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Small High School’s Future in Doubt

Rochester, Vt., Faces a Difficult Choice After a Long Decline in Enrollment

  • Ada Bowman, a sophomore, concentrates on filming a school-wide gingerbread house activity in the gym at Rochester School in Rochester, Vt., on Dec. 20, 2013. Bowman has been working for over a year to make a video on the school. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Ada Bowman, a sophomore, concentrates on filming a school-wide gingerbread house activity in the gym at Rochester School in Rochester, Vt., on Dec. 20, 2013. Bowman has been working for over a year to make a video on the school.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • Catherine Knight, principal of Rochester School, makes an announcement to middle and high school students at the end of lunch at Rochester School in Rochester, Vt., on Dec. 20, 2013. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Catherine Knight, principal of Rochester School, makes an announcement to middle and high school students at the end of lunch at Rochester School in Rochester, Vt., on Dec. 20, 2013.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • George Moltz, a history and civics teacher at Rochester School sits in his classroom in Rochester, Vt., on Dec. 20, 2013. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    George Moltz, a history and civics teacher at Rochester School sits in his classroom in Rochester, Vt., on Dec. 20, 2013.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ada Bowman, a sophomore, concentrates on filming a school-wide gingerbread house activity in the gym at Rochester School in Rochester, Vt., on Dec. 20, 2013. Bowman has been working for over a year to make a video on the school. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap
  • Catherine Knight, principal of Rochester School, makes an announcement to middle and high school students at the end of lunch at Rochester School in Rochester, Vt., on Dec. 20, 2013. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap
  • George Moltz, a history and civics teacher at Rochester School sits in his classroom in Rochester, Vt., on Dec. 20, 2013. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

While taking a reporter on a tour of Rochester School last week, Principal Catherine Knight remarked off-handedly on an unusual quality of the small school she leads.

Standing in the library at the heart of the high school building, where a couple of students were working at computers, Knight noted how quiet it was. Even with classes in neighboring rooms and students passing through the library, the underlying hum of a busy high school was absent, which makes it easier to concentrate, she said.

Not everyone finds a silver lining in the school’s quiet halls. Enrollment has declined sharply over the last decade, making Rochester’s one of Vermont’s smallest K-12 schools. The state Board of Education is weighing whether to disband the supervisory union that oversees the school, a move that could force Rochester to shutter its high school. So Knight, who started work in August, is planning a transformation of the school in a bid to make it a draw for parents and students, and she accentuates the positive.

“It’s a beautiful little school and we have some amazing attributes,” Knight said.

School officials, staff and students want to continue operating a high school, but the number of students is so small — fewer than 150 K-12 — that course offerings are limited and per pupil spending is high. A recently released report about the school describes the steep climb it must make if its high school is to remain viable.

On Jan. 13, townspeople will gather to discuss the future of the school, and the next day they will go to the polls for a non-binding referendum on whether to continue to operate a high school or to cut back to grades K-8.

The number of issues school officials and Rochester residents must examine can seem dizzying. Rochester School is at the intersection of the many crosswinds that are lashing public education in Vermont and across the country: Rising costs and declining enrollments, the data-driven transformation of teaching, online courses, the competition between school choice and towns with designated schools, all are buffeting Rochester School with varying degrees of force.

Rochester is a small town of around 1,100. It sits on Route 100 in the northern reaches of the White River Valley, about an hour’s drive from Lebanon. Residents call it an isolated town.

The Vermont Board of Education voted last week to put off until June a vote on whether to dissolve the Windsor Northwest Supervisory Union and assign its six towns to neighboring supervisory unions. In addition to Rochester, Windsor Northwest comprises Bethel, Granville, Hancock, Pittsfield and Stockbridge. Of those towns, only Bethel, Rochester and Stockbridge operate schools. The other three towns have school choice for all students.

