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Hartford Board to Discuss Possible Wilder School Investments Wednesday Night

  • After becoming frustrated during a spelling lesson, Joren Watkins, 9, reviews his therapeutic goals for the day, which include using deep breathing and stretchy theraputty, with classroom clinician Charlie Baughman at left in the “quiet room” where students can go to calm down and work through frustrations with staff at the Wilder School in Wilder, Vt., Monday, December 5, 2016. Primary school teacher Ella Rose works with Cole Rafus, 8, at right. “We still do well here,” said Baughman. But he noted that maintenance to the roof and the upgrades to the heating system are necessary improvements to keep the school functioning through the winter months. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Wilder School high schooler Cody Jones looks out of the second floor of the 104 year-old building in Wilder, Vt., Monday, December 5, 2016. The Town of Hartford is considering borrowing $4 million for improvements to the building, which houses an alternative program for students with behavioral and mental health disabilities. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Staff work in close quarters in the administrative office at the Wilder School in Wilder, Vt., Monday, December 5, 2016. Under a proposed plan to renovate the building, the district’s program for students with autism would relocate to share space at the Wilder School. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A second floor classroom opens into a hallway at the Wilder School in Wilder, Vt., Monday, December 5, 2016. The second floor of the century-old building holds classrooms for high school students, a physical education space, and rooms for speech therapy and counseling. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • After earning a ten minute session in the Wilder School’s basement wood shop as a reward, classroom clinician Charlie Baughman informs Travis Slocum, 10, that his time is almost up in Wilder, Vt., Monday, December 5, 2016. The shop gets sparing use, and other basement rooms have lapsed into cluttered storage spaces at the school. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Middle school teacher Dan Mapes waits with students for busses to arrive at the end of the day at the Wilder School in Wilder, Vt., Monday, December 5, 2016. The school alternative program for students around the Upper Valley who are not doing well in traditional academic environments because of mental health and learning difficulties. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Playing in the snow during a break in classes at the Wilder School, Simon Hall, 10, top left, drops freshly fallen snow on para educator Stephanie DeMond, left, and a fellow student, right, as classroom clinician Charlie Baughman, far right looks on in Wilder, Vt., Monday, December 5, 2016. The Town of Hartford is considering borrowing $4 million for improvements to the Wilder School, an alternative program for students with behavioral and mental health disabilities. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, December 10, 2016

Wilder — When the other middle-school kids ran down the cracked, concrete steps of the Wilder School, headed for recess, J.J. Guyer stayed inside, sitting at a worn school desk in a rundown classroom in a 104-year-old building, talking about his future.

He figures it’s in trucking.

“You’ve got to learn to drive stick. I mean, that’s common sense,” said J.J., his wide, toothy grin on full display. The 14-year-old spent a good chunk of the morning on a 25-mile commute, riding in a school van from his Vershire home down to Wilder, thinking.

“You’re not just going to jump in a truck not knowing how to drive stick shift and end up ruining the whole truck. Trust me. I’ve seen people do that. It was ridiculous. Shook the whole gear box,” he said.

The Wilder School, tucked away in a residential neighborhood, is out of sight and out of mind for the vast majority of the Upper Valley’s parents. But for a small group of students in Vermont’s public school system, the program is a lifeline, their last, best chance to get the skills they need to re-enter the mainstream classroom and become productive citizens.

On Wednesday, the Hartford School Board, at the request of Superintendent Tom DeBalsi, will consider whether to recommend investing $4 million into the building, which was constructed in 1912 and which has a multitude of intractable maintenance problems — cavernous, chilly hallways, peeling paint and exposed radiators — sandwiched between the top of its tar and gravel-covered roof and the bottom of its unfinished basement.

Through its Regional Alternative Program, the school currently serves about 25 kids from Upper Valley towns in both Vermont and New Hampshire, most of whom have been separated from their original school because they’re considered a danger to peers, staff or themselves.

That includes J.J., a meat-and-potatoes kind of a kid. He’s partial to venison and his mother’s tacos, made with hamburger.

School tacos don’t make the cut, in part because he only tolerates onions when they’re on a McDonald’s hamburger, diced so finely that he barely knows they’re there.

J.J. is good with his hands. Last Christmas, he made a bunch of ornaments from a kit and passed them around to both family and friends. He’s taken advantage of the Wilder School’s makeshift wood shop to make a night stand and a hanging shelf. He’d like to build a gunrack next. At his desk, he held a small bridge made of toothpicks, squinting at its architecture as he sketched a design for his own bridge on a piece of graph paper, still talking about trucking.

He’s also good at explaining things.

