Strafford school report finds widespread discontent

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/27/2019 9:42:43 PM
Modified: 5/27/2019 9:42:39 PM

Sarah Root graduated from The Newton School 49 years ago, back when it was a four-room schoolhouse. Virtually everything has changed since then, but there’s one thing that hasn’t.

“The school is the heart of the community,” said Root, whose ancestors signed the charter that created the town of Strafford and whose mother was the postmaster when she was growing up in the 1950s and ’60s.

Now, with the school facing a crisis, the community is in pain. “People are upset. There’s huge concern,” said Root, who was elected to the School Board in March and serves as chairwoman. “There are people coming to meetings who have never come before.”

At a special School Board meeting last week, Strafford residents got a look at a new report that attempts to define problems plaguing the school for the past few years and to gauge people’s feelings about the school’s future. The report, prepared by an independent consultant who visited the school and met with about 100 students, teachers and parents in January, revealed significant concerns over the school’s overall culture and uncertainty about the viability of the middle school in particular.

Coming on the heels of an exodus — nine families have taken students out of the small, K-8 school since the beginning of the school year — the report has produced a mix of reactions and opinions.

“What I get from the report is that there are some really strong things happening in our school … and there’s really strong community support for the school,” said Root, an educator who taught in the Lebanon School District for 14 years and worked for the National Education Association in Washington, D.C. before returning to Vermont. “(But) there are some things that are very concerning to the board and that need to be addressed.”

While the report highlights many positive perceptions of the school, its overall findings are troubling, said Mica Tucker, who moved to Strafford in 2017 and was elected to the School Board in March.

“My first reaction to the report was actually feeling pretty sad,” said Tucker, whose son attends kindergarten at the Newton School. “I’m really sad that the report showed there was so much uncertainty and division.”

The School Board hired Dawn M. Ellis and Associates of Burlington earlier this year in an attempt to ascertain why an unprecedented number of students, especially at the middle school level, were leaving for other area schools, including The Sharon Academy and Thetford Academy, which serves as the designated high school for Strafford students. In addition to visiting classrooms and meeting with students, parents, teachers and community members, Ellis administered a survey, in which 322 people participated.

Released to the public last week, the report shows sharply contrasting perceptions of the school, particularly when it comes to the general learning environment. Families whose children have remained in the school reported mostly positive feelings about the school environment and learning opportunities, while families who had removed their children from the school responded negatively to questions about how students and teachers interacted with one another. Many cited a pervasive lack of respect and a pattern of disruptive behavior by some of the middle school students.

“I think (the report) identified a number of issues, and it demonstrated a pretty substantial divide in terms of people’s opinions about the middle school and what should be done to address the issues,” said John Lloyd, a longtime Strafford resident and member of a 10-person task force commissioned by the School Board to explore ways to address problems at the school, with a focus on the dwindling seventh and eighth grades.

Lloyd’s son, Jack, is one of 14 Strafford students in the K-8 level who are no longer attending the Newton School, which currently has about 80 students. Educated at the Newton School from kindergarten through sixth grade, he began attending The Sharon Academy in seventh grade and is now finishing his eighth-grade year there. He was among the first wave of students to be withdrawn from The Newton School, Lloyd said.

Even with his own family’s experiences and the consultant’s report in hand, Lloyd said it’s difficult to pinpoint the causes of discontent. “I think there are some causes that are general to everybody … but there are a lot of stories behind all of that, and I think they’re all kind of unique,” said Lloyd, who declined to discuss his own family’s reasons for removing Jack from the school.

Justin Robinson, a Newton School seventh-grader who is on the task force, said he routinely encounters disruptive behaviors that make learning a challenge. After writing 13 letters to teachers, School Board members and school administrators, Robinson attended the school district meeting in March to voice his frustrations.

“I would just like to see everybody be able to learn,” he said after the meeting.

Along with the school climate, the report highlights, to a lesser degree, concerns over academic quality and opportunities to participate in activities such as sports, music and language instruction.

The report also attempts to gauge opinions about whether the seventh and eighth grades should remain intact or be shuttered and the town’s seventh and eighth graders be sent elsewhere. About 52% of survey respondents indicated support for keeping the seventh and eighth grades open, a finding that leads people to very different conclusions.

While Root says the data demonstrates strong support for the middle school, others disagree.

“If you look at 50%, what grade is that? That’s an F,” said Kate Frederick, a parent who regularly attends School Board meetings and has had run-ins with teachers and administration over issues related to part-time homeschooling. “To me, that’s failing.”

Other community members who attended the meeting last week expressed similar sentiments, calling for the closure of the seventh and eighth grades, while an equal number voiced support for keeping them open. There was agreement, however, over the urgent need to solve the school’s problems.

“This was not a passive group, and the room was packed,” said Tucker, who also sits on the task force as a representative of the School Board. “There was a lot of sober concern about what’s going on … people wanted more data. They wanted to dig into the data, and they wanted to build a plan.”

While she’s encouraged by the community’s response, Tucker, a local attorney, is cautious about putting too much faith in the data.

“I’m a little distressed that we received the report in isolation from other information,” she said. “How does this compare with how people feel about their schools elsewhere?”

Frederick, who said she’s spoken with many parents in town, doesn’t think the report fully captures people’s feelings. “The sense I got is that the report didn’t reflect all of the feedback that was given,” she said. “It didn’t seem to really acknowledge some of the accounts that were really negative, that parents and teachers are having.”

The report, however, is just one piece of an ongoing effort to right the school’s course.

The task force will meet weekly through the summer, and members hope to present their findings to the School Board in September. They will not recommend a particular course of action but lay out the two main options — keeping the seventh and eighth grades or closing them — as well as alternatives for the town’s seventh- and eighth-graders should those grades be eliminated.

Currently, Strafford’s high school students are tuitioned to Thetford Academy — or an alternative school, if approved by the School Board — but parents who choose to send their elementary and middle school-age children to other schools must pay tuition for those schools. If the seventh an eighth grades were to close, the town would have to make alternative arrangements for its seventh- and eighth-graders, a change that could have a budgetary impact.

“We’ve heard a lot of concerns about the financial side of the decision and what it would mean to taxpayers,” Lloyd said.

Community members also worry that it may be too late to save the middle school, given the number of students who have already left.

“I would not be completely honest if I didn’t say, of course I’m concerned about viability,” Tucker said. “(But) I’m not willing to give up on the seventh and eighth grade.”

As the task force grapples with larger questions about the middle school’s future, the School Board and administration are attempting to address issues they feel need immediate attention. Foremost on that list is the sentiment expressed through both data and interviews that respect is lacking in the middle school. Most people surveyed said that the problem with respect originates among certain students, but some survey participants said they were also unhappy with the way some of the teachers interacted with the students.

“Everybody’s saying there’s a concern with respect,” Tucker said. “Something’s got to be done right away so that students return to school in the fall to a place where they feel respected. … It’s at the top of (the School Board’s) priority list.”

School administrators are also working on practical solutions to the more tangible problems, Root said. Last week, Newton School Principal Greg Bagnato and Thetford Academy Headmaster Bill Bugg began crafting a plan for Newton School seventh- and eighth-graders to be bused to Thetford Academy in the afternoons for a language class, electives and optional after-school sports, she said. Bagnato declined to be interviewed for this story.

The public will get a look at that plan at a special Strafford School Board meeting on Wednesday.

“I find that to be a very exciting option,” Root said. “There are some logistics to work out, but the schedules are meshing pretty well.”

Sarah Earle can be reached at 603-727-3268 or

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