The superintendents of the three neighboring supervisory unions met earlier this month with Windsor Northwest Superintendent John Poljacik. They were in accord that “something needs to be done. Low-enrollment supervisory unions cannot maintain the resources and talent needed to provide high quality learning opportunities for their kids,” according to a Dec. 10 memo the superintendents drafted.

Vermont has long supported small schools. When Act 60, the state’s landmark school funding law, was approved in 1997, it included a small schools grant, a feature of the law that remains in place. The grant was needed because smaller schools have higher per pupil costs, which can necessitate higher tax rates.

The issue of small supervisory unions is a relatively new one for Vermont, where enrollments have been declining statewide for over a decade. The state had 94,623 public school students in the 2003-4 school year. During the 2012-3 school year, the last for which the state Agency of Education furnishes enrollment figures on its website, enrollment had fallen to 86,133, a decline of nearly 9 percent.

Education officials are trying to reduce the number of supervisory unions to free up more money to put into education. In 2010, state legislators approved Act 153, which provided financial incentives to supervisory unions to consolidate. So far, only one consolidation has taken place, between districts in southern Windsor and Rutland counties.

Windsor Northwest’s enrollment decline has been steep. A decade or so ago, Granville closed its elementary school and combined with Hancock. Then the combined school grew too small and, with voter approval, it closed down in June 2009.

Rochester’s decreasing enrollment is related. In 2003-4, the school had 250 students. Enrollment today is 147 with only 55 of those students in the high school. Parents in Granville and Hancock now send fewer children to Rochester School, partly because tuition has increased. Middlebury schools now send a bus over the mountains to pick up students from Granville and Hancock.

“Some families in the two choice towns, Hancock and Granville, are attracted to high schools with larger student opportunities than Rochester can support,” Vermont School Boards Association consultant John Everitt wrote in a recent report about the high school’s viability. “It is unlikely that the Rochester high school program will draw the maximum enrollment possible in the valley, thereby leading to a continuing decrease in high school enrollment.”

If Rochester School’s situation seems dire, its occupants seem upbeat.

Knight is leading a thorough reorganization of the school: Next year it will be centered around three academies that will focus on technology, the performing arts and sustainability.

“Because we’re small, we need to be different to attract and retain students,” she said. “We don’t have the teachers and we don’t have the classes. What we can do is be more creative.”

Rochester School has something that some of the other small high schools in its area don’t — an auditorium with a proscenium stage and comfy seats. All the seats were replaced after Tropical Storm Irene flooded the school more than two years ago. The school hosts a Suzuki music camp every summer, which could hold promise for a school-year program, Knight said.

The school district owns a 20- acre parcel of forest in town that could be the focus of a sustainability curriculum, and across the street from the school is the office of the Green Mountain National Forest.

The technology academy would concentrate on game and application design, work that requires advanced math, Knight said.

Creating the academies would tether the school’s curriculum to real-world and hands-on work, which is central to the Common Core State Standards, a new framework for education that most states, including Vermont and New Hampshire, are in the process of implementing.

“I’m not building in an increase in the budget to make these things happen,” Knight said.

In recent years, the school has struggled under indifferent leadership, members of the school community said. Knight said that she was beginning the work of using data from the annual New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) tests to improve student learning, a project that most public schools have been working on for several years. The school’s test scores have been low, Knight said.

“The leadership was bad,” said George Moltz, who has taught history and social studies at the high school for 29 years. “We were kind of lacking a vision of where we wanted to go.”

Many people in the school referred to it as a family. That quality cuts both ways. “It is like a family here,” Moltz said, “but families can be dysfunctional and we had some of that last year.”

“This year, we’ve worked hard on creating a school community,” Knight said. That’s another fundamental element of a school turnaround that’s in progress.

None of the changes Knight is trying to effect will matter if enrollment doesn’t rise. It’s a widely accepted principle that a high school needs a critical mass of students and teachers to provide a rich curriculum and a diversity of ideas and voices. Even students who said they want to keep the high school going expressed a desire for more classmates and teachers.