“When your RPM gets to a certain point, you push the clutch and stick shift,” J.J. said. “Sometimes people that are new to shifting, some people keep their foot on the gas and push the clutch and all the clutch does is stall. It doesn’t kill the engine, it just stalls the gear. Just push it and then shift and let go.”

Like most kids his age, J.J. is a mix of strong emotions. But he really struggles to rein them in. Don’t make him angry, he warned.

“Trust me,” he said. “I’ll go on a rampage.”

He also worries that his emotions could impair his ability to be a good trucker. He already knows he won’t do long-distance hauls. He plans to stay local.

“Because I don’t like being far from home. It really, it just scares me when I’m way far away from home,” he said. “A little bit.”

The Regional Alternative Program

Director Roisin Viens, a bubbly and fast-talking personality who’s been building the Regional Alternative Program, or RAP, since it was founded 20 years ago, doesn’t sugarcoat things.

“Kids aren’t here … because they weren’t doing their homework, you know? Because they weren’t saying their ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ ” she said.

“They probably weren’t, but the bigger potatoes are, they were probably unsafe. That’s the quickest ticket in here, is that you’re a chair chucker, and not that you’re moping on your desk.”

The program, which serves children in grades 1 to 12 from about 20 sending towns, is expensive because it relies on large numbers of specially trained staff to get students mainstream-ready, a task that takes, on average, 2½ years per student.

“We’re going to meet you where you’re at and move you closer to where you could be in a mainstream classroom,” Viens said.

When the program began, it had 13 students and six staff in two classrooms. Over the years, it’s grown slowly, to four classrooms with 19 staff, including not just traditional teachers, but special education teachers, behavioral para-educators, a psychiatrist and classroom-based mental health clinicians hired through White River Junction’s Clara Martin Center.

Many entering students are prone to loud, defiant cursing, throwing things, or even striking staff members. They’re almost all boys.

“Boys with problems tend to be more explosive; girls tend to be more withdrawn, which lessens the chances that they’re endangering others,” Viens said.

The program is strict in enforcing its rules. Cellphones and other electronic devices are strictly prohibited. There are quiet rooms, where students who have lost control are escorted, by force if necessary, to cool off. Academic progress is closely tracked through a computerized testing tool, and parents come in two or three times a month to meet with staff.

But the program is also flexible in accommodating the needs of its students, some of whom react strongly to noise, movement, or touch. The school is stocked with pressure suits and weighted blankets that can feel like a hug, and little tents that screen out visual cues, to help students regulate their sensory needs.

Staff use a reward system in which students can earn a variety of incentives. In a sign of the close working relationship between students and staff, Viens said the most commonly requested incentive is one-on-one time with a favorite staff member, who might take the student for a walk outside or play a game of basketball or checkers.

When children leave the Wilder School, their future is in their own hands. Viens sees some of her former students’ names in local news coverage of drug arrests. Others do very well; one student, she said, went on to get a doctorate from Stanford University.

Architecture

In a program built to deal with some of the most problematic students in the system, the biggest problem isn’t the assaults, the meltdowns or keeping an active and vibrant staff engaged. The biggest problem is the building, which was built in 1912 and replaced a condemned schoolhouse.

“It’s pretty dismal,” said Paula Nulty, a member of the School Board, which toured the two-story building over the summer. “There’s nothing warm or pretty or nice about it. There really isn’t. We walked around feeling a little glum. Almost a little embarrassed, I think.”

Town tax records describe the building’s oil and steam heating system, tar and gravel roof, brick exterior and plastered interior walls. The trio of residential homes across the street are even older — built between 1880 and 1891 — but they’ve been modernized.

Not so the Wilder School.

“It needs a complete rebuild, basically,” DeBalsi said. “Gutting it, putting a new heating system in it, putting an elevator in it, putting on a new roof, windows, steps outside. It’s going to be very expensive. But I think we have to do it. The furnace is on its last legs.”

Because of the haphazard heating system, some areas of the building are chilly, while in others, including the drab classroom-turned-gym on the second floor, exposed radiators run along the wall, presenting a constant hazard, and causing occasional burns, to both kids and staff.

The basement is right out of a horror movie — dark passageways that wind through unfinished walls and concrete floors.

“We would love to be able to use this bottom floor, but not as it stands right now,” Viens said.

Once, the staff made a game room out of one of the unfinished basement rooms by installing a foosball table and a few other secondhand toys. But the children can’t use it anymore, because it’s been taken over as a storage space for wheeled clothes racks holding costumes for the plays put on at the nearby Hartford Memorial Middle School.

