Citizen-led forum explores Mt. Abe facilities needs

BRISTOL — More than 70 residents from the 5 Towns came together on Saturday, Jan. 6, at Bristol Elementary School to share ideas, concerns and aspirations about Mount Abraham Union Middle and High School.
The forum, from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., was organized by a group of concerned citizens who have been meeting since residents in Bristol, New Haven, Monkton, Starksboro and Lincoln rejected the proposed Mount Abe renovation bond on Nov. 2 by a vote of 1,261 to 1,168.
Instead of pushing for either a “yes” or “no” vote on a third bond proposal, this ad hoc Steering Committee on Mount Abe is working to increase public awareness and engagement around this shared and valuable resource and to insure that at least 60 percent of voters in the 5 Towns take part in a decision about the school’s future. The group is unaffiliated with either the board of the Mount Abraham Union School District (MAUSD) or its Renovation Committee.
Among those attending the Jan. 6 session were four members of the new MAUSD Board and a handful of members of the elementary and Mount Abe middle and high school boards that are soon to be phased out.
After welcoming and thanking citizens for coming out on a chilly January morning, Su White of Lincoln, one of the organizers of the event, laid out the three areas of discussion concerning Mount Abe that attendees could choose from:
•  The physical campus and buildings.
•  Education and learning experiences.
•  The 5 Town community.
White described a triangular relation of these three interconnected parts of the whole with “engagement” at the center.
Bristol resident John Elder, a retired Middlebury College English professor whom the Steering Committee had asked to help frame the goals for the morning, shared reflections on taking a step back, “when we have a particular and tough civic decision to make, to think about its context.”
He related his experience on the Bristol Planning Commission when that body and other town officials were deeply divided on the proposed town plan. By looking beyond the divisive issues confronting the town, to instead focus on shared values and assets, the planning commission was able eventually to build consensus and move forward, Elder said.
Before breaking out into the three groups, David Brynn of Bristol, whose concerns about the low voter turnout for the Nov. 2 bond vote sparked his initial outreach to fellow citizens back in November, reminded participants that every idea and every contribution to the discussion has value. He said that the committee would try to record accurately all of the ideas put forth, and share them with the broader community. Brynn emphasized that the conversations encouraged that day would continue to evolve regardless of the outcome of the upcoming bond vote.
The three separate discussions began with participants taking a few minutes to jot down ideas and concerns. Then one by one, each contributor shared their top item with the rest of the group while a designated scribe wrote down the key points. Transcripts of each of the discussions will be shared with everyone who attended the forum.
What follows is a brief summation of some of the key themes that arose out of the discussions:
How Can Mount Abe Support The 5-Town Community And Vice Versa
A number of the ideas shared were about enhancing community/school partnerships and engagement, and increasing community access to the building through adult learning, increased mentorship and partnerships among teachers, students and businesses. Access.cvuhs.org — a program that offers classes to the public at Champlain Valley Union High School — was mentioned as a model of what could be done at Mount Abe with community members teaching courses to other community members.
Other contributions included establishing a “Community Room” designed and built by students and community members, making Mount Abe an incubator or generator space with open studios and tinkering/repair space open to the community, and establishing a non-profit organization housed at the school to encourage and be a clearing house for school/community collaboration and public/private partnerships.
Expanding opportunities for community within the school was a recurring theme.
How Can Mount Abe Physical Environment Support Learning
Several participants questioned the wisdom of investing in the current facility, citing what they saw as prohibitive costs, downward trending demographics or a feeling that the space is mostly adequate. A couple citizens thought that Mount Abe should be updated for a 15-year rather than a 30-year horizon.
One participant cited the fact that statewide, we have facilities built for 100,000 students currently housing only 77,000.
A number of other participants made the case that the school should become a model of sustainability and strive toward net-zero energy status, and that it become a showcase for renewable and efficient energy use.
Other aspirations included using Universal Design Tenets to incorporate accessibility into the entire building, bringing the music and theater space up to the highest 21st century standards, and insuring flexible and updatable spaces to suit needs that are bound to change over time.
Others cited the need to improve technology, security and safety. They questioned the rationale and expense of a second entrance in the back of the school and a potential road around the school.
How Can The Community Support Education/Learning At Mount Abe
A strong theme that emerged from this pooling of ideas involved expanding student-centered learning through the “Pathways” independent learning program, and increasing the presence of community members in the learning environment. This could be accomplished through expanded mentorship programs and creating a roster of willing community members, including the elderly, ready to help students and teachers foster experience- and project-based learning.
Several participants thought that a “Friends of the 5 Towns” group could potentially raise money and help connect students to resources/needs in the 5 Towns for potential initiatives. Other offerings included creating a summer camp to promote both community and outdoor learning, possibly involving bike trips or civic projects.
The idea of bringing the “Community Councils” described in the MAUSD Articles of Agreement into being was also well received. These advisory councils could bolster the connection between the community and the schools in the district, and support the work of the MAUSD Board.
When the full group reconvened to share transcripts of the three “rooms” and bring the forum to a close, the energy in the room was palpable. Regardless of which way the Town Meeting Day bond vote on the Mount Abe renovation goes, there are many 5 Town citizens committed to continuously improving both the education that takes place there and strengthening the bond between school and community to the benefit of all.
Editor’s note: This story was provided by Louis duPont, chair of the outgoing Robinson Elementary School Board in Starksboro and an active community member.

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