By HARRIETTE BRAINARD
SUDBURY/WHITING — As their respective elementary schools struggling with fewer than 30 students apiece for the second year in a row, school boards in Whiting and Sudbury are considering consolidating operations.
The two boards have met several times to discuss the idea, and are now looking for input from their respective communities. Both plan to float non-binding votes in November to see where their respective community members stand on the issue.
A final vote would not be taken until the March town meeting.
“Both of these schools have been facing a declining enrollment trend — we share common challenges — so the two boards have met several times to discuss these challenges and what the future holds,” said Linda Rossi, a Sudbury school board member and acting administrator at the Sudbury Country School.
Neither community is interested in shutting down their school operations since both towns look at their schools as both important educational resources and strong community centers, school officials said. One idea under consideration would send children from both towns to the Sudbury school for pre-kindergarten through grade two and to the Whiting Elementary School grades three through grade six.
“We understand how important it is for both towns to have their own school and school board — to have a voice in the decision-making process,” Rossi said. “So, can we keep both schools open — and if combined how do we go about keeping that voice within each town?”
Whiting has a full-day kindergarten, and a pre-kindergarten program that also fills the needs of parents from neighboring communities including Leicester and Cornwall.
Sudbury has not been able to have a full-day kindergarten program since the school combined its pre-kindergarten and kindergarten programs. “We have probably lost a number of kids in the community for this reason, as the parents have wanted a full-day kindergarten program, so they have gone elsewhere and they have never come back,” Rossi said.
Residents of Whiting can remember when the building was bursting at the seams with 40 students just in the upper grades. The Sudbury Country School combined three one-room elementary schools several decades ago, and built the current facility in 1981.
“Both schools have experienced declining enrollment,” said William Mathis, superintendent of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, of which both Whiting and Sudbury are members. “Each school had enrollments just above 30 in 2004, however, last year they fell below 30 and this year it remains about the same. This is not likely to change given the composition of these two towns. Whiting is largely a community of larger farms with a rather large parcel of swamp, and Sudbury has a 10-acre zoning requirement.”
Rossi said that both school boards and Mathis have looked at other areas where schools have merged successfully to see if they can provide a model. One such example is Hancock and Granville. These two Addison County communities combined their elementary schools into one program in 2004, which has two buildings but one name, the Village School.
Although not everyone in both communities was supportive of the idea at first, the merger has worked out well, said Tracy Englehart, who wears many hats at the Hancock Village School building. Englehart is the assistant administrator there as well as cook and she runs the homework club.
“It has turned out to be a very good decision, there were a few bumps the first year but they have been worked out,” she said.
Since the merger, the Hancock Village School building has housed grades one through four. The Granville Village School building holds grades five and six as well as the pre-k and kindergarten programs.
“We did it this way because the Granville building has a very large room which is perfect for the younger children, and in the other room there was already a strong fifth-grade teacher so she took over the duties for the older kids,” Englehart said. “It has been really nice for all the age groups as the older kids are like buddies to the young children.”
The new program has had a number of other positive outcomes, some unexpected. This year the school bought a bus with the combined funds from both towns. “This bus is used to bus all the children to school as well as used for all field trips,” Englehart said. “The bus driver is the same one we have always had. He quit the bus company and is now an employee of the school directly.”
There has been a significant increase in the number of field trips the school has planned for the coming year as a result of having the bus available and because of better funding and flexibility.
“Another wonderful outcome of the new combined Village School has been the introduction of an all-school meeting held the first Thursday of every month,” Englehart said. “On this day the children at the Granville school, which is about four miles up the road, are bused down to Hancock, and the Hancock school children walk through a path to reach the Hancock Town Hall,” where they all meet.
The all-school meetings may include assemblies or they might do a reading buddies program. There is also a small school store open on those days. At the end of the year this meeting is the venue for an all-school performance for parents with a school song created by the children.
Both Sudbury and Whiting are in the process of gathering community input. Mathis is very complimentary on how school boards in both towns are going about this process. Both communities will be spending a great deal of time discussing this issue in the coming months before the November vote.
“They are going about this the right way, taking it very slow and inviting lots of community involvement in the decision making,” he said.