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1966: ‘Harris report’ stirs up county educators

While we develop special programs for the gifted, the retarded, the dropout and everybody else, the average kid has been overlooked.
— Martin Harris

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series about the growing pains of Addison County schools in 1965-66 and the Vermont Commissioner of Education’s ambitious plan to address them. Unless noted, quoted material is reproduced from the original Addison Independent articles and editorials of the time. Read the whole series here.

ADDISON COUNTY — Between 1960 and 1965 Addison County’s population increased by 8%, the highest growth rate in Vermont, and home builders were doing their best to keep up.

By the end of 1965 a total of 74 new home lots were slated for “Williamson Heights” on Painter Road in Middlebury, “Terrace Heights” in Weybridge and “Rolling Acres” off Quarry Road in Middlebury, according to the Independent. In Vergennes new homes and an apartment house were going up, and plans for a million-dollar shopping center had proceeded beyond “the talking stage.”

Trailer parks, too, were on the rise.

County school buildings, on the other hand, were not keeping up — and the Vermont Board of Education wasn’t helping.

As winter set in, Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and the six towns of the Middlebury Union High School district (Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury and Weybridge) were waiting for the board to approve a merger and a new union, and to provide guidance for building proposals.

But the board was waiting on Education Commissioner Richard Gibboney, who wanted more information about the curriculum, enrollments, town growth, transportation and building costs for the county’s five high schools — in Bristol, Middlebury, New Haven, Shoreham and Vergennes — before making recommendations about how many of those schools should continue operating.

Gibboney was waiting on the man he’d hired to get that information: Martin Harris of Educational Consulting Services in Mt. Kisco, N.Y.

Harris had begun his eight-week study in December 1965.

While most county school officials expressed tentative support for the study — especially if it would lead to swift action at the state level — some residents weren’t so sure.

“There is quite a bit of sentiment a-foot in this area as to whether local figures and views are being considered at all or whether these surveys are propaganda to smooth over before announcing decisions which have been made long before,” wrote Mrs. Stan Bryden of Bristol in a Feb. 18 op-ed in the Independent.

Before Harris was even finished, Addison Northwest school officials made their position clear: If Bristol was denied permission to build itself a new high school, Vergennes did not want to scale up to accommodate its students.

“Vergennes area needs are not building projects but rather an enrichment of our students’ cultural life and improved curriculum,” Addison Northwest officials told Gibboney. “Bigness does not necessarily mean better education.”

Harris thought otherwise, apparently.

Still, when his 59-page report was made public in mid-March, one county school administrator called it “the most exciting proposal in education in Vermont in the last century,” according to the Independent.

THE ‘HARRIS REPORT’

Harris determined there should be three union high schools (grades 7-12) in Addison County — the existing ones in Middlebury and Vergennes, plus a new one to serve a union of Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro. Shoreham high school students would be absorbed by MUHS.

Harris also recommended a “County Education Center” be built in New Haven, seven miles from each union high school, for “special technical training and advanced academic instruction.” County high school students would spend two hours a day in the new Education Center and the rest in their own high schools.

The center would improve education for the average student, he would later say, lamenting that “while we develop special programs for the gifted, the retarded, the dropout and everybody else, the average kid has been overlooked.”

Representatives of the three union school boards could administer the Education Center, he suggested, with “professional leadership” from a county superintendent.

Construction for both the new Bristol high school and the new Education Center should begin immediately, Harris said, and aim for a short-term capacity of 600 students apiece. Eventually they could each be expanded to accommodate 900 students.

Echoing an off-handed remark made by MUHS board chair Carl Schmidt several months before, Harris suggested the three union high schools could eventually serve as “middle schools,” and the Education Center could become the only upper level high school in the county. Or, as towns tended toward junior public colleges, the center might contain grades 11-14, plus supplementary programs.

The building would cost roughly $1 million ($8.23 million today), Harris predicted, but the project would qualify for more state and federal funding than would individual school construction projects.

REACTIONS

The Harris Report received mixed reviews at first, with much of the initial criticism focused on the transportation logistics the new Education Center would require.

To some MUHS officials, the center sounded an awful lot like the technical and vocational center they’d been designated to host at a future date, and they weren’t terribly happy about it.

Harris agreed the two weren’t a good fit.

“If the Education Center concept is adopted I would like to see the area vocational center made a part of the Education Center,” he told MUHS Superintendent Ralph Eaton.

At a meeting in Shoreham, State Board of Education Chair Tom Arthur of Orwell urged 150 county educators to support Harris’s plan.

At the very least they should make their opinions known to Commissioner Gibboney before the Board of Education’s March 24 meeting, when it was expected to “take action … on the Addison County school problem.”

MUHS board chair Carl Schmidt was exasperated.

“I don’t care what you do so long as you move fast enough so we know what to do,” Schmidt said, adding that the Board of Education had been “derelict in its duty in prolonging the decision and ‘ducking’ its responsibilities.” By now Schmidt didn’t care if New Haven or Shoreham “were in or out,” he said.

Other educators seemed to support the Harris Report, observed the Independent, while still others “remained puzzled and not a little confused over the events that have catapulted the county into a position of ‘trail blazing’ a new education concept in Vermont.”

When Shoreham residents suggested they’d rather “go it alone” than subject their kids to long bus rides to an Education Center that was farther away than even Middlebury, Harris urged them to reconsider.

“If you are willing to build a modern and well-equipped school for a small number of children, if you are willing to pay the cost to hire the very best teachers, if you are willing to buy the best lab equipment, if you are willing to see part of your rooms remain empty part of the day for lack of students to fill them … if you are willing to do all that you don’t need an education center,” he said. “But this is a private school setup, and the cost is too high a price to pay measured against the cost of transportation (for the new Education Center).”

Despite various public objections, however, the Harris Report seemed to garner support. An informal poll found that 18 of the county’s 20 school boards favored Harris’s recommendations, according to the Independent.

So did Gibboney, reportedly.

COUNTER PROPOSAL

The Middlebury Union High School board did not fully support Harris’s plan, but it did suggest a compromise: a single centrally located school serving grades 10-12, to be attended full-time by all county students.

“The directors further believe that grades 7, 8, and 9 in each of the local communities (of) Bristol, Vergennes and Middlebury could well be extended to include grade 6, and possibly 5, thereby adopting some of the desirable characteristics of the so-called ‘Middle School Concept.’”

(That concept was apparently still new enough to Addison County readers that the Independent felt it warranted quotation marks every time it appeared in print.)

The MUHS board laid out for Gibboney the advantages of their proposal:

•  No immediate building plan would be needed for MUHS.

•  More courses could be offered, with better student groupings and better staffing.

•  It wouldn’t cost any more than MUHS building on its own.

•  The school could be expanded later, possibly to include grades 13-14.

Or, the MUHS board told Gibboney, they could go ahead with their own construction plans.

CURVE BALLS

Despite Harris’s suggestion that New Haven form a union with Bristol and three other towns, the State Board of Education during a “stormy” March 24 session narrowly approved New Haven’s merger with … Middlebury.

That same week, the town of Whiting, with its 20 high school students, approved a plan to seek admission to the Middlebury Union High School district.

But it was Gibboney who served up the the biggest curve ball of all.

His “grandiose dream,” the Independent said, was “a real shocker.”

Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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