Vergennes area schools bid farewell to five retiring educators

VERGENNES — This spring four Addison Northwest Supervisory Union teachers and one administrator with a decade on that job and 25 years of teaching experience are stepping down after a collective 164 years of service to district students.
All five have served ANwSU for at least 24 years. Leaving, in order of length of tenure, are:
• Vergennes Union High School agriculture program head Harmon Boyce, who started at VUHS in 1969.
• Vergennes Union Elementary School teacher Edward Wells, who has taught fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders there since 1971.
• ANwSU directional of instructional support services Thelma “Kitty” Oxholm, who began coordinating the ANwSU special education services in 1998 after starting as a VUHS special education teacher in 1973.
• Rita Smith, who began teaching first- and second-graders at VUES on a halftime basis in 1980 and went full-time at that level in 1984.
• Daryl Hatch, a VUHS middle school English teacher who started there at 1968, took time off to raise her family, and then returned to VUHS on a halftime basis in 1985 before going full-time in 1989.
All will be missed, said ANwSU superintendent Tom O’Brien.
“Clearly, they are the building blocks of the family. Addison Northwest has been referred to as a family of schools, and every family has its strong elements, and they are ours,” O’Brien said. “They are huge losses.”
VUHS Principal Ed Webbley said Boyce may be the most difficult of all to replace because of his specialty — months of advertising in conjunction with the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center and phone calls have yet to produce someone to take over the school’s ag program. 
“Harmon is literally a tough act to follow. We are still in the process of a nationwide search,” Webbley said.
Boyce also taught welding, diesel mechanics and small engine repair, and an eighth-grade agriculture exploratory course, and ran a local Future Farmers of America chapter widely regarded as one of the state’s finest, if not the strongest.
“He does an amazing job at all those things. He’s invaluable. He’s just a backbone of the school. He drives buses. He fixes buses. He runs a wonderful FFA program,” Webbley said.
Boyce’s skills as a teacher are only part of the story, Webbley said.
“He’s got generations of people involved in agriculture in Addison County who worship him,” he said. “And I think most of that comes from him being a good man. His values lead his instruction. His kids understand they have to be good people in his classroom.”
Webbley also praised Boyce for welcoming more challenging students as well as high achievers. 
“He never has a negative word to say. He loves kids. He loves his community,” he said. “He’s going to be hard to replace.”
Like Boyce, Wells was also known at VUES for multi-tasking. When he started 37 years ago, he would switch gears at the end of the day and drive a bus. VUES Principal Sandy Bassett said Wells, a Newport High School graduate, also for many years drove his fifth-grade class on a geology trip to New York state, and wore yet another hat to fund that venture.
“He ran a snack cart all year long to pay for that,” Bassett said.
Bassett also had high praise for Wells for being happy to go along with a restructuring of the fifth- and sixth-grade approaches at VUES a few years back. The classes were combined, and Wells was asked to switch from being a generalist to a literacy specialist.
“Late in his career I asked him to make a major change … and he did that willingly, and became a pretty damn good literacy teacher,” he said. “Eddie was very adaptable. He was a go-with-the-flow guy.”
Bassett also cited Wells’ “always cheerful” attitude, “wonderful sense of humor,” and willingness to work hard for even the most difficult students.
“Give them to Eddie, and you knew they were going to get a fair shake. He’s a very patient man,” Bassett said. “He’s a good man.”   
As well as her varied ANwSU career, Oxholm has kept busy in the community: A former Vergennes alderwoman and mayor, she now serves the Vergennes-Ferrisburgh area as a Republican in the Vermont House of Representatives.
O’Brien said the combination of her classroom and administrative experience has helped him immensely during his six-year superintendency.
“That added value from my point of view, and I’ve relied on it,” he said.
O’Brien said Oxholm, who will be replaced by Vergennes-area native Sarah O’Hara, a New York state special education director, mastered the ins and outs of her challenging job.
“She has taken the reins of one of the most complex and most difficult pieces of the (ANwSU) program … of the laws and the requirements and the funding and all of the hassles that sometimes crop up … and has managed to create a system that has run quite smoothly for quite some time,” he said.
Webbley gave Hatch high marks for being a longtime teacher who was willing to embrace change. The VUHS middle school switched to a multi-disciplinary “expeditionary learning” approach in recent years that juggled teaching teams and tactics.
Webbley called Hatch, a VUHS graduate, “the ballast for the middle school” because her enthusiasm helped smooth the transition.
“She’s really stabilized that program as they’re going through really the most radical change in its history,” he said. “And she’s changed with them, which is the best testament to her … She became a leader and spokesperson for expeditionary learning.”
Webbley is also an English teacher, and he has had some of Hatch’s students after their introductory courses, and has found they have a solid foundation.
“The kids learn a lot from her. She’s a good English teacher,” he said.
And, Webbley said, Hatch has always provided an upbeat presence. 
“I’ve never seen her down. She’s positive with kids,” he said. “It’s going to be hard losing her.”
Smith, a Spaulding High School graduate, will also be sorely missed at VUES, Bassett said.
“She’s one of the best early childhood educators I’ve ever worked with,” he said.
One of her greatest strengths, Bassett said, was teaching basic literacy skills to the school’s youngest students.
“She’s an outstanding reading teacher,” he said. “She’s a wonderful, wonderful teacher, a very wise lady.”
Like the other good educators who are leaving ANwSU, Bassett said Smith worked hard for all her students, no matter how difficult the challenge they might have posed. 
“Whenever I had a difficult kid … I could always give him to Rita, because I knew he would get a fair shake,” Bassett said. “And I loved her for that.”

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