Ada Bowman, 16, is taking an independent study art history class with Moltz. “I’m getting a really good education in art history,” she said, and she feels the school trusts her to get her work done.

But “I do wish I could take more advanced art classes,” she said. And, “It’d be nice to have an art history class where the teacher is teaching the whole class. Being by myself there are some ups and downs.”

The growth of online learning has helped the school offer a wider range of classes. Michaela Sterling, like Bowman a 16-year-old sophomore, has already taken honors algebra, Latin I and Spanish I and II through the Vermont Virtual Learning Cooperative. She is currently taking honors algebra II and geometry.

“It gives me the ability to take harder courses,” Sterling said. Unlike Bowman, who is working with a teacher in her school, Sterling is proceeding on her own initiative. “I’m just doing it on my own.”

As much as online learning can supplement course work, there’s an argument for having more teachers and classmates in a student’s life, particularly in high school when a teen is rounding into adulthood, said Anni Mackay, a Rochester resident who has sent her daughter to other schools for all but one year.

With so few teachers at Rochester — the school’s website lists six for the high school grades — it can be harder for a student to find one who might serve as a mentor or an inspiration and easier for a student to be pigeonholed, Mackay said.

“We would all argue that nothing replaces a teacher,” she added.

Although it has a small faculty and low test scores, by other measures, Rochester School is a success. Its graduation rate is higher than the state average, and a larger proportion of graduates go on to higher education.

“I just look at the kids who’ve graduated from here and they’ve always been able to do whatever they wanted to do,” Moltz said.

There’s a wide range of solutions under discussion in the Windsor Northwest Supervisory Union and among its neighbors that could dramatically change the options for Rochester’s high school students.

School officials and students lobbied the state Board of Education, saying the state’s plan would harm their school and that the time-frame to change it was too short. Under the state’s plan, Bethel and Rochester would have been grouped with school districts farther down the White River, while Granville and Hancock would have been in a supervisory union based in the Mad River Valley. Under that scenario, Rochester wouldn’t be able to count on students from Granville and Hancock, which would cripple the school’s viability.

There are other options that haven’t been fully explored. Right now, for example, Rochester School sends 11 of its 55 high school students to the Randolph Technical Career Center, and some in town suggest Randolph might make a natural location for Rochester students. Rochester has also fielded athletic teams in conjunction with Whitcomb, which is the high school with the shortest drive from Rochester.

In his report, Everitt, the Vermont School Boards Association consultant, wrote that “one could imagine a joint high school with South Royalton, Whitcomb (Bethel), and Rochester,” under which South Royalton would focus on environmental studies, Whitcomb on the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math and Rochester on the arts. “Community wise,” he wrote, “each town would continue to have a school and community relationship, although it would be with students from towns across the partnership.”

David Bickford, superintendent of Orange-Windsor Supervisory Union, which covers Chelsea, Royalton, Sharon, Strafford and Tunbridge, has advocated for a similar structure that would include Chelsea Public School, a K-12 school that’s just as small as Rochester School. It was suggested that in addition to Bethel and Rochester, both Granville and Hancock could become part of OWSU. “I didn’t run screaming from the room,” Bickford said, adding that his union’s board hasn’t discussed the idea.

Rochester could decide to eliminate its high school and give families school choice. In Vermont, 91 towns have school choice, some for all grades, some for middle and high school and some just for high school.

School officials have talked about a resident option or creating an independent school, but those options have yet to be explored.

“I’d like to think that what we all want is what’s best for students,” Knight said.

Arriving at a solution and deciding how to implement it is going to take time and political maneuvering. The Board of Education gave the school officials until June to work it out, but Knight said she wished the state’s decision could be put off until September so the summer could be used for planning.

But the board, particularly Chairman Stephan Morse, expressed impatience. It’s already been under discussion for a year, Morse noted. June is likely to be a final deadline. Either the White River Valley schools come up with a plan, or the state will do it for them.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.