Population and Education Part 3: Now What?

This article was written by Ari Chapin, a student in the U-32 Journalism class.

 

This is the third article in the three part series: Population and Education. The first article explained the problems faced by education in Vermont. The second article outlined possible solutions presented to U-32’s administration to oppose these problems. This third article explores public opinion and ways to move forward.

 

WCUUSD is grappling with the challenge of creating a well rounded educational environment. The school district is experiencing, and will experience, changes in the coming years. Just two months ago, the proposed 16.14% increase in the school budget failed. As a result, WCUUSD has cut several teachers both at U-32 and in every elementary school.

 

There will also be changes in the next few years. The previous article in the series focused on reconfiguration. A committee has conducted an in-depth investigation to find and study different models to reconfigure the school district. Some of these include running three elementary schools rather than five and another model describes moving the 6th grade up to U-32.

 

The school board set goals for the configuration committee to guide the creation of reconfiguration models. (Ari Chapin/Chronicle)

 

Observations

Educating students has become harder in the WCUUSD school district because of declining enrollment. If a student decides to leave the district, the money that went to WCUUSD now doesn’t go anywhere, or goes to the new school the student is attending.

 

Less money in the district limits the school facilities, but also limits cocurriculars and classes. “Because there’s less money with less students, there’s less opportunities for [students] to experience things and visit places and have access to, you know, a large variety of clubs,” said Lauren Melkonian, a special education teacher at U-32.

 

Good education requires a growing amount of money, but this money comes from taxes. If taxes increase, certain people are at risk. “You do have elders who are on a fixed income and the tax rates come out and ‘oh, I can’t pay my taxes,’” said Janice Ohlsson, a community member of Calais and chair of the Calais Planning Commission. “Is there a more economically just way to make those kinds of payments?” 

 

Higher level classes and underutilized programs are in danger of being cut. Losing students to early college, the career center, and general population decline contribute to this. “A lot of the higher level classes that I’ve taken this year have had very small classes, just because there’s not a lot of people who are at U-32 right now,” said Jaden Singer, a senior at U-32 who is taking both AP Spanish, AP Chemistry, and AP Calculus. “Schools can’t offer specialized classes if you don’t have this student interest.” 

 

With all of these factors causing there to be less students in the building, there is less interest than there was in previous years and decades. Back in the 90s “we had 950 kids in the building. At that time, there wasn’t really AP at that point, but what we would call honors level. You’d have a full class or two of honors level physics [classes],” said Randy Brown, an AP science teacher at U-32. Next year we will have a physics 1 and a physics 2 class, the physics 2 class having a total of 3 people.

 

In addition, there are people who believe that the quality of education will continue to fall. “We have a disproportionately high number of AP classes, given our population, and that’s going to break at some point. It’s gonna crumble,” said Randy.

 

Students at U-32 use the library to study for AP exams. (Ari Chapin/Chronicle)

 

Early College is a very big factor that is taking students out of the U-32 building and decreasing the student population, but it also has some great advantages for the students who choose to participate in the program. Ari Jorgenson, a junior at U-32 is going to Norwich University next year. He looks forward to the opportunities Early College offers. “There’s going to be professors who are extremely knowledgeable in their respective fields, and they can also assist me in creating college applications, as well as [provide] access to Norwich’s library and all of their labs and equipment,” he said.

 

Monetary support is another factor that draws people to Early College. In addition to a 4 or a 5 on an AP test, some colleges will accept college credits taken through the Early College Program. Ari believes that this “would be extremely helpful monetary wise, because… you’d have to pay for one less year of school, which is super helpful considering how expensive college is.”

 

Public Opinions

There are so many apprehensions wrapped up in this debate. Meagan Roy, the current superintendent of WCUUSD believes that the more people are involved, the better. “The more people can be involved in that conversation and hear what the [WCUUSD school] board is talking about, the less scary it is and the more they can be involved in it.” If you want your voice heard, you can go to the WCUUSD board meetings which can be accessed through the WCUUSD website.

 

There are many people in the school district who fear that they will lose their local schools. If the school board chooses to adopt the reconfiguration model that the research committee created, the number of elementary schools would go down from five to three. The two schools that would be closed are Calais Elementary, and Doty Elementary in Worcester. 

 

This process of consolidating schools would be similar, but more drastic, than the consolidation of the school boards imposed in 2019. According to Ohlsson, the reason why many were opposed to the board consolidation “was the fear of losing our local control.”

 

Charlotte Hanna Bassage, another community member of Calais and previously a member of the Calais school board, believes that “what keeps us together, is the schools. And that’s how new people, with young kids… meet other people in town that they didn’t know.” But on the flip side, these schools are housing fewer and fewer students, putting at jeopardy the social interactions of the kids. According to Hanna Bassage, “You need discussion and you need feedback and you need interaction.” This interaction between kids won’t happen as well in schools with very few kids in a single grade. The conundrum she sheds light on is an important one to many community members. How do we offer quality education, while also preserving hubs of social interaction and community in small, rural towns?

 

Meanwhile, Lauren is undecided. “As a taxpayer in this district, I’m like, ‘cut the schools like they’re so expensive.’ But… I don’t want my elementary school going anywhere, so I see both sides of it.” She is also scared. “Everything is interdependent on each other, and it’s scary.”

 

Action

“We’ve had too much incrementalism and we need something big,” said Hanna Bassage. The board of WCUUSD is considering just such changes. As mentioned previously in this article and in the previous article in the series, there are several changes that could be implemented in the 2025-26 school year, none of them small. In addition to these changes, community members have two other thoughts on what could help change the landscape of education in WCUUSD; aid from the state, and possibly merging with Montpelier High School (MHS).

 

One thought is action from the state. Many things can be done by individual school districts, but many problems are more complex than that or just require more resources than districts can offer. “I think a lot of stuff is out of our hands,” said Ohlsson.

 

Kate McCann, a state legislator and U-32’s AP Stats teacher, believes that “what we need to do in this state… is to really define… what we want public education to look like in Vermont, because slowly I think it’s being eroded.”

 

Randy believes that statewide thinking may be the only way to improve the state of education in Vermont. “In some ways, unless you get out of that box of… what our district happens to be [right] now … you’re trapping yourself out of possible other alternatives.”

 

Ohlsson had another specific idea for the state to encourage and improve early childhood education and daycare. “I would suggest the state help pay the college tuition for the students that want to go into early childcare, on the [condition] that they stay in the state for a couple years and work and if they want to start their own business, that there’d be some guaranteed interest free loan for them to start a business.”

 

To anyone with suggestions for the state legislature, you can email them. Their names and emails can be found at the bottom of this article.

 

Merging with MHS is another highly debated topic that has been surfacing for a long time. “It seems to me, every 20 years we revisit this topic,” said Hanna Bassage. According to Steven Dellinger-Pate, U-32’s principal and soon-to-be superintendent of WCUUSD at a press conference on February 1st, “there is no possible merger with Montpelier at this time.” Hanna Bassage believes that merging at least somewhat with MHS would be beneficial. “We don’t have to be formally merged or formally anything to start sharing things that make sense to share.” Possibly even sharing only some classes would improve the education given to both U-32 students and MHS students. There have been many efforts in the past to combine MHS and U-32. According to Hanna Bassage, the merger “fell apart because a couple of people just couldn’t get rid of their control over things.”

 

Representatives in the WCUUSD:

Berlin

Calais

East Montpelier

Middlesex

Worcester

 

Senators in the WCUUSD district:

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