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White River Valley Middle School Finding Strength in Numbers

  • Shop teacher William Brooks directs White River Valley Middle School eighth-graders when building a new shed to store equipment for the custodial staff at the school in Bethel, Vt., on Sept. 25, 2018. The shop class takes place in the shed the custodial staff had used. (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-grader Madison Ramos, of South Royalton, Vt., eyes her cut when building a birdhouse in shop class at the school on Sept. 25, 2018 in Bethel, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Teacher Andy West answers a question for White River Valley Middle School seventh-grader Cory Darling, of South Royalton, Vt., about a math problem West had given students to start his class on Sept. 25, 2018 in Bethel, Vt. (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 Ellie Prestridge keeps her pencil handy during shop class at the school in Bethel, Vt., on Sept. 25, 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 eighth-grader Avery Sheldon, of Bethel, Vt., reads a book and looks over his Chromebook during a learning block at the school where students have a chance to read something of their own choice. Middle school students were recently given Chromebooks for the school year. (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 29, 2018

Bethel — By Tuesday, the shed out behind the White River Valley Middle School was starting to take shape.

Since the first day of school, students had been hammering it together, one small step at a time, sixth- to eighth-graders working under the watchful eye of William Brooks.

“I think he’s really good,” said Zach Frary, 13, of South Royalton, who took his turn pounding nails during Brooks’ shop class Tuesday morning. “If we need help, he’ll help us, but let us figure things out as a class.”

To the earnest eighth-grader with short-cropped, sandy hair, building the shed is only fair.

The wood shop was one of the new programs launched at the White River Valley Middle School — a school created when the Royalton and Bethel districts merged this year — and administrators sited it in a storage garage that had previously been used to store equipment for the custodial staff.

Now, the shop class was building a new shed to replace the space they’d taken.

“I like doing it because it helps the school,” Frary said. “We took it from them.”

As they hammered nails into studs Tuesday morning, Frary said he was impressed by the work of one of his classmates — Morgan Jones, an eighth-grader with a slight build, a blond ponytail, and a tiny stud sparkling from the side of her nose.

With a deftness that belied her years, Jones sank the nail into the wood like a hot knife into butter.

“She’s one of the girls who does the most,” said Frary, clarifying, a moment later, that in fact, “she does the most out of all of us.”

Frary and Jones, who have both come to the newly formed middle school for the first time, have tried to be friendly with each other, following the lead of school administrators who have emphasized team building among the students whose chief interactions have traditionally been as athletic rivals.

Jones’ standout status in the shop class is no accident.

The 14-year-old came to White River Valley Middle School from the now-defunct Rochester School, which had a wood shop. In fifth grade at Rochester, she began by making birdhouses; by last year, her third, she was able to build a countertop on her own. She said she’d like to work in construction.

“If I could build anything, it would probably be a house. A log cabin,” she said.

But during the years that Jones was getting comfortable in the Rochester wood shop, there was no equivalent instruction available for middle school students in Bethel or in Royalton.

The Bethel School District, which operated the Whitcomb Junior/Senior High School on the same campus last year, was forced to close its wood shop years ago. Like many small school districts in Vermont, decades of shrinking student populations were creating a financial squeeze that, over the years, inexorably slimmed down course offerings to little beyond the basics.

The existence of a shop class indicates that one of the benefits cited by supporters of the merger — an expansion of educational opportunities — is being delivered. And now that the new middle school is up and running, it is possible to evaluate how well some, although not all, of the other predicted improvements are panning out.

Expanding Curriculum

In October 2017, facing pressure under Act 46, the 2015 education reform law, voters in both Bethel and Royalton approved a plan that was created by a joint merger study committee, tweaked by their respective school boards, and validated by the State Board of Education.

The plan, just like a previous incarnation that envisioned a three-district merger with Rochester, faced stiff opposition in both communities before it passed.

When lobbying for the plan, school officials described a long list of benefits and commitments that would come with the merger — some of those goals, such as expanded course offerings, a stronger engineering curriculum and more hands-on learning, are embodied in the new shop class.

“We know the lessons learned in a wood shop,” said White River Middle School Principal Owen Bradley. “You learn how to measure twice and cut once. But there’s bigger lessons, of building something and being proud of something and problem solving.”

“It was a desire on the part of the study committee to make sure that we had enough hands-on opportunity at the middle school,” said Lisa Floyd, former chairwoman of the Bethel School Board and current chairwoman of the new unified board. “Middle schoolers need to move. Their development is different from high schoolers.”

Brooks, who’s been teaching for 11 years, will continue to run the shop in the new White River Valley High School in Royalton in the afternoons, but his mornings are now dedicated to getting this new program off the ground.

But just as the students have completed a level foundation and begun to erect a permanent structure, staff and School Board members have adopted a set of foundational structures and have worked overtime during the past 11 months to erect the scaffolding of course offerings, technology and an adequately trained staff.

Outdoor Learning Center Delayed

A Valley News review of several of the most important projected benefits shows that the new district is meeting some, but not all, of the measures of success that officials described to the voting public in October 2017.

