Wednesday February 6, 2013

GUILFORD -- Is Brattleboro Area Middle School a large educational institution or a model for small-group learning?

BAMS administrators maintain both are correct answers.

That was the message at a Monday forum for Guilford parents about a month before town voters will chose whether to shut their small middle school and send seventh- and eighth-graders to BAMS.

Those students would be stepping into a much larger building. But BAMS officials emphasized small class sizes and said they take pains to understand each student's needs.

"The teachers get to know your children very well," BAMS Principal Ingrid Chrisco said. "We're only a two-year school. We do everything we can to create smaller communities within it."

Chrisco spoke to Guilford residents who crowded into the cafeteria at Guilford Central School. The meeting came four days after the Guilford Town School Board adopted a budget that shuts the middle school and tuitions those students to BAMS for the 2013-14 school year.

Board members have cited a declining enrollment as one reason for the move, and they also point out that the town will save about $80,000 next year by eliminating the middle school.

Board members also believe the larger, regional middle school can offer greater educational and extracurricular opportunities than Guilford can.

But the decision ultimately will be up to Guilford voters at Town Meeting, where residents will consider the school budget as well as a separate article authorizing the tuitioning of seventh- and eighth-graders to BAMS.


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Monday's meeting was meant as an informational session. Chrisco started by running through a long list of programs at BAMS including BEAMS, a full slate of free after-school and summer programs.

The after-school programs -- which range from a baby-sitting course to intramural sports to a writers' workshop -- are offered five days a week. The program includes "a healthy snack, homework help, a wide variety of clubs and activities and transportation home on the activity bus," according to BAMS literature.

Chrisco also detailed the school's sports offerings and touted its foreign-language options, which include French, Spanish, Chinese, German and Latin. The latter two languages are part of a seventh-grade introductory course.

Raphael Adamek, a technology teacher and integration specialist, told the crowd there are 100 laptops available at BAMS.

"We're constantly working to keep those up to date," he said.

He also detailed the uses of technology in classrooms. That includes student-created podcasts integrated into English classes and exploratory courses in digital music, digital imaging and flash animation available to eighth-graders.

Such offerings are possible in part because of BAMS' size; Enrollment currently tops 250. That dwarfs Guilford, which would send just 21 seventh- and eighth-graders to Brattleboro next school year if the tuitioning plan is approved.

But BAMS science teacher Matt Betz took pains to tell Guilford parents that his class sizes generally are in the teens.

"We do a lot of activities in really, really small groups," Betz said.

He sought to reassure one Guilford parent who said her daughter is shy and needs time to consider questions before answering.

"We really get to know our students well," Betz said. "We have the time to get to know them."

That happens in part through the middle school's detailed transition plans for students. One handout at Monday's meeting was a three-page transition timeline tailored to Guilford students -- a plan that will go into effect, of course, only if the tuition proposal is approved next month.

Since Guilford would be sending both seventh- and eighth-graders to BAMS for the first time, Chrisco said middle-school staff also is experienced in introducing new eighth-graders into the population.

"It doesn't take as long to integrate as you might think," she said.

Monday's meeting was not contentious; parents asked questions about scheduling, discipline and other issues. Both during the session and afterward, several parents said they favored the BAMS option.

Marianne Lawrence noted that Guilford students already eventually make their way to Brattleboro Union High School.

"I feel that BAMS is a good transition for going into the larger high school," Lawrence said.

Will Wohnus, the parent of a Guilford fourth-grader, said the BAMS presentation was "very helpful and very comprehensive."

"We as Guilford residents will be remiss in not taking advantage of the opportunities in sending our kids over there," Wohnus said.

Though the idea of closing Guilford's middle school has been proposed and defeated before, Wohnus said that's "history."

"I think the town's changing," he said.

Others remain on the fence.

Lisa Holderness said she believes students would have a good experience at either school. During the meeting, she asked BAMS administrators for a tour of that facility.

"The program sounds spectacular," Holderness said. "But, in the end, it comes down to how it feels."

Guilford Selectboard member Anne Rider attended the session and said she has several perspectives on the matter: She's a former Guilford teacher, a parent and now a grandparent.

Rider said BAMS is the right fit for Guilford's middle-schoolers.

"I think, by the time kids are in seventh and eighth grade, they're ready for a broader perspective," Rider said. "I think it would be a very positive change for this town."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311 ext. 275.