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Opinion: In our schools, identity matters

As the summer stretches into September, children and teachers are headed back to school. Our daughter is the third generation of teachers in our family. Many conversations are starting about changes in the process of consolidating schools. What that will look like a year from now, we do not know. It will be different. It will be exciting for some and challenging for others. We’ve been moving in this direction for decades — out of the days of the one-room schoolhouse.
Castleton may be a university today, but in 1940 this state normal school graduated a class of 40 teachers. The State Board of Education issued my father a professional probationary certificate to teach in the public elementary schools.
In his memoir, he describes his year in a one-room rural school in West Addison with 11 students covering all eight grades. He paid $1 a day to live five days a week at a farm owned by one of the school board members. Besides teaching all subjects to all grades, he tended the fire, limed the outhouse, broke ice for water, prepared and served what little there might be for lunch, and tended to play time. All of that for $21 per week with no fringe benefits.
My father married and served in the 610th Army Air Forces Base Unit during World War II. There were no teaching positions available when he was discharged in December 1945, so he moved on and never returned to teaching. Instead, he served on the school board in Proctor, where he handed his daughter her diploma in a class of 22 graduates.
In 1961, he became executive secretary of the newly formed Vermont School Board Association with an office in Montpelier. Borrowing a desk, chair, typewriter and mimeograph machine, he began publishing a monthly bulletin and started visiting school boards — eventually making it to all 251 towns. State aid was $100 per pupil and was fully funded. He was especially proud of the work he did with the secretary of the Vermont Teachers Association and the assistant attorney general to update the Title 16 Vermont statutes related to education that then passed the Legislature.
When my father died, Bill Mathis, then superintendent of Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, wrote in the Rutland Herald, “He left his mark on every educational issue and law for more than two decades. … If the measure of education is lifting our civilization to a higher level so that the next generation can rise even higher, then Charlie was the consummate educator.” 
I met someone recently who grew up in West Addison, and I mentioned that my father taught in a one-room school there. “Which one?” he asked me. In 1944, there were three one-room schoolhouses in West Addison. As of 2014, the Elmore School was the last one in Vermont.
My father treasured that year in a one-room schoolhouse. “I feel I gave those children a year of education.” Small schools have the advantage of human scale — the communication, relationships and community involvement reflect the importance of the school to the social fabric of the community.
As much as he treasured his teaching experience, my father supported consolidation with the one caveat that the state should patiently allow towns to consolidate voluntarily.
I fully support the urban concept of consolidation for the benefits to rural schools. Many middle and high school students already attend union schools with friends from their elementary schools. Communities feel a strong attachment to small schools where their young children have attended for generations. I recognize the significance of this change in the lives of families and rural communities. Place is a deeply held value in rural Vermont. Children especially are adaptable and communities will adapt to this change in their identity.
On a sunny late afternoon in May when Middlebury hosted the All State Music Festival, I was in the crowd that lined both sides of the street waiting for the marching bands to come over the Cross Street Bridge. High school, middle school, and elementary school students in their bright uniforms played and marched in step. My heart leapt when I saw the Proctor High School marching band in their maroon and white colors! My school!
When this small school consolidates, what will happen to their colors? What will their new name reflect? These details matter. Knowing this is best for the education of our children is a sure thing — it will take time to stretch the heartstrings.
Johanna Nichols is retired from the ministry. She enjoys writing and invites readers to visit her blog: www.riversidemusings.wordpress.com. She lives in Middlebury.

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