Op/Ed

Opinion: Small schools work well

I am writing in regards to Act 46 and the potential closure of small schools in the state of Vermont, particularly the Ripton Elementary School. My name is Rob Risch and I was formerly the Teaching-Principal of the Ripton Hollow School from 1983-1989, as well as the (at the time, new) Ripton Elementary School from 1989-1996. My commitment and bias to/for small schools should therefore be evident. 
Prior to working in Ripton I spent seven years as a classroom teacher in Middlebury at the Mary Hogan School as well as the College Street School. I am firmly convinced that the quality of the educational program provided in the small Ripton schools was at least equivalent to that offered in the larger Middlebury schools, and by virtue of the fact that we took advantage and used local resources, more relevant and meaningful to the Ripton students.
Since leaving Ripton in 1996, I was fortunate to hold senior leadership positions, including Head of School, in international schools in Spain, Pakistan, Jordan, Switzerland, Japan, and Serbia. These schools ranged in size from 45 students in Cartagena to over 1000 in Zurich, with the other four in the range of 300-600 students. In all cases the success of the instructional program was independent of the size of the school, but rather determined by the quality of the educators, size of classes, curriculum and methodology of instruction. 
Additionally, further enhancements and enrichments were provided by the degree to which local resources were incorporated into the educational program, whether directly within units of instruction, or via experiential learning provided by expeditions and field trips, or by student involvement in local service-learning opportunities.
I have been informed that the ACSD has moved toward adoption of the IB programs — PYP (Primary Years Program), MYP (Middle Years Program) and DP (Diploma Program). Having worked in four International Baccalaureate schools, I believe strongly in these curricular frameworks and applaud the ACSU for deciding to implement them. The philosophy of the IB is firmly grounded in active, individualized, hands-on, inquiry-based learning, and thus lends itself particularly well to smaller schools. With individualized learning based on each student’s interests and quest for knowledge, multi-age classrooms can easily address this approach, and smaller class sizes can actually allow for a greater degree of individualization and success.
I read that residents of Addison and Ferrisburgh have recently voted overwhelmingly to keep their local schools in operation, and am firmly convinced that residents of Ripton would do the same. The reasons and questions surrounding the potential consolidation of small schools seem to focus on the financial impacts, while largely ignoring the educational factors and considerations. Or, from a very pragmatic standpoint, what about the effect of lengthy bus rides on small children?
I cannot speak to the financial factors; however, from 43 years of experience in both Vermont public schools (20 years) and international schools worldwide (23 years), I can confidently attest to the fact that a small-school education provides unlimited potential for students’ individual learning and ultimate success. 
Back in 1986-1988 when Ripton residents were blessed with an expanding elementary-age population, many neighborhood meetings, forums and town meetings were held. It was evident that building a new school would increase taxes. The majority of town residents nevertheless voted to proceed with the new school. Although faced with the opposite situation now, voters in Addison and Ferrisburgh have spoken loudly in support of keeping their schools open, while surely understanding the financial implication. Shouldn’t Ripton, and other small towns, also be allowed to form their own opinion regarding the financial implications of keeping their schools open, as opposed to having the state or district impose these vital decisions on the towns? 
If the residents feel the education provided by their local school — as well as additional benefits such as having a community center — is worth the extra cost, why force them to close? In the meantime, perhaps the state itself could examine revised legislation for alternative funding for small schools, such as suggested in the editorial by Angelo Lynn on Nov. 7.
Rob Risch, Ed.D., used to live in Ripton, where he was principal of the elementary school. He now lives in Denver, Colo.

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