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New Year, New Beginning at White River Valley Middle School

  • Before the start of the new school year, framed photos of Whitcomb High School graduates rest against lockers of the new White River Valley Middle School in Bethel, Vt., on Aug. 7, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jessica Rhoades, of South Royalton, Vt., looks at the class schedule with her daughter Natalie Irish during an ice cream social at the White River Valley Middle School in Bethel, Vt., on Aug. 27, 2018. Middle school teacher Tony Snow, left, helps explain the schedule. Natalie will be a sixth-grader at the newly-formed school. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Toshia Rogers, of Royalton, Vt., kisses her son Malachi French-Dyer, a sixth-grader, goodbye on his first day of school at the White River Valley Middle School in Bethel, Vt., on Aug.29, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • White River Valley Middle School teachers Shannon Bonsignore and Andy West usher sixth-grader Sonny Snelling, of Bethel, Vt., into Bonsignore's morning music class after Snelling and his classmates were misdirected between classes on the first day of school in Bethel on Aug. 29, 2018. South Royalton and Bethel students are attending the merged middle school for the first time this school year. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • White River Valley Middle School seventh-graders, from left, Dylan Slack, Makenzie Kill and Kellan Ballou, all of Bethel, Vt., unpack new woodworking tools to be used in the shop building on the Bethel campus during their first day of school on Aug. 29, 2018. Located in a new building, it is the first time Bethel students have a shop class, and also for 6th-graders attending from South Royalton. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • White River Valley Middle School eighth-grader Ayden Dumont, of South Royalton, Vt., and his classmates try their combination locks after getting locker assignments on the first day of school in Bethel, Vt., on Aug. 29, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • On the first day of school at White River Valley Middle School in Bethel, Vt., teachers, from left, Tony Snow, Siobhan Kelly, Mindi Wimett, Nancy Pejouhy and Tim Perreault are introduced to students during their community meeting with the whole school on Aug. 29, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • White River Valley Middle School sixth-grader Camden Stevens looks for a seat during lunch on the first day of school in Bethel, Vt. on Aug. 29, 2018. Stevens is from South Royalton, Vt., and he quickly found a seat with a friend. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • White River Valley Middle School seventh-graders Sauntie White, left, and Tanner Drury ask prepared questions as they get to know each other in Holly Williams' science class in Bethel, Vt., on Aug. 31, 2018. Paisley Irish speaks with Williams in the background on the first day of school. The students are all from Bethel. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • On the first day of school on Aug. 29, 2018, finishing touches are done on the newly-formed White River Valley Middle School in Bethel. Vt. Tim Poljacik on the school maintenance crew installs the school's new name on Aug. 29, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • At the end of the first day of school at the newly formed White River Valley Middle School in Bethel, Vt., Principal Owen Bradley helps students board the bus headed for South Royalton, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, September 01, 2018

Bethel — As Carrie Kohl led her music students through the timed series of stomps, claps and (most challengingly) beats of silence scrawled on the marker board, a significant portion of her mind was scrutinizing the one-of-a-kind mix of 11 students arrayed in a half-circle around her.

It wasn’t that it was the first day of school for the sixth- to eighth-graders — Kohl had already sailed through 10 “first” days in that very room (and 15 overall). But what made Wednesday unique was that it was the first day for the school itself — formerly the town’s Whitcomb Jr.-Sr. High School, the structure was getting a second life serving middle school students from both Bethel and Royalton in the newly formed White River Valley School District.

She directed the last student to arrive to pull out a folding chair leaning against the wall.

“They’re getting 50 brand new chairs for this room,” she assured them. “They might arrive today. They might arrive tomorrow.”

Predictably, the first class period brought more than its fair share of chaos — the majority of Kohl’s time was spent explaining how the class would work, answering questions (including, “Can you get an air conditioner?”) and sorting out issues with class schedules. Some students had blanks on their grid of class assignments and didn’t know what to do next, while others weren’t quite sure where in the building they could access the art, technical education or language classes.

And when the lesson got underway, the high percentage of unfamiliar faces made Kohl unsure of how far she could go without leaving some students behind.

