Hancock, Granville reflect after schools close doors

HANCOCK/GRANVILLE — These days, the tiny villages of Hancock and Granville are ghost towns.
At least, that’s what they’re deemed in educational parlance. When the two towns last year decided to shut down their joint Village School, they joined a growing number of small towns in Vermont that have decided to close their schools and tuition their students to schools beyond the towns’ borders.
For the students, that means new schools, new friends, and new teachers. Parents are charged with selecting those new schools for their children, and in some cases with making the long trek to those outlying schools.
And for residents, it means that the towns’ little schoolhouses are slowly changing. Granville is eyeing its former schoolhouse — where children were educated for 152 years — for a potential new town office, while a preschool program has taken up residence in the Hancock building.
These are all signs that changes are afoot. As more schools in Vermont contemplate consolidating or closing, changes brought on by the shrinking number of school-age children in the state and rising education costs, dispatches from Hancock and Granville shed light on just what happens to a town when the school closes up shop.
Hancock and Granville first tackled the problems of shrinking student numbers and rising costs six years ago. The two towns established a joint school contract in 2004, pooling resources as a way to keep the two schools afloat.
For the last few years, fifth- and sixth-graders from both towns studied in Granville, with younger students taking up residence in two classrooms in Hancock.
Still, the schools were tiny. A few dozen students studied in multi-age classrooms under one teacher.
That contract was up for renewal last year. But on Town Meeting Day, residents in Hancock voted to dissolve the contract, opting instead to approve a budget for tuitioning students to outside schools instead of funding the Granville-Hancock Village School, despite the fact that paying tuition to schools in other towns meant an increase in Hancock’s tax rate.
“Their budget is going to be more to close the school. They didn’t care,” said a disappointed Granville resident Tammi Beattie last March, who served as vice chair of the joint school board and chair of the Granville school board. “They just seemed so adamant to close. They’d rather pay more to educate their kids (than to keep the school open).”
After Hancock chose to shut down its half of the joint school, residents in Granville faced a tough choice: They could keep their one-room schoolhouse open another year, educating 13 students ranging from kindergarten to fourth grade with just one and a half educators, or they too could close up shop.
On April 6, they made that tough choice: Parents at a school board meeting then said that they loved the joint village school, but that they worried returning to a one-room schoolhouse with limited resources would mean shortchanging the town’s students.
In June, the students and community members gathered for a final goodbye to the village schools. Students took the stage at the end of the evening for a rendition of “My Favorite Things,” tweaked from the “Sound of Music” version to rattle off beloved memories of the Hancock and Granville schools. The two-room Hancock Village School where the students performed had been in continuous operation since 1801.
“Bus drivers, history and social studies, memories we’ll have of our very best buddies, parents and teachers who gave us our wings — these are a few of our favorite things,” the students sang.
The village school’s demise has had some silver linings, both for families and for neighboring school districts. The influx of students at the Rochester School means that Rochester has been able to split up its multi-age classrooms, devoting a single class to each grade. The higher numbers, along with the funding that accompanies the new students, were welcome at a school that was facing similar concerns about declining enrollments and limited funding as the joint village school.
Amy Braun, the kindergarten teacher at Rochester and a former teacher in the Hancock/Granville school, said that exactly half of her students come from Granville and Hancock, and the other half are Rochester residents. The kids are resilient, she said. Older students needed a little time to adjust to the big cafeteria and larger classrooms, but within the first week or so everything was fine.
She’s also heard that having familiar faces in the school — like her own, and that of Mary Sue Crowley, the former principal and lead teacher at the village school who is now working as the lead teacher at the Rochester School — has eased the transition.
Braun thinks that the bigger changes came for students who enrolled at different schools, and moved on to classrooms with far fewer familiar students and teachers. Students have headed to schools in Warren, Waitsfield and Ripton, as well as the Bridge School in Middlebury.
“They’ve scattered to the winds,” Braun said.
Another upside to the decision to close is that, from a financial perspective, closing the schools seems to make sense for Hancock and Granville. Granted, the town’s number of school children continues to decline as seniors graduate from high school and fewer and fewer youngsters hit school age.
Still, Windsor Northwest Supervisory Union Superintendent Tim Mock said the school closings seem to be saving the towns money. Now, families have school choice, meaning they can select the school where their children head each year. The majority of the town’s schoolchildren — roughly 90 percent — head to the Rochester School, though, as Braun pointed out, others have gone farther afield.
Each of those schools sets a tuition rate for students coming in from out of the district, and the towns build their school budgets around the tuition rates.
Mock said the feedback from parents — some of whom were livid at the prospect of the village schools closing — has been positive so far this year.
“The kids seem well adjusted socially and academically,” Mock said. “Everyone seems to be happy.”
If there’s a lesson for other schools in the story of the Village School, the contents of that lesson depend on just who is evaluating the story.
Braun, who spoke fondly of her time as a teacher of the Village School, urged towns to hold on to their little schools. She said she feels strongly that the schools should have stayed intact in Hancock and Granville, a feeling that’s founded in her sense about just how special the Village School was.
She likened the experience to the introduction of a corporate, big box store in a community that, for a long time, depended on the local hardware store.
“Hang on to what you have that’s small and dear. Eventually we all lose that,” Braun said. “Let’s keep what we have. You need to keep your kids close.”
But parents sometimes have a different version of the story to tell.
Granville resident Asah Rowles’s son is in kindergarten in Warren, and she said that so far, her family couldn’t be happier. There’s more diversity in a larger school, she said, and she thinks the school has more resources for extra programs. For example, every Friday her son goes skiing at Sugarbush with his classmates, Rowles said. Plus, he’s in a classroom with students his own age, not one where teachers are trying to address multiple grade levels at once.
The school’s closure has meant sad news for Granville, she said, but she thinks the change makes sense for her child.
“It’s unfortunate, because this has become a drive-through town,” Rowles said. But she acknowledged that, in some ways, that’s why she and her husband moved to Granville: When they come home at night, they like the peace and quiet of being away from the world.
As for school consolidations, in a state where financial resources are stretched thin, and school enrollments are on the decline, Rowles thinks consolidations make sense.
“I think more communities will be doing this in the future,” she said.

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