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DUMMERSTON — The tent the Dummerston Congregational Church uses for its annual Apple Pie Festival is getting a new use this year — as an outdoor classroom for Dummerston School.

"Volunteers, including church deacons and former Dummerston School grads who went to the original schoolhouse, came here to erect the tent," said Principal Julianne Eagan. "It's such an incredible show of love for Dummerston School students who will be using the tent as an outdoor learning space."

"I got married under that tent," said Keri Newton, who, when she learned the Congregational Church wasn't holding the pie festival this year due to COVID-19, figured maybe the school could use it this fall. "So many things have happened under the tent and now here's another thing."

Before the tent was gifted to the Congregational Church, it belonged to the town's fire department.

"When you grow up in Dummerston," said Newton, "the tent is something you always remember, whether it was for the fire department's annual auction or the Apple Pie Festival. This tent has always brought people together."

And in the spirit of a Quaker barn raising, the community came together to erect the tent at Dummerston School, said Newton.

"It was great," she said. "When the community comes together to take care of each other, it's a beautiful thing."

"This is a big tent," said Eagan. "It's such a beautiful gesture for the children of Dummerston and for the school staff."

The tent has been outfitted with picnic tables donated by Perkins in West Chesterfield, N.H.

Even before COVID, said Eagan there has been a lot of interest in both the community and with the teachers to expand the nature-based curriculum. Dummerston School already presents outdoor education with help from the Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center and the Dummerston Conservation Commission.

"There has been real excitement and interest in thinking about our outdoor learning environment and our outdoor play space," said Eagan.

Parents were also interested in learning how the forest around the school can be utilized for education and recreation.

Lance Neeper, who is raising two youngsters in town, said he started talking earlier this year with Egan and the teachers about ways to increase outdoor activity at the school."I took a walk through the forest and noticed this old trail," he said. He thought it might be a good resource for the kids to use for physical activity and to gain access to the forest. But it needed a little work first.

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"It was steep," said Neeper. "We wanted to make it as accessible to as many ages and abilities as possible."

Neeper got in touch with the Brattleboro-Keene chapter of the New England Mountain Biking Association who put him in touch with Curtis Fanti, who has designed kid friendly trails in Keene.

"Lance quietly worked with other parents on fundraising to pay Curtis to design the trails," said Egan.

Once the design was completed, Neeper rallied a crew, which cleared and dug out the trail by hand.

"This trail does not get built without the volunteers," said Neeper.

"People were still in survival mode but a group of parents were meeting over the summer on this stuff," said Eagan, who is starting her second year as principal. "It is really touching, thinking about how the pandemic has in some ways separated us, but has also united us. The trail and the tent are really neat examples of people doing things for their kids in Dummerston."

While Neeper and Newton, who are both members of the Dummerston School Leadership Council, were working behind the scenes, teachers and administrators were working on plans to reopen the school in the fall. Leadership Councils were established during last year's merger process to enable community input during school board deliberations and are advisory only. The Dummerston Leadership Council is made up of Eagan, Newton, Neeper, Lilly DePino, Rick Mills, Maeve Jenks, Erica Garnett, Heidi White Gale, Tammy McNamara and Carmen Manchester.

"This has truly been a summer like no other," said Eagan.

Dummerston School is offering two options for its students when it re-opens today — totally remote and two days of in-person classes with three days conducted remotely. Eagan said about three-quarters of the families will be participating in the hybrid model, with 125 kids in classes. Each cohort will be split in two, so only half the students will be in the building, or in the tent, at any one time.

Dummerston School is working with other schools in the district to offer the remote offerings, so those students might actually find themselves in a cohort that includes students and teachers from Oak Grove School or Green Street School in Brattleboro, said Egan.

"We have a strong supervisory union," said Egan. "An effort like this takes a huge amount of collaboration."

People who helped out on the trail included Dustin Manix, Joe Newton, Lenny Giordano, Jared Clark and Allen Gallup. People who helped erect the tent included Sam Farwell, Gordon Evans, Randy Hickin, Joe Newton, Dustin Manix, Henry Scott, Rick Mills, Sadie Mills and Lenny Giordano.Bob Audette can be contacted at raudette@reformer.com.