“You don’t know what prior knowledge they have,” Kohl said, after the class. “I didn’t know what the non-Bethel kids knew.”

As it turned out, in a positive sign, she got further along in the lesson plan than she thought she might — musical notation for half notes.

“I probably wouldn’t have moved onto the next rhythm, except they were all pretty spiff,” she said.

More Mergers, Fewer Districts

Bethel and Royalton didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to upend 100 years of tradition by voting their local school districts out of existence.

Instead, voters last year found themselves at a critical moment in the largest sea change to hit Vermont’s educational landscape in decades. In 2015, state legislators decided that ongoing demographic trends were spreading students too thinly among schools, and that they had to decisively address the resultant rising costs and threadbare curricula offerings.

Their answer, the education reform law Act 46, compels small school districts — like Bethel and Royalton — to consolidate their governance structures into larger, more cost-effective administrative blocks.

Though some districts are still arguing, with mixed levels of success, that merging with their neighbors would do more harm than good, by January, residents in 135 towns had voted to merge 143 school districts into 35 unified districts, meaning that 108 school districts had ceased to exist.

On July 1, a majority of those new districts — 19, including the White River Valley School District — came into existence, and many are carrying baggage of bitter community divisions between pro-merge and anti-merge camps, as well as fears that the loss of local control ultimately will end with merged school boards voting to shutter small community schools.

The ability of these merged districts to succeed will be a leading indicator of whether Act 46 was a wise or foolish piece of legislation.

In Bethel and Royalton, the road to the merger contained many twists and turns. In April 2017, Royalton voters deep-sixed a proposed three-town merger that included Rochester, and then, after reversing course, were spurned by Rochester voters. Along the way, talks of a partnership with Randolph ultimately went nowhere.

John Olmstead, a former South Royalton School Board member who advocated for the consolidation plan last year, said he didn’t let the charged emotions get to him.

“Personally, I didn’t view it as antagonism, so much as people with very strong feelings in the other direction,” he said. “I do my level best to not take things personally.”

But Olmstead allowed that the art of disagreeing without being disagreeable has been in decline for a generation, and that the political climate of recent years has encouraged people to think of those with different opinions as enemies.

But with the decision made, Olmstead said, some of the fears seemed to be dissipating.

“Particularly that fear of loss of identity doesn’t seem to be as pronounced as of late, now that we’re up and running,” he said.

And that the district would get up and running was decided in late October 2017, when Bethel and Royalton voters approved a two-town merger. It’s an enormous structural change from last year, when Bethel taught Bethel students (162 kids in pre-K to sixth grade at Bethel Elementary School and another 92 in grades seven through 12 at the junior-senior high school), and Royalton taught Royalton students (372 students in a single school for all 12 grades).

The new structure staved off concerns about school closings by keeping existing schools relevant — all sixth- through eighth-grade students now are at the new White River Valley Middle School in Bethel, and ninth- to 12th-graders are at the new White River Valley High School in Royalton.

Ted Fisher, a spokesman for the state Agency of Education, said that makes White River Valley one of just 11 schools in the state that teaches grades six to eight; although there is a long-standing debate about what grade structures lead to the best outcomes, Fisher said the state has no preference over whether to break out a distinctive middle school experience for students.

“It’s a local decision,” he said. “It’s up to the schools.”

The merger was a momentous occasion, but it left school staff and officials — who still had their normal educational duties in full swing — scrambling to build a school district from scratch, in what middle school Principal Owen Bradley reckoned was just 177 work days spread over nine months.

Students Assemble

And on the first day of school, Bradley cut a Willy Wonka-like figure, with wild hair and a seeming ability to be in three places at any one time.

Striding down the hall, he fired four-word questions at anyone who turned to him — “What do you need?” “How can I help?” and “Do you need help?” He also offered inspirational homilies for those he thought might benefit from them.

“We’re going to make mistakes, but we’re not going to keep making them,” he might say. For those who didn’t need his help, it was fist bumps and high-fives and “Boom!”

