ALBURGH — Education Secretary Dan French was at the Alburgh Community Education Center Monday as part of Governor Phil Scott’s Capitol for a Day program, an initiative that puts state government officials in communities statewide in an effort to connect with constituents outside Montpelier.

The one-hour tour introduced the career educator to the faculty, staff and students of the rural preK-8 school, which is home to 197 students, 80 percent of which come from homes below the poverty line.

The remote location also poses challenges for educators, said Principal Beth Hemingway. “Our pre-K students are coming in behind the curve in speech and language because there’s a lack of preschool and day care options, so the kids are not being socialized before coming to the school,” she said.

To help meet this challenge, Hemingway has launched an effort to secure grant funding to bring a larger pre-K facility to the property, with hopes of bridging that gap. Such challenges are not new to French, who began his teaching career in Canaan, a town of just 972 in the extreme Northeast Kingdom.

“This vibe is very real to me,” said French after the tour.  “I see a lot of inequality now in the rural K-8 schools. It’s hard to offer a 21st Century education with just 20 students.”

French said he noticed at Alburgh a common denominator among such rural schools, where every square foot of space is used in one way or another.

“Not a nook or cranny is not used,” he observed. “The other big ingredient for me is the staff. It’s challenging but crucial to recruit and retain good educators at these schools.”

French ended his tour with an illuminating take-away – literally. The kids in Ms. Beth Dobson’s Third Grade class presented the secretary with a working model of a lighthouse, complete with a switch. The kids made the model as part of a lesson on how electrical circuits work.

French said he was excited to find a place for it in his office in Montpellier.

Vermont Education Secretary Dan French visits with third grader Jeanelle Tilley Monday at Alburgh Community Education Center. (Neil Zawicki, MESSENGER STAFF)

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