Letter to the editor: Merger would hinder students’ learning experiences
On Nov. 8, residents of Addison County will cast votes that determine how our young people, K-12, will move toward adulthood. We will choose whether to agree to merge the recently consolidated Mt. Abe District with the Vergennes district — or not. A combined “Merger Committee” for both districts is now proposing to combine these two large districts into one sprawling district with nine widely dispersed smaller schools. Restructuring our small schools will alienate the students we aim to educate. Closing small schools, rebuilding central administration, increasing bus time and moving faculty around the county will further erode the connection students develop with their school. We have to re-start planning by describing the kind of education we want students to experience.
In the current debate over school consolidation. we have paid little attention to the seismic shifts that merging schools will have on students. What time will students get up in the morning? When will the bus come and how long will the trip to school take? Will all kids in a family ride the same bus — or car? Will they meet teachers who understand their background and early accomplishments? Will we organize classes around test scores — or by planned projects and appropriate challenges for each student? Will school schedules reduce contact between students, parents and teachers? What happens with after school programs when bus transportation makes late days impossible for some students? Questions such as these would be answered first in any well-organized planning process. Information about student learning should precede massive structural change. We are being asked to vote with no idea about how we want our young people to learn.
Kids first. Let’s start adaptive planning by looking at student learning, not systems of control. Each individual may be distinctive, but all students in any school must be deeply engaged to learn school subjects. Some are easily engaged; others learn to resist attempts at their involvement. At the primary level, students want involvement to be fun. At the primary and elementary levels, students form fluid ragtag groups and pursue developing shared interests. At grades five through nine, they solidify their personal connections and perhaps form cliques, only some of which favor schooling. Moving from grade K to 12 could easily turn to an obstacle course with no reliable map. How would a merger affect each student, from the very young to young adult high school graduates?
In high school, some students join extracurricular sports teams, band, chorus or the drama club. In classes and outside alternatives, engaged students learn how to express their own choices, practicing using their voices to explain challenges, actively experiencing involvement that tests and stretches their knowledge. They join others in showing their growth and become active in creating a supportive community. Individual growth in those areas follow natural drives if they are nourished consistently. As young people gain recognition for particular achievements, they grow further toward applicable skills and knowledge. How can we predict outcomes in a plan for merging so unwieldy and opaque that we cannot know the true cost until all the buses are rolling?
Learning is one kind of change that rarely proceeds on a clean trajectory. Uneven jumps and falls are always part of growth. In school learning, larger does not mean better learning. If frustrated with passive learning in school, many students simply disengage from education, seeking involvement in other settings, particularly in extracurricular activities. Some settings, such as sports, clubs, after-school programs, church and part-time work, bring young people together as they learn adult skills. For disengaged students, other opportunities for involvement exist, such as fast cars, early sex, drugs, alcohol or computer games. Getting involved with risky activity outside of school partially compensates some students for less formal recognition in the community. Risk-associated behavior increases as students become adolescents and young adults.
Clearly, busing students long distances to attend larger schools, further from home with less opportunity for personal engagement does not promote progress in learning. Schools exist, in part, to protect students from risk in the larger community while they prepare to assume personal responsibility as adults. Young people need the structure schools provide as they slowly explore their futures. School buses traveling to large impersonal schools deprive young people of opportunities to learn. Some may grab at those opportunities; but others turn away. Once marginalized, those students can easily become bored, restless and resentful. Consolidation reduces meaningful contact with parents, teachers, community mentors, school advisors and friends.
In Addison County, we do face a temporary decline in student enrollment. As the Levenson report to the current school board explained, however, creative responses to declining enrollment exist — through collaborative research and development across town lines. Bureaucratic restructuring driven by Montpelier, the consolidated Middlebury district, Bristol area schools, Vergennes area schools and the unelected “Merger Study Committee” let us now feel the winds of the future: less community involvement, extensive student busing, loss of local control over hiring, incomprehensible central budgeting processes and refusal to recognize legitimate town votes. On Nov. 8, it is time to say “no” to another round of centralization that offers us and our kids little but increased alienation.
All learning is personal. Control over learning resides, at last, in the minds of each student. The best research I have seen on learning shows that it is the people close to each student — parents, peers, teachers and advisors — who most influence positive growth. Buildings, policies, rules and requirements neither improve results nor diminish them radically. While student-centered learning developed energetically in both Vergennes and Bristol over 30 years, just a few administrators and state bureaucrats could destroy the work of many committed adults and students in just one or two years. These people might say “yes” to the idea of engaging each student but fail to see that larger schools strangled by bus routes do not succeed as well as smaller schools within caring communities.
On Nov. 8, it is time to vote “no” to further school consolidation.
Editor’s note: John Clarke is a retired professor at UVM’s College of Education and Social Services who helped manage the partnership between UVM and area schools between 1995 and 2016.
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