Financial Planning

By bringing the building’s inadequacies into the spotlight, Superintendent DeBalsi has placed an uncomfortable dilemma before the School Board and the community. Spending so much money on a building that directly serves so few students is certain to make some taxpayers balk, but doing nothing leaves some of the Upper Valley’s most vulnerable students in facilities that are far beneath the standards enjoyed by the district’s mainstream kids.

DeBalsi hopes to bring down per-pupil costs by folding the Hartford Autism Regional Program into the Wilder School, which he says would increase the building’s total student population to about 50. Money that HARP currently pays to an outside agency for rent at its Palmer Court address would cover “two thirds to three quarters” of the roughly estimated $200,000 in annual bond payments.

For the bond to become a reality, voters have to approve it, and DeBalsi would like that to happen during the upcoming March Town Meeting.

But in order to meet that timeline, the School Board has to agree, relatively quickly, to place the measure before voters, which would allow DeBalsi to work with staff to prepare the necessary warning in advance of a public forum on Jan. 9.

But DeBalsi may have an uphill battle in persuading some School Board members that opening the purse strings wide enough to cover the proposed renovation is wise.

School Board Chairwoman Lori Dickerson, who has expressed interest in selling, rather than renovating, the Wilder School, was reminded of recent multimillion dollar, bond-funded renovations of the White River School and the Hartford Town Hall.

“We all heard the outcry from vocal taxpayers a few years ago, when the idea of either selling or possibly removing the historic White River School and the (Town Hall) were being discussed,” Dickerson said via email last week. “In both cases the town voted to the restore those buildings, however we don’t know if the taxpayers will have the same feeling for this building.”

On Thursday, School Board member Nulty said she appreciated the value of the program, but was skeptical of the need for the bond as proposed by DeBalsi.

“I’m wary for the taxpayers to do something that big,” Nulty said. “I am really looking forward to the discussion and the conversation, finding out if there are other fixes that can be made rather than burdening taxpayers.”

The district is also burdened by a recent history of grossly underestimating the cost of projects, which it earned in 2013, when its $3.25 million share of a joint town and school bond approved by voters turned out not to be enough to cover the costs of projects that had been used to sell the bond to the public. A supplemental $3.5 million bond was rejected by voters the following year, which ultimately resulted in the scuttling of plans to build a track at the high school.

Hartford architect David Laurin, whose estimate on the renovation of the Wendell A. Barwood Arena proved to be short by more than $400,000, will present a more detailed proposal on the Wilder School project to the School Board on Wednesday evening.

Other School Board members, including Peter Merrill and Nancy Russell, said during an Oct. 26 meeting that they were especially sensitive to the large gap that exists between the Wilder School and the district’s other learning environments.

They suggested that the discrepancy undermines the ideal of providing an equitable education for all, and that they weren’t comfortable with treating some students like “second-class citizens.”

Nulty said on Thursday that she didn’t like that comparison.

“Didn’t like it at all,” she said. “Kids get the best education when they have good teachers, who implement programs they know are best for their students. … So while Wilder School surroundings are undeniably dismal, the education our kids receive there is stellar. And I’ll take that over marginal teachers in the Taj Mahal any day.”

Social Skills

Stephanie Barnard, a West Hartford mom and hiking enthusiast who works as a waitress at Simon Pearce in Quechee, vividly recalls the moment when she first saw the Wilder School.

It happened shortly after Hartford School District officials told her that her 9-year-old son, Joren Watkins, would no longer be welcome at the clean, bright Ottauquechee School, and would instead be transferred to the Regional Alternative Program.

“I was like, ‘oh, my God,’ ” she said. “They want to send my kid to this breaking-down, dilapidated school? It’s falling apart. It’s empty and echoey. How could anybody be there and be happy?”

It seemed like a nadir in a parental journey that had been, at times, an exercise in frustration for both herself and Joren.

On a recent school day at Wilder, Joren sat eating crackers out of his lunch box, shy about some topics, but chatty about two drawings thumbtacked to the wall, each one populated by detailed figures in crayon-bright colors.

“I’ve been drawing since I was three. And I think when I was five, I started drawing not stick figures,” he said. “And then, I think when I was seven, I started to draw like that.”

Drawing is at the top of the list of Joren’s favorite activities, Barnard said.

“He’s really a soft, kind-hearted kid,” she said. “He likes to play with pets. He’s a pretty snuggly character.”

Joren has been diagnosed as having high-functioning autism. In Joren’s case, that means he’s smart, with “a really high IQ,” but he also suffers from “a lot of sensory issues,” said Barnard.

When her son was a toddler, Barnard said she slowly learned to identify his triggers. The sand at the beach. Cold snow on his clothing. Going to a restaurant and getting vegetables that were cooked instead of crunchy.

