Letter to the editor: Small schools could be part of an innovative program

Having just read Cheryl Mitchell’s excellent summary of the need for child care in our area (July 4, 2019), I am moved to forward you a letter I wrote recently to the ACSU Board of Education regarding the current need to reconfigure our educational system in our district. I feel the solution requires thinking, lots of thinking, lots of energy and careful planning … but we have a history of that in this area and as they say … Yes, we can!
To the ACSD Board of Education
As regards your current effort to move forward with education and schools in the district, I offer the following thoughts:
First, our society has evolved, and to accommodate it our education framework needs adjustments. The IB program is your effort to adjust the content and methods within the existing frame. I suggest the frame needs adjustment also. In the majority of families, both parents work and the average family has two children, not four or more. This means you have less children to educate, but childcare away from home has also become the norm as two salaries are often required to support a family.
In addition, the last 50 years have also brought enormous research to bear on human physiology, especially the brain. We now know that critical learning happens to 3- to 5-year-old children — before our educational system involves them. I submit we need to have skilled care for all children from the age of 3 in programs with trained teachers/caregivers to meet these new challenges — care and knowledgeable parenting/teaching for 3- to 5-year-olds.
In addition, we have a society where the human conditions have spawned anxiety, which sometimes results in trauma to children that needs to be addressed. In short, parenting today is a challenge. As a sidelight, some children are born with deficiencies and they in turn need very particular parenting. It is a blessing and true that knowledge about effective parenting has ballooned. I submit that this knowledge needs to be modeled and brought to all parents, not the few who are more aware.
Second, our need for skilled workers in many fields, to run and manage our increasingly technical society, is high and not being met. We need to mentor and apprentice our young people into these areas. I submit we also need to take responsibility for this second deficiency, which is at the top of our educational framework, so that many young people, especially visual and hands-on learners, can hone marketable skills and therefore have the means to support themselves adequately in this evolved society in which we now live.
Opportunities to move on to being laborers, clerks and other jobs that traditionally were “felt” to require few skills beyond the traditional high school diploma are less of an option in this evolved society. More specialized training is required for the jobs available today. This training might be provided through supervised apprenticeships and extended learning beyond high school. As stewards of our community, we need to meet all these educational challenges. The payback to our society would be enormous as the education we provide allows young people to move seamlessly into our society in a more productive manner and as a result are not a burden to society.
Perhaps the existing community schools could become primary education for children age 3 to 6, (preschool through first grade and the ability to read?) and in addition provide parenting knowledge to their parents. Also, this program might lean on or be incorporated into or use the existing private, excellent preschool programs in the existing local networking form, especially in Middlebury. Such programs need to occur in environments that are homelike and encourage learning through play and doing.
In addition this program needs to be extended to childcare in non-school hours, and to teaching parenting skills to parents under the guidance of skilled knowledgeable teachers. (The Middlebury Parent/Child Center is a good model). Perhaps (with co-operative agreements with employers), one day a week, one parent could be in the school with the child — learning by doing as we do successfully in the Parent/Child Center now. In addition, formal education could happen for parents, as could all manner of community activities if this community center opens up other areas in the local reconfigured building or use as needed by community programs. Therein you not only meet an education challenge, you allow each town to nurture its valuable community spirit.
With this primary model in place, all the children in grades 2 through 5 (ages 7-11) in our towns could then be bused together (better ages for buses) to a central school (Mary Hogan?) to continue learning. Then the middle school, with grades 6 through 8 and high school for 4 years in the existing facilities in Middlebury.
In addition, I suggest there be an elective two years of free education locally for those needing technical and marketable skills but not four years of college. This would be an expansion of Hannaford Career Center for two years to make these students proficient in their chosen field or fields. This could be accomplished through structured apprenticeships or in-house learning. At a later date, this program might include a more basic program for those needing the first two years of college before transferring to paying for the last two years elsewhere.
This structure allows you to provide specialized learning and environments tailored to the ages where they are most effective. You do not have children in environments meant for another age child, since age groups at each site are more narrow and learning in these environments better fits all those involved. At the same time you are helping to meet the need for childcare that is critical as I write. You also allow towns to focus on a community center that meets our society’s childcare crisis and at the same time keeps and fosters the community solidarity and spirit rightly valued in all our towns.
In taking these steps you will be providing a model for the state — a role to which this area is not unfamiliar: i.e. your IB program, the Parent/Child Center, a middle school, Mary Johnson Children’s Center — to name a few of the innovative programs the people of this area have supported to date.
Natalie Peters

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