Taking notes at Wednesday night’s forum on education in the Brattleboro Town School District.(Howard Weiss-Tisman/Reformer)
Taking notes at Wednesday night's forum on education in the Brattleboro Town School District. (Howard Weiss-Tisman/Reformer)

BRATTLEBORO -- About 60 people came out to a public forum Wednesday night hosted by the Brattleboro Town School Board on the future of education in town.

The forum was the first, in what school board members say will be an ongoing discussion on how the town's three elementary schools can better serve students and families in a climate of rising expectations and shrinking budgets.

"I was very happy with the level of discussion we got tonight," Brattleboro School Board member David Schoales said after the event, which was held at Academy School and ran almost two hours. "I think we got a lot of good ideas going tonight and it was a great starting off point for more discussions."

Schoales said the school board has been thinking about organizing an open discussion on education policy and budgeting since last Town Meeting, when the board spent more than two hours defending its budget, which ultimately passed by less than 10 votes.

The principals from all three elementary schools attended along with Windham Southeast Superintendent Ron Stahley and all five board members.

A cross section of parents, community members and school staff took part in the talk.

The forum Wednesday was entitled Learning in the 21st Century, and it opened with the attendees watching a video, "Changing Education Paradigms," by Ken Robinson.

In the video Robinson argues that America's school system was set up to train workers for an industrial society that no longer exists, and he said the schools have become places where creativity was discouraged and not cultivated.

Following the video the audience broke up into small groups and many of the speakers who gave presentations talked about the many challenges facing schools today.

Issues ranging from drug and alcohol abuse, poverty, hunger, video games and screen time and violence in the culture, are all addressed by teachers and school administrators on a daily basis.

It is hard, many of the speakers said, to move the schools forward with so many obstacles.

After the groups reacted to the video the school board asked the crowd to break into three large groups to talk about what was working in the schools, what was not working, and what issues the school board should focus on with a very limited budget at their disposal.

The Brattleboro schools do a very good job of creating an open and caring climate that builds strong bonds among families, students and school staff, the group discussing what was working said.

There is a focus on the arts and after-school programs, and there seemed to be a general understanding that the district was stretching its pennies in opening opportunities to students.

The group that looked at was not working said there was too much focus on standardized tests, which they say sap the energy and creativity out of the classroom.

The assessments, they said, are given at the expense of science, critical thinking, civics, and history, and they said a greater effort should be made to introduce experiential learning, multi-age classes and more integrated learning between the subjects.

The final presentation was given by the groups that thought about the budget realities.

School Board member Mark Truhan said it was important for school community members to talk up the schools and make sure Town Meeting Representatives understand the challenges, successes and budget realities the school board members face.

But not all of the debate over moving the schools forward have to do with raising more money, parent and State Rep. Tristan Toleno said.

Toleno said Brattleboro is a rich community with many talented and gifted residents. He said the schools could focus on strengthening the connections with the community, and bring people in, and the students out into their town.

After the discussion Wednesday, Schoales said the board was going to look at the ideas presented and try to organize more opportunities to open the discussion up about how the schools can better prepare students for a changing world.

"Before we offer any big changes we want to hear from people about what the want," Schoales said. "We want to find out their values and get a clear vision about what this community wants their schools to look like. This is just a start."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at hwtisman@reformer.com; or 802-254-2311, ext. 279. You can follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.