RICHFORD — The best thing for students will be keeping the schools of the Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union together and making it possible for them to cooperate and collaborate even more closely, in the view of the supervisory union’s principals.
They also expressed concern over what might happen if their districts don’t merge and support for their superintendent Jay Nichols, who has drawn some criticism for his support of a proposed merger.
Educators and FNESU staff supplied numerous reasons why they thought unification of the districts was the best possible future for the supervisory union at their monthly leadership meeting on Tuesday. One of the reasons is that all students have the right to a quality education.
“At one [unification forum] in particular, I know I started to get a little upset listening to people from another town speak about the high quality of the school in their town,” Michelle Lussier, principal of Enosburg Falls Elementary School, said. “[They were] really sort of implying that kids maybe in different schools aren’t performing as high.”
“My biggest feeling at that point is all students have a right to really great instruction and really good classroom culture and really good cohesiveness,” Lussier said. “It’s the best we can offer for kids. It’s not about making sure that we have this one school separated out from the others.”
“That definition of community [is something] people seem to be struggling with a little bit,” Lynn Cota-Caforia, principal of Berkshire Elementary School, said. “Some people are looking at community as the geographical boundary of their town.”
“People at this table,” Cota-Caforia said, “we don’t look at this in terms of, ‘I’m going to be focusing on what’s best for the Berkshire kids’ at all. That’s not my job.”
Cota-Caforia said the principals focus on their entire community, which is all five towns within the supervisory union.
“The problems that we have in Franklin County,” Beth O’Brien, principal of Richford Junior Senior High School, said, “don’t end at any town line. And the resources we have don’t end at any town line.”
“If we talk about the greatest needs at my school,” O’Brien said. “Those kids have been at Enosburgh and Berkshire. I had those kids in Montgomery. They’ve been in all of these schools.”
“You celebrate the successes of kids in all of the schools as well,” O’Brien said.
“I just don’t think that there has been a real broad understanding in our communities of how cohesively our schools and teams work together,” Erik Remmers, principal of Enosburg Falls High School, said. “More so than any supervisory unions in the state.”
“That has served to improve every single one of our schools,” Remmers said. “Every single one of our facilities and student bodies… I think it’s important that people begin to understand not only what we bring to the table as individual schools, but what it could mean if towns do end up departing for whatever reason.”
“I think we’re strong,” O’Brien said. “We’re a strong team. I think all of us, the number one thing we’re concerned about is somebody moving us.”
School districts which have not joined together with other districts by 2018 risk being assigned to merge with another district by the Vermont State Board of Education.
“We’re pretty effective and we’ve worked together for a long time,” O’Brien said. “We don’t want to lose many of the resources and the alignment and the relationships that we have in place. That’s my number one concern.”
FNESU’s schools already work closely together, according to O’Brien. The proposed merger would remove “a little of the red tape to help use our resources even more effectively,” she said.
If voters reject the merger and FNESU schools are paired with schools outside the supervisory union the collaboration and cooperation they’ve built would be lost, suggested Anissa Seguin, principal of Bakersfield Elementary Middle School. “If we weren’t unified and we had to match up with other schools, we don’t know what that would be,” she said.
If schools have to adopt new curricula because they’re ordered to merge with schools outside FNESU, that would create stress for teachers, budget and students, she explained. “It does impact the student,” said Seguin.
“One thing that we’re able to do because we’re geographically close is provide our teachers with the opportunity to meet with other teachers of the same intent or grade level,” Jody Vaillancourt, co-director of instruction and learning at FNESU, said. “If we were broken apart, our teachers might not have the opportunity to meet professionally with other people as easily. And the teachers value that.”
“That totally impacts the students learning when the teachers have that support,” Seguin said. “Students reap the rewards.”
The group of educators said another benefit of unification is the new board of directors could allow a student to finish out the year at a school, even if their family moves to another town within the merged district.
The school boards can currently do this, but it can cause financial problems in school budgets.