During a rare quiet moment, Bradley was momentarily flummoxed when asked what he didn’t want to see happen on the first day.

“Doesn’t? Hmmm,” Bradley said. “I don’t usually work from a ‘doesn’t’ mindset. I’m not a glass-half-full guy. I’m a glass-overflowing guy.”

Goals are a tricky thing in a brand new district.

It’s not that there’s no benchmark for success — it’s that there are too many. An avalanche of test score data that could be sliced to support a variety of different viewpoints, enrollment figures (particularly that of coveted choice students), staff turnover rates, the ability to launch new curricula and extracurricular activities, overall budget size, the cost per student, and the smile-to-frown ratio of the students pacing the halls — considered in isolation, each factor is vitally important.

But at some point, if an educator gives those benchmarks too much attention, it can distract from tending to the immediate needs of students.

Bradley concluded that his goal for the day was for “everybody to fall in love with learning.”

A little before noon, with the entire school gathered in the gymnasium, Bradley announced a different goal.

“My goal is that we will be the best ... middle school ... in America!” he shouted, to applause from both the students on the bleachers and the staff lining the walls.

He was disrupted in his speech by the rumbling sound of construction, but he turned it into another round of applause when he announced that it was workers outside “putting on the finishing touches of our new sign that says — White River Valley Middle School!”

A moment later, as the rumbling continued, he allowed, with just slightly less enthusiasm, that “it’s rigorous to listen to that. We’re going to do our best.”

The rest of the assembly included a recap of some basic rules (no cellphones or talking over others), and a period during which the teachers introduced themselves. Mrs. Gordon, an English teacher on the gold team, got a laugh when she told the kids that her belly contains “a baby, not too much pizza.” Tim Perrault, a physical education and driving instructor, got a bigger one when he countered that his own contains “too much pizza, not a baby.”

Gold is one of two schoolwide teams coded to the school’s pride colors (the other is green). Mindi Wimett, a math teacher, told the students that points (embodied by bingo chips) would be awarded throughout the year for acts of positivity and kindness, with monthly celebrations for the winners.

“That doesn’t mean just because you’re being positive, you should be like, ‘Hey, where are my points?’ ” she said. “Because that kind of overshadows the positivity, yes?”

The team colors and the positivity points and a series of ice-breaking activities were all in the service of efforts to build a school culture, said Tony Snow, who teaches global citizenship, during a Monday ice cream social that was, itself, part of the program. Snow said he and another teacher were developing a curriculum around the Great Vermont Flood of 1927, and the ability to participate in Vermont’s municipal and state governance.

“The whole idea is how to build a sense of identity,” Snow said, standing in the hallway as groups of students rushed past him, eager to see the furthest reaches of the building where they would spend so much of their school year.

It was a delicate balancing act for the district, which wanted to honor the heritage of both predecessor schools without giving up the opportunity to celebrate a new, shared culture.

“They took down the old granite sign out front,” said Snow, one of 45 new district hires who participated in a recent staff orientation. “But now they have a new electronic sign, and they’ve painted the gym. I hear some people saying it’s very sad to see that changed, but to me, I get to be here from the moment of its birth. My employment here has always been with the White River Valley Supervisory Union.”

In addition to the stone sign, administrators also have removed the framed photographs of former Bethel classes that used to line the main hallway; the ultimate fate of the pictures themselves have been caught up in a discussion with the Bethel Historical Society and the Bethel Library about how and where they should be preserved.

Since the district came into existence on July 1, staff and education officials have faced a variety of issues and choices — different web platforms that were used to reach out to parents had to be reconciled, as well as different student email account naming conventions; the custodial staff was painting while managing an influx of new furniture and an outflux of old; a project to address a problematic campus boiler had a funding shortfall; and the new food service staff have scrambled to release a September lunch menu that includes “porcupine or black bean sliders,” pot pies (turkey or vegetable) and an endless topping taco bar.

With so many details up in the air, some components of the culture of the school are sure to erupt spontaneously, without intention.