The most glaring omission in the new school district is the lack of an outdoor experiential learning program. When the earlier, three-district plan was being considered, Rochester was proposed as the site of a new center that would bring students into the woods for hands-on, place-based lessons. Though Rochester eventually opted out of the merger, the idea had been received with such enthusiasm that study committee members integrated it into the two-district plan, with a three-person staff teaching students at both the middle and the high school.

“We know the high value of kids in the woods doing things,” said Bradley, who has overseen similar programs at other districts.

The study committee’s merger proposal, which was approved by the State Board of Education, was not ambiguous about the requirement to create the program “to be implemented at the start of the 2018-19 school year,” and that commitment was also reflected in the Articles of Agreement, the formal document that voters considered when creating the new district.

School officials and staff now agree that, while grappling with some unexpected staff turnover, they simply ran out of time to get the program off the ground.

Floyd, the School Board chairwoman, said the district not only lost two of the science teachers who would have staffed the program but suffered administratively from the “whole Dean Stearns situation,” a reference to the former South Royalton School principal who was charged by police with secretly recording five girls who were staying as guests in his home. He has pleaded not guilty.

“When the superintendent is suddenly working as the principal, and you don’t have a principal there, those are all chunks of time that are not focused on” things like the experiential center, said Floyd.

She said the unexpected staffing developments forced the district to choose between a hastily built, shoddy program, or one with a delayed start.

“We’d rather take more time with that program and do it really well than to feel like we just put it together to say that we did it,” she said.

Floyd said that, while there was no firm timeline yet in place, there are ongoing discussions within the district and with partners, including state colleges.

“I absolutely have faith that we’re going to get there,” she said.

Wins and Losses

After decades of decline, there are some clear indicators of success and growth in the district. The middle school’s music booster club has more than doubled in size and vitality.

An Advanced Placement human geography class at the high school grew from two to eight students. A push for technology that includes the hiring of a half-time tech integrationist has led to, for the first time, enough computers to allow every student simultaneous access during instruction.

On the other hand, the bus routes, which had to be lengthened to account for the larger area, have been lengthened even further because of staffing shortages at Butler’s Bus Service, which is providing services to Bethel for the first time this year.

And the financial impact of the merger is also murky.

Last year’s plan identified a minimum of $137,000 in immediate savings and included rosy tax rate projections based, in part, on the idea that a large number of tuition students, including many from Rochester and Chelsea, would be drawn to the new district in its first year.

“There is an assumption that a stronger district with larger, more robust programs would attract a total of 36 additional students in grades 6-12,” according to the plan approved by the State Board of Education.

Floyd said tuition students are “better than we projected,” with 47, including about 10 that call the new district their home even though they, and some of their dollars, are being passed on to technical centers in Randolph and Hartford. But that is the total of tuition students, not the number of “additional” tuition students that it was envisioned would come to Bethel or Royalton specifically because of the merger, an anticipated growth that led to the more favorable financial projections.

The actual education property tax rate is $1.50 per $100 of taxable value, significantly higher than the $1.35 projected.

Floyd said the higher tax rate was due to an unanticipated change in state funding that was out of the district’s control, and White River Valley Supervisory Union Superintendent Bruce Labs said the district is in the midst of an audit that will shed more light on what savings were actually realized, and how much has been spent relative to the budget.

Despite the ups and downs, perhaps the most important measure of the district’s success will be the quality of curriculum, which will eventually show up in test scores and graduation rates.

Mary Ellen Simmons, the director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for the White River Valley Supervisory Union (of which the unified district is a part), said that this is the first of a three-year contract with the University of Vermont’s Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education, which is helping to build a curriculum that is specific to the middle school setting.

“They need a structural focus,” she said. “You can’t treat them like elementary kids. You can’t treat them like high school kids.”

The merger has also allowed for larger class sizes, which Simmons said are better for learning.

“It’s very difficult if you only have five people in the classroom and it’s the same five people that have been there since elementary school,” she said. “When there’s more voices you get a much richer discussion and that’s how learning happens.”

Though the district doesn’t yet have figures on how the average class size has changed, Bradley said that, in the middle school, the total enrollment has more than doubled, and the change in class size is dramatic.

“Class sizes have increased across the board,” he said. “Just last year we had single-digit numbers of students in the majority of the classes grades 7-12,” as compared with this year, when 14 to 19 students is more typical.

In order to get a better handle on the district’s progress, the School Board held a five-hour retreat on Sept. 21, a Friday evening, to review expectations with administrators, and to devise measures of success, including everything from the amount of locally grown food served in the cafeteria to participation rates in a dental program.

Like the woodshed, those measures will take time to put into place.

“We’re expecting that at the end of the year we’ll have data on a variety of things related to culture, climate and of course academic performance, extracurricular participation and those types of things,” said Floyd.

Labs said that, before the district opened its doors for the first day of school, while he was overseeing the hiring and training of about 70 staff members across the district, he recalls being told by people in the community told that he’d better get it right — “or you’re going to be in a lot of trouble.”

Labs said that, as far as he’s concerned, the district is off to a great start.

“I’m not satisfied,” he said. “But I’m happy.”

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 in August 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). You can watch her first submission, recorded after the first day of school, here, and her second submission, recorded Sept. 10, here.

In this third vlog submission, recorded Sept. 27, Grace Collins talks about her experiences with clubs and technology at her new school.

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.