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New middle school is in the works

MIDDLEBURY — While many other public and private schools in Vermont are coping with declining enrollment, the Aurora School in Middlebury is planning to add seventh- and eighth-grade classes next year in reaction to demand by local parents. School officials are currently scouting two possible Middlebury locations at which to base the new middle school.
Now in its 17th year, the Aurora School is a private K-6 school located at 238 Peterson Terrace with enrollment of around 30 students. The school has differentiated itself by offering a yearlong, thematic curriculum. The theme last year was “Around the World,” with lessons, field studies, music, art and drama all linked to the geography, science, math and cultural diversity of the Earth and the solar system.
The school has built a loyal following over the years, to the extent that it is often fully enrolled with a waiting list. In 2007, parents asked Aurora School officials if they would consider adding middle school grades. Susan Vigne, principal and a teacher at the school, said she and her colleagues took a serious look at expansion back then but ultimately decided against it.
“We felt there were a couple of things that needed to be in place first,” Vigne explained.
Chief among them, according to Vigne: At least two teachers, adequate space, and assurances of a minimum number of enrollees to make a middle school work.
Five years later and faced with similar demands from school parents, Vigne believes the time is right for Aurora to open a new middle school, beginning next fall.
The school has already hired one full- and two part-time teachers to staff a grade 7/8 program that would be based at what Vigne said would be a separate campus within walking distance of downtown Middlebury. The school is currently negotiating with two prospective landlords. Organizers are placing a premium on keeping the middle school close to the downtown in order to allow students to access important education resources like the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History and Middlebury College. Aurora will maintain a bus to make sure the students can be shuttled longer distances (such as for field trips) as well as to visit — and occasionally act as mentors to — their elementary school colleagues at the Peterson Terrace campus.
It will take a minimum of eight students to allow the new middle school to launch, Vigne said. Ideally, she hopes the new middle school will attract around 20.
“We are pretty confident,” Vigne said of the prospect of attracting enough new students to launch. “There seems to be an increasing need.”
Aurora School will hold an informational meeting for prospective enrollees and their families at the Middlebury Community House on Tuesday, Oct. 23, from 5 to 7 p.m.
“We will have a rigorous curriculum to get them ready for high school and beyond,” Vigne said.
Middlebury resident Elaine Anderson, who has been a teacher and administrator at the Gailer School for 13 years, will be one of the new teachers at the new Aurora middle school, and will be a leader in shaping its curriculum.
“For me, the middle school years are a critical time,” she said. “It’s this short window of time before high school when students are learning to take on more responsibilities as learners and individuals. It’s a time when parents have to learn to pull back and let their children practice having autonomy. It’s a developmental age that I feel very comfortable with, having worked with seventh-graders for 13 years.”
Anderson noted the thematic curriculum for 2013-2014 will be “E Pluribus Unum, Out of Many, One.”
“This overarching theme will guide our curricular choices in all subjects, be it science or foreign language,” she said. “For example, in humanities we’ll study literature exploring individuals within communities, as well as a study of the history of immigration in this country. Several novels I have selected deal with the current issues surrounding illegal immigration and undocumented workers in our country, including Julia Alvarez’s “Return to Sender” (set in Vermont) and Will Hobbs’ “Crossing the Wire.”
Danielle Levine, who has taught science in Salisbury and at The Mountain School in Winhall, is working to develop science and math offerings; Frankie Dunleavy Yeaton, a former long-time language teacher at Middlebury Union High School, will be teaching foreign language at the new middle school.
“We are looking forward to taking the spirit of the elementary school and reinventing it to fit the specific needs and interests of middle school students,” Anderson said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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