more nuanced.On the first day back after winter break, the students and staff at Jamaica Elementary School gathered in the gym for an all-school meeting.

There are about 60 kids in the pre-k through 6th grade school this year - Jamaica Elementary is a small school.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
A painting in the hallway celebrates Jamaica Elementary School's 50-year anniversary. The town is expected to have a discussion about the school's future at town meeting this year.

Voters here approved an Act 46 merger about two years ago, and so far Jamaica, which is the smallest school in the new district, is seeing mixed results.

The district is offering school choice next year, and parents were given the option of sending their kids to one of three schools.

After families in the district had made their decisions, Jamaica Elementary School lost 16 students, about a quarter of its student population.

“When the numbers came out... there was a lot of shock, from what we heard,” says Katie Hazelton, who grew up in Jamaica and sent all three of her kids here.

Her youngest is in third grade this year.

Another decision the board made after the merger was to move the sixth graders from the three elementary schools, including Jamaica, up to nearby Leland and Gray Middle School.

So Jamaica’s losing a full grade next year. By next September the school will have about half the number of students it has this year.

"When the numbers came out of, school choice numbers, and how many were going to be left in the school, there was a lot of shock." - Katie Hazelton, Jamaica Elementary School parent

Hazelton and her husband decided to send their son to one of the other schools next year.

She says there’s a lot of chatter in town about whether the school will survive.

“I heard a lot from the people who have lived here for generations, that they don’t want to see the school close, which I definitely understand. I mean, I went here as a child. And it is sad,” Hazelton said. “And then I’ve heard from the people that think it’s ridiculous to have a school with so few children. So I think it’ll be interesting as the years go on.”

The West River School Board just put its budget together and Jamaica will lose one teacher next year, and the principal position will be cut to half-time.

Danielle West has a daughter in first grade. Next year her class is projected to have four students.

For now, West says, she’s not ready to give up on Jamaica elementary.

“I would like to see a little larger than that, but still be here at Jamaica,” she said about her daughter’s class next year. “This has been a great school for her and a great experience, and I get concerned if we move her out of the community to another school that some of the things that have really meant a lot to her, and has been very beneficial, will be lost.”

West voted against the merger.

But she knows there’s no going back, and she says the talk around her dinner table ultimately comes down to what’s best for her daughter, and for Jamaica.

 “Yeah, definitely stay here first. That’s, my husband and I, we both really want that,” she says. “But we’re also realistic people and realize that may not be feasible, that the funding may not be there. It may be too costly. Depending what happens with the smaller class sizes. Is that going  hurt them? You know, we have to wait and see on that. So we are open to exploring other options if we absolutely can’t make it work here.

The future of the school will not be decided this year.

Under the terms of agreement of the newly merged school district a school can close only if the town votes on it, and there’s no vote planned right now.

But Jamaica residents are expected to have a serious discussion about the future of their school at town meeting next month.

Multiple Choice: The Price and Cost of Education in Vermont logo that features three bubbles, one with a check marl

This story is part of a long-term VPR project called "Multiple Choice: The Price and Cost of Education."During the 2018-2019 school year, VPR's Howard Weiss-Tisman will follow the West River Modified Union Education District and file reports as the school district tries to navigate this change and uncertainty. In the course of the project, we'll meet the families, school staff and community members who make the whole deal work, every day.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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