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Alternative education program cut at MUHS as enrollment declines

MIDDLEBURY — Citing declining enrollment and a related need to reduce spending, Middlebury Union High School officials confirmed plans to eliminate the alternative education program at the conclusion of this academic year.
Bill Lawson, principal of MUHS, said the roughly 15 students currently served through the alt ed program will be mainstreamed beginning this fall at the high school, where he’s confident they’ll succeed with counseling, guidance services and access to a handful of new, “experiential” courses he believes will benefit youths who find it tough to succeed in a conventional classroom setting.
The three alt ed teachers — Al Calzini, Larry O’Connor and Steve Colangeli —will also be brought into the MUHS fold to fill teaching vacancies created by attrition and retirements.
“Due to several factors, changes to the current high school structure are necessary,” Lawson wrote in a recent letter to parents/guardians of alt ed students. He specifically cited declining enrollment, “looming school finance changes” and “recent changes in proficiency-based graduation requirements adopted by the school board” as the main culprits that have put the squeeze on alt ed and other MUHS offerings.
The proficiency-based graduation requirement calls on all high school students to take at least one world language and a Theory of Knowledge class. This is in keeping with the Addison Central School District’s transition to the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, which will affect next year’s sophomores.
Elimination of the alt ed program is being criticized by some school faculty, parents and alumni.
Some of that criticism has seeped into social media.
“So many memories; it’s a shame to get rid of such a helpful program….. if it wasn’t for alt ed and the amazing staff I probably wouldn’t be where I am today,” reads a Facebook entry by Keith Gilmore.
“This is so upsetting to hear,” reads another Facebook post, from Mary Jane Andrews-Hall. “I am sorry that they can’t see the importance of what you are doing with the alt ed program. I wish every school would have a program like this. It was really unique and awesome for the kids.”
The MUHS Alternative Education program was launched more than 30 years ago as an alternative for students struggling in the main high school building. Alt ed programming has been delivered by three educators and a Counseling Services of Addison County official at a separate building off Charles Avenue.
“The program emphasized a smaller, more supportive environment than could be offered in the high school building,” said Calzini, an alt ed teachers for the past 21 years. “This environment allowed the teachers to forge bonds with students that are more difficult to accomplish in a traditional classroom. It was through these bonds that the teachers were able to make inroads with students that had previously experienced little success.”
Alt ed, according to Lawson, has served as many as 25 students at a time.
District officials acknowledge the program has served students well during its long run, but added it no longer fits within a very tight budget. The ACSD board last month agreed to present Middlebury-area voters with a $36,762,479 budget to cover public school expenses in the seven district-member towns, a spending plan that reflects a 1.32-percent spending decrease and would result in elimination of more than 20 full-time-equivalent jobs.
DECLINING ENROLLMENT
It should also be noted the ACSD is expected to lose 51 students next year, and a total of 110 over the next five years. The ACSD’s enrollment has declined by more than 21 percent since 2000. Most of the state’s districts are seeing a similar decline, as Vermont’s population continues to gray.
When Lawson first joined MUHS around 25 ago, there were 850 students at MUHS. That enrollment has dwindled into the 600s in recent years. For the first time this year, MUHS student numbers have dropped below 600 — to a total of 581. Lawson is projecting a student body of around 530 this fall.
“That’s a significant drop, even from where we are right now,” Lawson said. “As these programs and classes get smaller, we have to try and consolidate.”
This is forcing MUHS leaders to eliminate and consolidate programming, Lawson explained. With the alt ed program now at around 15 students — and without any new enrollees expected from the middle school this fall — officials decided to cut the offering.
“Change is difficult and cuts are painful,” Lawson wrote in a separate letter announcing the cuts to MUHS faculty. “Therefore, it falls to administration to make these difficult decisions. I do so knowing that not everyone will be happy. However, I am confident that all permanent staff who want positions will have positions under this plan. This circumstance was made possible by the school board’s decision to offer unlimited early retirement.”
Lawson has met with some of the current alt ed students and their parents. He believes he’s been able to relieve at least some of their apprehensions about the upcoming change. Lawson is personally confident about bringing the alt ed students into the greater MUHS fold.
“I don’t have any concerns that these students can’t be successful here,” Lawson said.
He cited some new or expanded courses that will be open to all students, but should be particularly appealing to former alt ed enrollees:
•  A boat building class led by the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum.
•  A totally transformed woodworking class, which will benefit from a $100,000 investment in the MUHS woodshop. The money will pay for a physical separation between the design side (computers, drafting) of the building process and the labor side that generates a lot of sawdust.
•  A science course dealing with design, sustainability, gardening and growing.
“We’re trying to offer students a continuum of services,” he said.
At the same time, Lawson believes a more unified student body will benefit from having the vast majority of its programming under one roof. And the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center is right next door.
“To me, it’s a matter of making better use of our resources here.”
TRANSITIONS
Only time — and student performance — will tell whether the alt ed decision proves to be the right move. A lot of change is happening in the ACSD during a short period of time. The seven-town district consolidated its governance structure just two years ago. At roughly the same time, district leaders agreed to switch to an IB curriculum. The transition is expected to take three years and will involve extensive training for educators. It will result in a new education model for students. IB is expected to usher in a more inquiry-based curriculum, as well as hands-on opportunities for students to do more learning outside of the classroom. Program boosters believe IB will better prepare students for 21st century jobs and for living in a more global society.
If successful, the ACSD would become the first supervisory union in Vermont to secure IB World School status for its schools.
Addison Central school officials are clearly feeling the pressure. Leaders of the Addison Central Educators Association on Monday summed up their concerns about recent cuts and changes in a letter to the ACSD board and Superintendent Peter Burrows. The letter and a response from the ACSD board can be found on Page 5A of this issue of the Independent.
“There are very few IB districts that span all grades preK-12, and almost all of those that do exist did not take on such an ambitious goal in such a short period of time,” reads a portion of the letter. “The board may argue that program changes are a result of reduced enrollment, not IB, but it is the nature and demands of IB that point to these specific cuts, and the lack of communication was prompted by the speed of implementation that doesn’t allow us to really have needed meaningful conversations.”
Lawson candidly conceded the IB program “should have had a slower implementation process.”
Meanwhile, Calzini will closely watch his former students’ progress at MUHS.
“I sincerely hope whatever plan the high school administration implements for these students will allow them to experience the degree of success they have enjoyed in the Alternative Education Program,” he said.
He offered his own Facebook post on what the program has meant to him as an educator:
“I will never forget the students and staff that have enriched my life and taught me so much. I will always remember the strength and perseverance my students displayed on a daily basis. I will miss all the laughter, crazy stories, ‘colorful’ families, discussions and tears as we navigated our way through the school year. I want to thank all that were a part of this wild ride. It wouldn’t have been as memorable without you.”
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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