WINDHAM — A vote to close Windham Elementary School and give families school choice for elementary education is being met with strong opposition by some community members.
School Board Vice Chairwoman and State Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham-3, said she is concerned about children who are thriving in the school and how they might be affected by new transportation needs if they have to go elsewhere. She expressed frustration because community members now find themselves having to defend the school and its programs.
“People who know little or nothing about the school make judgments about the school and somehow they are regarded as experts,” she said. “Have there been students who have struggled for a variety of reasons including their family situations? Yes, but ultimately they succeeded.”
A vote was scheduled for Sept. 7 after the School Board received a petition with 38 signatures of Windham residents.
The petition called for a vote to close the elementary school starting June 30, adopt school choice for grades K-6 and authorize the board to provide for the elementary education of students by paying tuition. If the article passes, a second vote would determine whether to grant the board authority to pay tuition rates of an independent elementary school or an independent school before April 15 for the next academic year.
Partridge worries that a future board could approve a very high tuition rate if someone wants their child to go to a special school. Windham is part of Windham Central Supervisory Union, she said, “and we meet all of the curriculum and testing requirements other schools do.”
“We offer things that other schools don’t including ukulele lessons for any child that wants to learn to play, ceramics, blacksmithing, nature club and the Farm School, just to mention a few,” she said.
Partridge said Windham has the second lowest tax rate in the supervisory union, coming behind only Stratton. Because Windham has its own school district, she added, “we have more control over our spending.”
The expense of education in town had been a concern among some petition supporters.
“Although small rural schools throughout the state have suffered because of the current funding formula, the Vermont Legislature is in the process of changing the formula so that small rural schools are reimbursed fairly for the cost of educating their students,” John Beagan of Jamaica, who taught English and math at Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School for 25 years, wrote in a letter to the editor.
Beagan said many of his “most academically and socially successful students” graduated from Windham Elementary.
“Two recent class valedictorians were WES graduates, and many members of the high school drama group, the L&G Players, and many outstanding athletes were from Windham,” he wrote. “My experience over many years with students coming from the Windham Elementary School was that they were well-prepared academically, polite, and well-adjusted socially.”
Regarding another concern raised among petition supporters about the state not issuing a report on where Windham students fall academically compared with students at other schools, Beagan said the Vermont Agency of Education shares the results of standardized testing to parents, the School Board and WCSU. He noted confidentiality laws prohibit publicly releasing the results because of the small number of students in each class.
“I really think it’s a mistake to focus on what schools in the West River Valley offer instead of focusing on what the Windham school has to offer,” he said in an interview. “It’s pointing the focus in the wrong direction.”
An informational meeting is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 28, at the school. Projected budgets will be shown to reflect how the vote either way would affect education expenses incurred by the town.
“This feels like an unfair time for people to be making that decision,” said State Rep. Michelle Bos-Lun, D-Windham-4.
Bos-Lun lives in Westminster and her grandchild has attended Windham Elementary for three years. She said during the pandemic, enrollment shrunk but the school still offered amazing programs.
Last year, eight students were enrolled in the school. As of Wednesday, Superintendent Bill Anton anticipates the number to reach 17 next year.
Partridge blamed last year’s low numbers on the pandemic.
“Now, there’s a big influx,” she said. “But the teachers are prepared.”
Bos-Lun disputed characterizations that art programming is lacking in the school, citing a visit from a Broadway performer who helped the students create a musical as one example.
“What school in Windham County does that?” she said. “It’s an exceptional opportunity to send your child to a place where they’re going to have so many choices, so many options and get so much individual attention.”
Bos-Lun said she believes Windham Elementary can provide unique programming due to its small size. Before the pandemic, students went to Meadows Bee Farm once a week for experiential learning.
“They helped with eggs, veggies and other things,” Bos-Lun said. “Even after COVID, people from the farm came to do projects at the school.”
Bos-Lun volunteers at the school and drives her granddaughter to school sometimes. She said her granddaughter just finished second grade and had “very positive experiences” with her teachers.
“I don’t want to say a bigger school can’t do the nurturing they do but generally speaking, they are really strong on that,” said Bos-Lun’s husband, Ron, who teaches middle school at Compass School in Westminster.
Ron Bos-Lun applauded Windham Elementary for navigating the pandemic “smartly and well,” opening four days a week and five days a week to ensure it was meeting the social emotional needs of students.
Kathleen Scott, treasurer for the town and school district, described being an avid supporter of the school remaining open regardless of current enrollment numbers. Windham Elementary “provides a warm, family-like, age-appropriate educational environment where every child’s personality is valued,” she wrote in a letter to the editor. “Most importantly, teaching the joy of learning leads the way, which is the most critical offering for any youngster.”
Like others who were interviewed, Scott worries about how transportation to schools outside of Windham could affect children and families. She suggested taking some time after the pandemic to “breathe, see and feel, what a return to normalcy looks like.”
Attempts to reach parents said to be opposed to the vote for school choice were unsuccessful.