Changing demographics prompt question: What does Mount Abe’s future hold?

BRISTOL — In 15 years, the student population at Mount Abraham Union High School has dropped 33 percent, from almost 1,000 students to 639. That drop in student numbers is part of the reason that the per capita cost of education per pupil has risen so dramatically over that same period.
Will that trend continue? Not necessarily, but the jury is out.
The Addison Northeast Supervisory Union predicts a leveling off of enrollment for the next five years, observing strong elementary sign-ups, but after that it’s anyone’s guess. We asked several people in the know, however, and here’s what we found.
Shrinking classrooms are a reflection of the aging population of the five-town area. And while Bristol has demonstrated a willingness to establish new businesses and create and maintain local jobs, it still faces challenges drawing in new families and finding work for educated youth.
“(Enrollments) have declined a lot since 2000, but they seem to have stabilized for the most part,” says Adam Lougee, executive director of the Addison County Regional Planning Commission. “But for the future, if the population keeps aging as it does, it may slow down a little bit, but those numbers are going to have to go down, that trend is going to have to continue.”
Lougee grants that “it’s really hard” to predict the future, however, he emphasizes that “if nothing else changes … then the population numbers have to go down.”
So are five-town residents working to reverse that downward trend?
Some are content to let it happen.
“The rural, residential towns (in the five-town area) don’t have as much of an economic development focus,” remarks Lougee, who facilitates the development of town plans for every town in the county. He says that in Lincoln, for example, “growing the community is not a priority.”
Those that do aspire to achieve local economic growth, like Bristol, are working to tackle the obstacles, which are several, including: affordable housing for new families, manufacturing and office space for new businesses, and the sewage and waste infrastructure to accommodate manufacturing needs.
Lougee notes that Bristol has taken initiative in each of these areas. “Bristol has done a lot for its village area, trying to encourage both economic development opportunities and housing opportunities. It revised its plan and its bylaws to encourage both of those things.”
Bristol businessman Kevin Harper has been building businesses in Bristol for 40 years, starting with Autumn Harp, a natural cosmetics business he started out of his kitchen. Harper sold Autumn Harp in 2001 and in 2009 the new owners outgrew the location and moved to a much larger facility in Essex Junction. Now it employs over 200 people in 200,000 square feet of space.
When Autumn Harp moved out of Bristol, Harper organized a partnership to purchase and redevelop the 47,000-square-foot building complex. The new Bristol Works! property is now home to two manufacturing companies including his own Bristol Bakery Wholesale specialty foods facility and Vermont Farm Table, a high-end wood products manufacturer. The campus is also host to the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union offices, the Mountain Health Center, Porter Primary Care, the Bristol Police Department, Red Clover Family Dentistry, Marbleworks Pharmacy and Aeolus Labs.
Harper’s and his partner David Blittersdorf’s latest project, Stoney Hill Properties, is on a large tract of land across the street from the Mount Abe school campus, between Stony Hill Road and Lover’s Lane. There they plan to develop affordable, net zero housing for young professionals, small families and downsizing retirees. There are also plans to build out new manufacturing spaces for emerging companies.
“Bristol is a great place for incubating businesses,” declares Harper, and if anyone has proven it, it’s him. When it comes to local entrepreneurs in need of space to do their work, Harper says “there is no end to the phone calls that I get.”
There is, however, a reason that Autumn Harp packed its bags in 2009 as Bristol’s largest employer. As long as the town relies on septic for wastewater treatment, Harper explains, “we are limiting ourselves to the kinds of things we can do here. That’s a negative in terms of economic development.”
Nonetheless, Harper marvels at Bristol’s ability to nurture mid-size manufacturers in the repurposed Bristol Works! property and elsewhere. “Some of these buildings have been here since the sixties and have since been transformed into state-of-the art, cosmetics and wood products manufacturing facilities.”
While bringing in businesses that will offer livable jobs is an effective way to keep Bristol and the five-town district vital, good jobs are already available throughout Addison County.
“Definitely in certain professions, there’s a shortage of qualified people, such as nursing and construction,” says Fred Kenney, who directs the Addison County Economic Development Corporation. He adds that “some of these jobs can make a lot of money” in trades like plumbing, electrical work and carpentry.
As a state, Vermont struggles to keep its students to take local jobs after they graduate. The cycle of rural communities training and exporting its best talent is known as “brain drain.” Kenney says that is a big problem in Addison County. “We need to do more to match our graduates with the jobs that are here,” he says.
But can rural schools fight this brain drain, rather than continue the cycle?
Catharine Biddle, Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Maine, has spent her career answering that question and takes a straightforward approach: “I look at the ways in which schools can contribute to community development in rural places,” she says.
Critical to battling population decline, Biddle says, is “connecting the school with the local economy in ways that helps students see themselves in the community long term.”
“The school is a critical part of attracting families to the community,” she says, “but it can’t just be the school.” In order for populations to rebound long-term, she says when students graduate “there has to be work for them.” The latter is the job of the community.
There are few tried-and-true methods for connecting students to jobs at home. Enrollment in Career and Technical Education is decreasing, and continued pressure on school funding makes these expensive, hands-on programs among the first to go.
Biddle also warns that limiting our concept of local jobs exclusively to trades leaves out others in the middle. “What I hear from industry is that … in some ways, career and technical programs are too constrained.”
For teachers and guidance counselors to help students who want to find a job at home, they need a strong understanding of what is available. Biddle’s observation is that some educational communities “aren’t really up to date on what different sorts of opportunities are available to young people, what kind of skills they need to take advantage of those opportunities, what those opportunities even pay.”
When asked what she would recommend if she had control of the state’s school systems, Professor Biddle said she would ensure that “every single school would have a community relationship liaison; someone whose job it was, full time, to think about how the school was relating to the community.” The purpose, she said, would be to “think about these creative and entrepreneurial leadership solutions for meeting community needs, and leveraging the amazing resources of the school as an institution.”
Fred Kenney has a similar solution in mind. He imagines an intern at his office “putting together all the jobs that are available at our area businesses, going out to the schools and colleges, and trying to match them up.”
Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, who chairs the House Education Committee, echoes these workforce challenges. Well-paying jobs in plumbing, welding and auto mechanics are available, he says, but “we just don’t have people in the pipeline.”
“Right now, we put kids in school and expect them to graduate from high school (and then) for college-bound kids there’s some directions from the guidance office, help in picking a college, and so forth. So that’s maybe half the kids in the school. The other half are just sort of left up to their own devices to figure out what they are gonna do.”
Rep. Sharpe is supporting legislation in Montpelier that exposes kids at a young age to their career possibilities. “I think if seventh graders spent a week working with an electrician, their eyes would be wide open.”
“What I’m looking forward to and pushing for at the state level is more collaboration between adults and students in the work world. We need to get business and adults into the school building, we need to get students out of the school building and into businesses and work situations in the community.”
But while economic development enthusiasts want to see students stay local, ANESU Superintendent Patrick Reen is focused on helping students adapt to a changing world: “We are preparing students for jobs that don’t exist yet. It’s about ensuring that students have opportunities post high school, and whatever it is that they want to pursue, that they’re prepared to do that.”

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