View from the Borderland: Socioeconomic diversity in Vermont schools

The greatest diversity challenge that Vermont public schools face is socioeconomic. I discovered this during my first few days as a teacher at Middlebury Union High School. My senior advisory, which included a random cross-section of that year’s graduating class, socialized almost exclusively along class lines: those who were going to college versus those about to enter the workforce. There were other examples as well: the girl who was snubbed by her classmates on a trip to Spain because she ran track rather than competing in the college-prep sports of field hockey or lacrosse; the children who left altogether after freshman year to attend prep schools out of state. Because of Middlebury’s rather unique position as an elite college town as well as a county seat, it has more than its fair share of flatlanders in well-paid jobs. Like me, many of these are refugees from the suburban or urban environments where they grew up. Others, due to the system of gaining tenure at top-tier colleges, seize the opportunity to gain visibility, teach highly motivated and well-prepared students, and do research at a well-funded institution even if they ultimately would prefer to leave bucolic Vermont for a larger university or more urban setting. As a result, Middlebury has a rather unique dichotomy among Vermont communities, one in which the non-natives work, socialize, and even worship primarily with others who are from similar educational and socioeconomic backgrounds. When I lived in Middlebury, I could count on one hand the number of people I would have considered friends who were actually born and raised in this state. Most of us who have come to Vermont from areas with far more ethnic, racial, and religious diversity — and most places in the United States are more diverse than Vermont in these ways — have grown up focusing on these categories to define issues of tolerance. Yet for the majority of Americans in the suburbs, our experiences living in communities with a wide range of wealth and income are severely limited. This is self-segregation American-style, as each family buys its way into the best public school district it can afford. I did my student teaching at a large public high school in the Bronx, where the majority of the faculty lived outside the New York City public school system. When I taught in one of the wealthiest suburbs in Westchester County outside New York City, only two teachers could actually afford to live in the community. MUHS was vastly different. In my sophomore classes, I had the children of college professors, attorneys, cafeteria workers. After teaching for eight years in a suburban school whose sole mission, it seemed, was to get every student into an Ivy League school, it was a relief to be in an environment that valued the whole child, and that was willing to devote resources to non-academic issues facing the students. I know that some members of every community — including Middlebury — feel that too many school resources are devoted to the “most needy students,” what with all those unfunded mandates around special education, and now the relentless drive to raise the test scores of students who lag behind. But having taught at a school where the guidance counselors were paid to visit colleges in California in order to best steer students to Stanford or Pomona, I can truly appreciate having counselors in schools who address the other needs of students that interfere with learning.When MUHS decided to work on school climate to reduce bullying and promote tolerance, this dichotomy of experience produced a stark contrast in town-gown perceptions about what the underlying issues were. The mostly college educated, mostly non-Vermont-native attendees were concerned about promoting tolerance of constitutionally protected groups — racial, ethnic, religious, gender, sexual orientation. It did not occur to anyone that the real solution to promoting tolerance in the schools would be to invite one’s car mechanic or landscaper, or an unemployed single mom on disability, into one’s home or social circle of friends.It was only after I moved to Brandon four years ago from Middlebury that I began forging real friendships with people who had not only grown up in Vermont, but had grown up poor. Brandon is a small community of only 4,000 people, and, as a friend described it to me when I first moved here, it is a community with more have-nots than haves. My two young children were the means through which I met most of the people I now consider friends. My children befriended the children of people I would never have met growing up in my ethnically and religiously diverse but socioeconomically monolithic middle class suburb in New Jersey: people half my age who had had kids while still in high school, former heroin addicts, parents who had grown up in trailer parks. Many of my friends have served in the military, whereas my own alma mater sent 80 percent of its graduates to four-year colleges. Thanks to Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union’s public preschool program, I have connected with parents of young children across the spectrum, not just those who could afford the pricey day care my kids attended in Middlebury. These connections across class lines have changed my own philosophy about public education. As a teacher, my mission was to empower disadvantaged students by ensuring that they acquired the skills and knowledge that more privileged students already had. Now that I am a parent and community member, I see ways in which poorer students and their families are excluded and made to feel invisible by the middle-class bias of the curriculum and culture of public education. In order for all students to have equal educational opportunities, I believe that schools need to make sure that all students feel equally included, regardless of their families’ economic circumstances. This calls for more than teaching one child at a time; it requires systemic self-reflection on the part of school faculty, staff, volunteers, and administrators in order to begin building a more fully inclusive school culture. As a state with so many needy children, we must work together to bridge these gaps — gaps that most Americans spend so much effort and money trying to avoid crossing in their personal lives.Rebecca Reimers is a native of the New York City suburb of Teaneck, N.J., and a refugee of Westchester, N.Y. She has been living in Vermont for more than 13 years, in New Haven, Burlington, Middlebury and now in Brandon. She is a retired high school social studies teacher raising her three young sons with her husband, a native of the Boston area. Her thoughts on her community, and the surrounding towns of Leicester, Goshen and Forestdale, appear in "View from the Borderland," an online feature at the Addison Independent Web site.

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