Letter to the editor: Thought of closing ACSD schools is difficult, sad

In recent and ongoing meetings at MUHS, a community dialogue continues about the challenges of declining enrollment and fiscal responsibility. The task before the ACSD Board and steering committee is daunting and disturbing. Participants have the opportunity right now to weigh in on big decisions that will be made in coming months. Closing 1-6 of our elementary schools is a very real option on the table.
Community Impact
The thought of closing any of our small schools is not only difficult, but incredibly sad. I challenge all of us — parents, educators, committee members, the ACSD Board, and community members — to stretch ourselves, think creatively, and work harder to arrive at solutions that will not impact our outlying communities so negatively. Closing small schools is a huge loss for the students and the community; there are so many things that connect the elementary school students with their town and community members.
In Ripton, if our elementary school were to close, these are just some of the threads weaving us together that would immediately begin to unravel:
•  Community Thanksgiving — organized for the community and hosted by the Ripton Elementary School students, teachers, and staff, this traditional Thanksgiving meal is provided to all Ripton community members and meals are delivered to those who cannot attend.
•  Ripton Ridge Run — a 5- and 10k run based out of the Ripton School that brings people together from all over Addison County and New England and raises money for field trips, artist-in-residencies, and other special events at school.
•  Grandfriends Lunch, when students invite Ripton’s senior citizens to join them for a special lunch at school followed by a student concert and talent show;
•  Green Up Day, when students in PreK-6th grade patrol and help clean up the town’s roadsides, a valuable community service opportunity;
•  May Day basket delivery, when students and parent volunteers deliver May Baskets brimming with flowers, cards, and homemade cookies to our town’s senior residents.
This list is nowhere near exhaustive, and while Ripton is very special indeed, I have no doubt that all our ACSD elementary schools have their own versions of these cherished traditions and activities that connect community members in meaningful ways.
The values that children learn in their tight-knit communities are carried with them when they leave for bigger things (like MUMS, or MUHS, or college, or the workforce). In small schools, students are seen and heard and known. Teachers and staff notice when a child is not doing well or seems to be struggling. It’s much harder to slip through the cracks. It can’t be ignored that many families from Hancock and Granville have chosen to send their children to RES (and later, MUMS and MUHS) when they had myriad other choices, even though it has meant busing them over the mountain. It was a question of quality of education, and, in the case of RES, wanting that small school experience for their children.
Is the Model Really Unsustainable?
The underlying assumption that has been repeated frequently in these ACSD planning dialogues is that the current model is not sustainable. All other movement is driven by this assumption — an assumption I challenge. Watching our district change over the past 15 years, it appears to have become very expensive and top-heavy. Administrative staffing and the IB program, for example, are incredibly expensive. So is technology, which comes through the front door and a couple of years later, now obsolete, is hauled away. In what other ways are we spending potentially beyond our means?
I do not suggest that a guiding philosophy should be to spend less on our students. But I do wonder in what areas we could be more frugal and more thoughtful and more effective with our spending, and how that might ripple out to create more sustainable practices as we go forward, just as a household may respond to financial pressures by pulling together and adopting a let’s-tighten-our-belts attitude.
School Safety Considerations
On another note, as school safety continues to mount as a shared and central concern, the following points deserve consideration:
Larger schools are generally less safe than medium and smaller schools. Large school size has been proven to be a predictor of school shootings. Students are more likely to feel disconnected and to fall through the cracks in larger schools. Teachers and staff are more likely to notice and more able to respond when students are struggling or seem “off” in a small school setting. (Source: The Morning Call, March 2018)
The final opportunity to participate in this community dialogue and to make your voice heard is Wednesday, April 17, at 6:30 p.m., at MUHS. The ACSD Board has expressly invited community members to share their thoughts, concerns, and ideas via email: [email protected]  I urge families and community members to actively participate in this conversation, and board and committee members to work hard, and then harder, to find solutions that will strengthen, not weaken, our unique rural communities here in Vermont.
Wendy Leeds

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