Editorial: Embracing the big idea in education

News that area middle schools and high schools are facing a student decline of 9-26 percent over the next five years is shocking, but it is not new. Most schools throughout Addison County saw the reduction in their elementary schools many years ago and the changing demographics are just working their way through the educational system.
Two questions rise to the fore: 1) what can be done to reverse declining student populations, and 2) how can our schools adapt to fewer students and still maintain a diverse curriculum that pushes students to excel?
The answer to the first question is obvious: more and better job opportunities for young adults will create a more active and vibrant workforce that accommodates and attracts younger parents. Create the jobs and affordable housing to accommodate those workers, and the student population will likely climb over time. Middlebury has taken a step in the right direction by hiring a business development director to help entice new businesses to town as well as help existing businesses grow new jobs. Hopefully the effort will pay dividends in future years.
Of more immediate importance is how area schools will have to respond over the next year or two. School board members have been talking about various ways to reduce the workforce (primarily teachers) to reflect student populations, but the corresponding downside is that course options (especially for niche classes like foreign languages, advanced placement, etc.) would likely be diminished — and that makes for a less robust school experience.
Parents of Addison County students should be asking pointed questions: Are there other ways to curb expenses without harming the educational experience? Would consolidation of governance or grades or facilities help? What possibilities could arise from creative ways to reimagine how we educate students in the county’s four school districts?
Engaged parents will know that their respective school boards have been asking these questions for the past couple of years and are searching for answers. So far, however, only the stark realities seem to be posed before them: as school districts we have far more classroom space than we have students to fill those seats (see story on Page 1).
What’s preventing a more creative response, says one school board member at MUHS, is fear of embracing a big idea.
It has been suggested, for example, that some or all of the elementary schools in the ACSU send the upper grades to the Mary Hogan facility in Middlebury, while keeping the younger grades (K-3 or so) at the local elementary. That keeps the youngest children closer to home, while providing a more diverse and richer educational experience at a larger union school.
Opponents of such moves, of course, will challenge that basic premise with equally valid studies and assumptions, but the fact remains: with less funding (state aid follows students and fewer students mean less state aid) each school will have fewer resources to hire teachers and course selection will likely be diminished.
Consolidating school governance has also been discussed. UD-3 school board member Bob Ritter asked at a recent board meeting if teachers at Middlebury Union High School and Middlebury Union Middle School might be asked to work at both schools as a way to spread resources and fill a teacher’s day, while also asking whether a single administration managing the middle school and high school might not be preferrable and lead to other efficiencies.
MUMS has so much extra room that some have proposed it could be consolidated with the high school for greater efficiency, or perhaps the sixth grades in the district could be added to the 7th and 8th grades to fill the classrooms.
Parents, teachers and administrators will find fault or favor or both with each idea presented, but one thing seems apparent: the decline in student population is significant enough that small tweaks to the existing system won’t solve the problem. Bigger ideas need to come to the fore and be thoroughly discussed with the mindset that change can mean improvement and avoid a detrioriation of the fine schools we currently have. Maintaining the status quo does not appear to be a viable option.
Angelo S. Lynn

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