“Enosburg Elementary School has a lot of students who move in and out through the year,” Lussier said. “I frequently feel that it would be beneficial for a student not to have to move if we were in one unified school district.”
“For example, tonight at a board meeting in Enosburgh,” Lussier said, “I’m putting a request to the board to allow a kindergarten student to finish the year out.”
“I just did that on Monday,” Sandy Alexander, principal of Montgomery Elementary School, said. “I have one that’s moved to Berkshire and one that moved to Enosburgh.”
Part of the request is asking the board to allow the students to stay without paying tuition.
“They usually won’t allow it if it’s long term,” O’Brien said. “But this close to the end of the school year, if a kid moves, they often will.”
“There’s a lot of research about the learning loss that happens when kids move,” Vaillancourt said. “Even students who are academically strong, struggle.”
“Then you have the students who are academically vulnerable, which are the students that are mobile,” Vaillancourt said. “So it’s a double whammy.”
Vaillancourt said sharing curriculum among the different schools would help the transient students keep up with their studies. The student would be able to pick up where they left off at their old school.
“Sometimes there are kids that move multiple times within the year,” Cota-Caforia, said. “We have a really transient population with well over sixty kids that have moved in or out. That’s well over 25 percent of our student population, just within this school year.”
“The research says they lose three months worth on instructional gain each time they move,” Cota-Caforia said.
“Because we’re not unified, there would be no incentive for Bakersfield to allow a child to stay in October if the family has actually moved to Enosburgh,” she said, “because they would be sustaining the cost of that child’s education.”
“If we were unified,” Cota-Caforia explained, “it would be one budget that would be covering all of those expenses.”
The group listed other possibilities under unification.
The board could hire a foreign language teacher to be shared between all of the K through 8 schools. Individually, the schools do not have the funds to hire someone for that position, Cota-Caforia said.
Same thing could be done for computer and tech support, Alexander said.
O’Brien said she would like Richford high school students to be able to access Enosburg Falls High School’s Junior ROTC program. Because of limitations on federal funding, Richford cannot start its own program, she explained.
Some principals said creating an in-house alternative program would be better for special education students and more cost effective.
Overall, the merger increases opportunities for students, the principals agreed.
“I think another benefit of the [one] budget would be being able to share some staff members between buildings,” Rachel Reynolds, principal of Enosburg Falls Middle School, said. “We can’t do that right now.”
“This actually came up recently when we were looking at English Language Learner students,” Reynolds said. “Right now, we have enough that we’re looking at a full time ELL staff at our high school, but that’s not a guarantee if those students move to Berkshire.”
“Now, Lynn needs those supports and we have a staff member who, because they are employed by our school, can’t necessarily go there and provide that help,” Reynolds said.
Under the current system, Enosburgh has to honor the contract of the staff member even if the child moves and the employee has no one to aid. In this scenario, Berkshire would have to go through a separate hiring process instead of being able to receive Enosburgh’s available employee.
“If we were a [merged district] we could share those teaching resources to where the need is in the district,” Reynolds said. “I think some other teachers feel that there’s some security with the unification. Like an ELL position, if the need disappears in the school that they started in, they could move to where that need is and not have to lose that position.”
“I’ll throw one more plug in there just because how things have gone over the last week or so,” Remmers said. “We’ve talked about the cohesiveness of this team. We’ve talked about the people and how we support our schools and all that.”
“And there’s one person who is not in this room, who’s been a huge member of this team and has helped make this cohesion and unity happen and that’s Jay Nichols,” Remmers said. “He’s been a key player for all of us.”
“Our superintendent is in our building,” Seguin said. “He’s with our teachers. Our teachers know him. It’s not just us here. They know him.”
“Jay definitely, definitely is the one who has focused more on the cohesiveness as an SU,” O’Brien said. “I think as time goes on, we’re more and more and more aligned.”
“And he always says, it’s what’s best for the children,” Alexander said.