Tuesday October 16, 2012

GUILFORD -- A group of teachers laid out a case for keeping seventh- and eighth-grade pupils in Guilford, citing a "place-based" curriculum and a close relationship between staff and students.

The presentation came Monday evening as the Guilford Town School Board scheduled a special Nov. 19 meeting to set the stage for a possible town meeting vote on whether those students should go to Brattleboro Area Middle School.

At stake are a handful of Guilford Central School jobs and a possible major shift for the future of education in Guilford.

"It is a very big issue for this town," said board member Penny Lussier.

School officials have discussed "tuitioning" Guilford’s seventh- and eighth-grade students to BAMS before, and the idea was rejected -- in part because the costs of doing so were deemed prohibitive.

But declining enrollment has led the board to reconsider the matter. There currently are just 28 total students in those grades.

Estimates show it would cost an additional $18,500 to send students to BAMS, and officials are hoping to bring that number down in the coming months.

"The board has stated that they would like this to become cost-neutral," Principal John Gagnon said.

That would allow officials to focus solely on which school provides the best overall educational experience. But that’s a complicated question, as both officials and parents acknowledged during a lengthy discussion Monday.

"This is such a hard issue, because every single middle-schooler is an individual," said board member Tara Henry.

On one hand, the much larger Brattleboro Area Middle School is able to offer more student activities, more after-school and summer programs and -- most importantly for some students -- a larger social environment.

Small-group dynamics are not the best situation for everyone, said Guilford parent Lisa Ford.

"There are a lot of kids who have already moved outside of Guilford because of that," Ford said.

Guilford’s middle school teachers, however, offered a slide presentation detailing ways students benefit from those small groups. Teacher Jennifer Kramer discussed the "development of close relationships between staff and students in a small, nurturing environment."

Kramer focused on what she called "place-based" projects that foster a connection to the community. Sixth-graders, for example, engaged in activities such as visiting local farms, harvesting produce and developing cooking skills as part of a farm-to-school program.

Guilford’s seventh-graders dove into a community history project that involved working with Guilford Historical Society to preserve old photos, researching those photos and then uploading them to the University of Vermont’s digital archives.

"That’s been a wonderful project and evidence of our collaboration with community organizations," Kramer said.

Also, the school’s eighth-graders produce the Guilford Gazette, a community newspaper.

Wrapping up her presentation, Kramer quoted a study that warned of lower academic performance and insignificant cost savings when switching students to regional middle schools.

She also highlighted an article saying officials in Pittsburgh, Pa., have been shutting middle schools and merging students into elementary schools.

These are "some things to think about as we consider what’s best for the students of Guilford," Kramer said.

Lussier, though, said the teachers’ cited study is "a little deceiving" because it referred to urban schools.

"I couldn’t find any research done on our size school," she said.

Lussier also wondered about the long-term financial viability of keeping older students in Guilford. Though some programs are sustained by donations, she said, "what happens when someone doesn’t donate to you?"

Parents discussed a variety of other factors including safety, the availability of sports programs and accessibility of school staff. One described herself as "truly torn" by the debate.

The next step in that debate will come at 6 p.m. Nov. 19 at Guilford Central School’s gym. That’s a special town school district meeting at which voters will decide whether the school issue can be considered via Australian ballot at Town Meeting in March.

Guilford board members expect to spend the next few months preparing two budgets for the 2013-14 school year -- one with seventh- and eighth-graders in Guilford and one with those students at BAMS.

If all goes according to plan, Guilford residents will choose between those budgets in March. The decision won’t be taken lightly.

"Once you send our kids (to BAMS), it’s gone," parent Nancy Lynde said of the town’s middle school. "It won’t come back."

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