In spite of change, Guilford school focuses on community
GUILFORD -- Statistically speaking, the tuitioning of this town's seventh- and eighth-graders to Brattleboro didn't drastically alter Guilford Central School: There are 116 students now, compared with 134 last June.
But in many other ways, the complexion of the school has changed: There are two fewer grades and a significant number of new staff members at what has become, in the words of Principal John Gagnon, a "true elementary school."
Through it all, administrators say they are striving to strengthen ties within the school and to bolster the school's ties to the community.
"Everyone's coming together to make the school whole," said Chantelle Albin, a counselor and one of the new faces at Guilford Central School.
Months of sometimes-emotional debate preceded a majority vote at Town Meeting in March to send Guilford's seventh and eighth-graders to Brattleboro Area Middle School starting this fall.
Proponents cited declining enrollment in Guilford and said those students could benefit from more educational, extracurricular and social opportunities in Brattleboro.
So far, transition reports from BAMS -- and from parents of Guilford students who now attend the larger school -- have been positive.
But, three months into the new school year, Guilford administrators also have much news to report. And they emphasize that the school has not been left behind in this year's transition.
For Gagnon, it has been a "revisioning, or rebirthing."
First, he notes that the departure of middle school students and staff has not left any empty space at Guilford Central School.
"What it boils down to is, there were two rooms that were part of the middle school," Gagnon said. "And, at present, they're being used as multipurpose rooms. They're used for everything from small-group instruction to drumming workshops."
Voids in the workforce -- created both by retirements and the departure of middle school staff -- also have been filled with new faces, Gagnon said.
"We had nine new staff members joining us this year." he said. "About a third of our professional staff is new. So we've got a lot of new energy, new ideas, new people in our community. And we started preparing for that in June."
At a gathering in August before the new school year began, the theme was "building community." The goal was to combine new educational standards with place-based education, "which means using local resources -- using Guilford as the classroom," Gagnon said.
There had been fears that, by eliminating the town's middle school programming, those "place-based" elements of Guilford's curriculum might be reduced or lost.
Gagnon said that has not been the case.
"We are continuing that," he said. "And I think it's even getting stronger."
For example, Guilford sixth-graders have continued the former middle school's Farm to School Program.
Related field trips this year have included a visit to Brattleboro's farmers market. And, throughout the year, students will help run a Food Connects buying club "set up to bring fresh, affordable, local products to communities," a staff member said.
Future plans include participation in a Junior Iron Chef program; tapping local sugar maples and boiling sap on school grounds; and preparing a graduation supper.
Separate from Farm to School efforts, sixth-grade students have been working to collect nonperishable foods.
"Our food is being delivered down to the grange, where the food pantry is held," Albin said. "The food drive is really helpful, and it's really needed."
With the departure of middle-schoolers, sixth-grade students are the oldest in Guilford's hallways. And with the Farm to School program, the food drive and many other activities, the school's staff has worked to instill a sense of responsibility in that class.
That starts with a new leadership council that has gained the participation of 15 sixth-graders. Those kids have taken an active role in promoting school themes each month: For instance, October's theme was "respect," followed by "sharing" in November and "caring" this month.
The school's mascot is an eagle, so students get feathers to show their participation in those themes.
"Our leadership group goes into classrooms every month and reads a children's book with the theme of the month related to it," Albin said. "It was a new program for them. They did a little bit at the end of school last year, but we really changed it and extended it and really included the leadership group to be the head of this program."
The leadership group also helped promote an anti-bullying program in October by taking to the school's intercom system to read bullying facts. Those stuck with Stuart Holderness, a Guilford sixth-grader.
"A lot of the facts, I was really surprised by. A lot of kids drop out of school (due to bullying), and that was really surprising," the 11-year-old said.
He is a member of the leadership group and said such duties come with being the school's upperclassmen.
"We're the oldest kids. We should kind of make a stand and do things for the community," Holderness said. "We're showing that we can do things to help."
Of course, it's not just the sixth-graders who are busy at Guilford Central School. Some examples:
-- Fifth-grade students are coordinating a recycling program.
"They're taking on the task of making sure we are recycling as much as possible in the school. So they're doing a public-service campaign, and they're going and working with the custodians," Gagnon said. "It's a big, big job, and they're very enthusiastic about it."
-- Students have been involved in many outdoor activities, including a running program and gardening on school grounds.
Third-grader Alex Baker has been a part of both activities.
"I think it was a couple months ago we did some weeding in the garden," the 8-year-old said. "We planted garlic and oats. The second-graders helped. And we're thinking of planting squash and pumpkins in the springtime."
-- The arts also are a big part of Guilford's educational programs. Sixth-graders are working on a community mural that's scheduled for completion by Town Meeting, and fifth-graders worked on a sculpture project.
Gagnon said a member of the community visits the school daily to read a poem over the intercom. And on Fridays in October, all students had some training in the percussive arts.
"We secured a grant through the Vermont Arts Council to have Todd Roach come in and do drumming workshops," Gagnon said.
What it all adds up to, Guilford administrators hope, is a school community that has remained strong in spite of some big changes. It is a work in progress, but Gagnon likes what he sees so far.
"I would say it's been a great start to the school year," he said. "Lots of enthusiasm. There are lots of really great things happening in this school."
Mike Faher can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
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