Strafford, Thetford Academy resume talks on agreement to send students

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/16/2020 9:43:49 PM
Modified: 12/20/2020 11:32:01 AM

THETFORD — After a pandemic-induced hiatus, Thetford Academy has resumed negotiations with Strafford over a new agreement to designate the academy as Strafford’s high school.

As an opener, the Thetford Academy board has sent a letter to the Strafford School Board that says, in effect, if you’re going to designate us as your high school, you should send your students here.

Though the letter says that “Thetford Academy remains wholeheartedly committed to welcoming students from Strafford,” it goes on to say that “we do not believe the current way in which this designation agreement has been discharged serves either the Town of Strafford or Thetford Academy in accord with the intent of the designation statute.”

Over the past decade, 44% of Strafford’s graduating eighth graders have attended Thetford Academy, according to Carrie Brennan, the academy’s head of school. In 2019, three Strafford students graduated from Thetford Academy, while four graduated from The Sharon Academy, three graduated from Hanover High School and one graduated from Kimball Union Academy, according to the Strafford School District’s 2019 annual report.

Vermont law allows a school district that doesn’t operate a high school or belong to a union high school district to designate up to three public or approved independent high schools.

But the law also allows the school board of such a district to grant a waiver for a child to attend another high school, provided they can prove it’s a good fit. Strafford has striven to maintain that prerogative, and the law governing designated high schools has since 2012 included an exception that allows Strafford to continue to pay the Thetford tuition rate to approved high schools that cost more, such as Hanover High.

Without the exception, Strafford would pay only the statewide average tuition and it would cost Strafford families much more to send a student to Hanover High.

The state law allowing a school district to designate a high school was passed in 1969. Strafford has designated Thetford Academy since 1975, said Barbara Murray, former secretary at Strafford’s K-8 Newton School. That year’s town report, Murray said, recorded that of 51 Strafford students, 26 attended Thetford Academy, nine went to South Royalton, eight to Hanover High School, six attended the Mountain School in Vershire and one each went to Hartford High School and to Burke Mountain Academy.

At the moment, there are 20 Strafford students at Thetford Academy, though two of them are middle school students, Brennan said.

Strafford School Board Chairwoman Sarah Root, who is the board’s liaison to the Thetford Academy board, said she’d received the letter and that the issue would be on the agenda at the next meeting, on Jan. 12.

Root recalled that Strafford’s designation of Thetford Academy took on added importance when the Upper Valley was flush with students in the late 1990s and early 2000s. At the time, Hanover High School restricted the number of tuition students it would accept, and Thetford Academy stood by its agreement and said it would take Strafford’s students.

Since then, enrollments across the Upper Valley have declined substantially, and other schools have opened, including The Sharon Academy, setting off a scramble among schools for tuition students from sending towns that lack their own high schools. The Strafford board grants waivers in most cases, though it requires parents to make a case for why Thetford Academy doesn’t suit their child, Root said in a phone interview.

“Why do we keep (the agreement) up is a really good question, and I think it’s a question that the board is really interested in looking at,” she said.

Thetford Academy’s tuition rate of $19,670 per student is among the highest in the Upper Valley, along with Hanover’s, Root said. The Sharon Academy sets tuition at the state average of $16,273. (“As a result of this practice,” The Sharon Academy writes on its website, “over 85% of our students, on average, are publicly funded.”)

“It’s a concern,” Root said of the difference in cost, though she noted that the board “doesn’t have a position” on which schools Strafford students attend. “I haven’t felt with this board a draw to one school or another,” she said.

The letter from Thetford Academy is a reopening of the conversation, and officials from both schools approached it in that spirit.

“I guess I just really want to emphasize the history and the warmth,” Brennan said. Generations of Strafford students have attended Thetford Academy, she added. “That deep relationship will transcend this conversation around designation specifically.”

“I think there are questions that Strafford needs to ask. I do,” Root said. Thetford Academy’s overture deserves a hearing, too, she said. “I think if that’s what Thetford wants us to ask or answer, I think that’s valid.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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