When one of these irritants got to a certain level, Joren would have a meltdown.

“He would freak out, kicking and screaming,” Barnard said.

At school, in the hands of teachers who didn’t fully recognize, or know how to navigate, Joren’s many sensitivities, his problems intensified.

“His situation would escalate quickly,” Barnard said. “He had been restrained a few different times by teachers. He thought, every time he did something wrong, that someone was going to come down and hold him down and take him out.”

He switched from the Albert Bridge School in Brownsville, to the Ottauquechee School, where Barnard hoped that a larger program would get him more support. He went through six different paraprofessional aides.

“I would get four calls a week, to come get him, to circumvent some situation,” she said.

When Joren first began at the Wilder School in August, Barnard said that, during meetings with his teachers she would walk in cringing, only to walk out beaming.

“It was just such a relief, honestly, to have such a good team meeting about him,” she said. “Nobody was overwhelmed by him and his behaviors. It was, ‘he’s such a delightful young man and he’s so smart.’ ”

At Wilder, Joren hasn’t been restrained a single time, and he’s happy to be able to talk freely about his own problems, without stigma. Barnard said he comes home excited, because he knows that he and his new schoolmates are all working on their issues together.

He’s no longer experiencing some of the benefits of a conventional school, his mother said, “but he’s getting what he needs.”

Problem Solving

School Board members who don’t like the apparent choice before them — to either leave the program in the rundown building, or spend $4 million to renovate it — are trying to figure out whether there might be other options.

School Board member Kevin Christie, who also represents Hartford in the Vermont House, has worked with state officials to clear the way for the district to include some building costs in the tuition it charges to the communities that send students to the program.

The appraised value of the 1.6-acre property is $814,000, according to property tax records, but selling it would be tricky, because it was given to the district in the early 1900s by four families with the understanding that it would be used as a school, which creates legal obstacles that would have to be navigated.

In addition, it’s listed as a contributing building to the Wilder Village Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.

And even if the Wilder School could be sold, it leaves the problem of where to house the RAP. DeBalsi said building a new school from scratch would cost roughly as much as the renovation, and folding the program into an existing school building would not work.

Because the students are so sensitive to their surroundings, even if there were space, absorbing them into a dedicated wing or floor at another school “would completely change the comfort level of these students being willing to work on their deficits openly and honestly,” DeBalsi said.

Viens said the hubbub of a typical high school might be the trigger that sets off some of the students, and the tendency of Wilder students to have explosive episodes would guarantee a number of disruptions to their mainstream peers.

Nulty said that, because the quality of the RAP staff is so high, she is less concerned with cosmetic problems like chipped paint.

She would rather identify problems that threaten the building’s functionality, such as the furnace, the roof and the exposed radiators, and see whether they could be addressed at a fraction of the cost of the proposed renovation.

DeBalsi said that something needs to be done, and soon.

“When the systems are at the end of their life, heating, roofing, electrical, it gets harder to keep working around it.

If the bond is proposed and it doesn’t pass we will need to find some money to replace the roof and furnace,” he said.

“It will probably cost us more because we will have to do each in stages so that we can afford it. Deferring some of these items is no longer an option. We have done that for too many years already.”

Nulty said that she planned to question one of DeBalsi’s basic assumptions: if the program benefits the whole region, she said, why is it necessary for Hartford to act as its sole operator?

Viens said Hartford wouldn’t be the first district or supervisory union to step away from an alternative education program, and that the total number of such programs in the state is shrinking.

Often a district will try to start a program up only to fail a couple of years later, because well-intentioned educators didn’t realize the expense or difficulty in operating it, she said.

Haley Dover, a spokeswoman for the Agency of Education, said there is no statewide perspective on Regional Alternative Programs, because the state doesn’t track such institutions in any organized way.

But Viens said the Hartford RAP, and other surviving institutions like it, are more precious than ever, because of their scarcity.

Closing down the program, said DeBalsi, would force more area students that need extra support to live away from home in distant programs, where sending schools would be stuck with added costs for travel, room and board.

J.J., the young teen who hopes to be a local trucker, said that, in the three years he’s been at the Wilder School, staff have helped him to learn strategies about how to defuse his own inner anger. They don’t always work, but he’s motivated to keep trying.

“I’m doing good now,” he said. “If I wasn’t here, my life would be miserable.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.

Correction

When the Hartford Regional Alternative Program began 20 years ago, it had 13 students and six staff in two classrooms. The program is run in the old Wilder School building, which is 104 years old. An earlier version of this story misstated the size of the first year’s program and a photo caption gave an incorrect age for the building.