“I’ll tell a lot of bad jokes,” Bradley told the students during the assembly. “If you have a bad joke that is appropriate, you are welcome to tell them to me. Does anyone have an appropriate joke?”

He called on a girl.

“Why couldn’t Randolph cross the road?” she asked.

“Why couldn’t Randolph — ” Bradley interrupted himself. “Is this appropriate?”

“Yes,” promised the girl.

“Why couldn’t Randolph cross the road?” Bradley asked.

“Because they didn’t decide to merge with us!”

Bradley repeated the punchline, to groans and chuckles and applause.

Rivals to Friends

“It’s insanity,” said William Brooks, the technical education teacher, looking at his new woodshop. “It’s total insanity.”

Inside the standalone structure — a former storage shed — behind the school, his first-day students were eagerly unpacking brand new machinery out of their boxes. Brooks, who also teaches at South Royalton, said the space is small, but once he has it set up, the district’s investment in materials will more than make up for it.

“We’ll have really, really well-equipped shops,” he said.

Brooks seemed excited about the ability to create something special. So did other staff, like Snow and Kohl. Holly Williams, a science teacher who taught in Royalton last year, said the after-school programming also might benefit.

“We’re talking about having the kids initiate what kinds of clubs they might like and then we’ll try to find mentors among us who have an interest or a forte there,” she said. “There might have been two kids before and there might be six now. That’s great club size. We’ve tossed around thoughts of robotics and chess club and an outing club — and if kids are into hip-hop music or whatever, it would be great to give them those opportunities.”

But the success of the school ultimately will rely on how it is remembered by the students who attend it.

During the assembly, one of the ice breakers was for every student to say one word to sum up their day — the answers ran the gamut, “good” and “bad,” “boring” and “exciting,” “weird” and “funny” and (the weirdly funny) “allergic.”

Though it was difficult to distinguish between ordinary first-day jitters and what might be something more, most students expressed mixed feelings.

Natalie Kelley, a 13-year-old who brought her new puppy, Apollo, to the ice cream social, said she would miss some of the teachers she had when she attended South Royalton School last year. But her favorite teacher, Williams, had made the move with her, and that made it better.

Zak Cook, 12, who attended South Royalton last year, said entering seventh grade had been, so far, confusing.

But he said he’d already built a chicken coop and a makeshift road grader at home with his stepfather, and was looking forward to learning from Mr. Brooks. Cook said one of the most frequently expressed concerns among adults — that students who had grown up amid a school rivalry wouldn’t get along with each other — hasn’t materialized.

Even on the first day he was having positive interactions with Bethel peers.

“I am definitely feeling welcomed,” he said.

One of the Bethel students he said was welcoming was Dylan Slack, also 12, who also was entering seventh grade and also looking forward to the shop class.

“I like hands-on,” Slack said, noting that he had learned things like how to use a level while rebuilding a deck with his father. “This is definitely different from elementary school. You’re all moving around together. You get to meet different people.”

Slack, tall for his age, worked alongside Cook to carry a large piece of scrap plywood out of the nascent wood shop.

And in front of the lockers in the hallway, McKenna Rogers, of Bethel, and Carlie Robinson, of South Royalton, both 13 and both in eighth grade, stood together, chatting after the assembly.

Bethel and Royalton’s school district merger was made more difficult by hard feelings between communities that were, perhaps, influenced by generations of not-always-friendly school competitions. But in the future, everyone will be playing on the same team.

“It’s all brand new,” Rogers said. “There are some enemies, because of sports. But I think we’re kind of getting past that.”

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



Not too long ago, student Grace Collins, 13, expected that she would attend South Royalton School through the end of her public schooling. But because of the merger, the South Royalton resident started eighth grade on Wednesday in Bethel. Grace has agreed to share her thoughts about the school year in a series of vlogs (short for video logs, or video diaries). In this submission, recorded Wednesday afternoon, she answers the question, "What is your reaction to the first day of school, and what is different, challenging or exciting?"

If you are a White River Valley Middle School student, or know of a student, who might like to record vlogs during the first few months of school, please email web editor Maggie Cassidy at mcassidy@vnews.com.