The Mountain Times

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Rochester pondering school options

ROCHESTER - Rochester residents will meet at the high school library next Monday to discuss the future of the town's school system. A non-binding referendum on the school's future will be held the following day.
Jolanta Labejsza, who chairs Rochester's school board, said the purpose of the meeting would be to answer questions and clear up misperceptions.
"The meeting is open to anyone interested in the future of the school," she said. "There is a lot of misconception about how dissolution (of the Windsor Northwest Supervisory Union) will affect different towns."
The Vermont State Board of Education is pondering whether to dissolve the Windsor Northwest Supervisory Union, which covers six towns in the White River Valley and includes Rochester. School administrators in the supervisory union proposed dissolving it last year; opponents claim that the costs associated with this proposal haven't been fully considered. A vote had been scheduled for last month, but has been postponed until June.
Labejsza said she wanted people to know that, no matter what the state board decides, the consequences will take a long time to be felt.
"We still don't know how it will affect the school," she said. "But even if the supervisory union is dissolved, it will take a couple of years to take effect. We're probably looking at 2016."
Like other towns in Vermont, Rochester has been struggling with low enrollment: out of 143 students total, only 55 are in high school. The school board asked John Everitt, a consultant with the Vermont School Board Association, to study the high school question and present recommendations. In his 22-page report, Everitt noted the tumult caused by rapid changes in the school system, including a new high school principal.
"Recently, the high turnover in school leadership has translated to concern about the academic program," Everitt wrote. "This concern, combined with declining enrollment, resulted in area families outside of Rochester, choosing to send their children to schools other than Rochester. The draw of larger schools with a variety of opportunities is stiff competition."
Closing the school, Labejsza said, would mean sending Rochester's students to as many as 10 other schools in the area.
"There would be increased transportation costs," she said.
One choice would be for Rochester to try to compete for more students.
"In order to draw additional students, Rochester needs to take advantage of its small size and community strengths," Everitt wrote. He recommended a focus on individualized learning, technology-based instruction and evaluation; designing learning to fit students' interests; and hands-on learning through apprenticeships and internships.
"Such a program would be different from other area high school programs and would have the potential to draw students from beyond the valley," he wrote.
Everitt said there were three choices if the school did not grow: find them a new high school; become partners with other high schools and higher education programs to create a new magnet school; and let the families choose the schools for their children.
"A lot of people have questions about the cost," Labejsza said. "The school board has to offer the best value for the taxpayer dollar."
Everitt also advised re-evaluating the school's mission.
"With declining enrollment and increasing financial pressures, continuing to offer a traditional high school program will not be possible," he wrote. "Most staff positions would need to be reduced to part-time and the program will draw fewer students rather than more. Partnerships with higher education, businesses, and the community will require a very different program mission."
Rochester could try to go it alone, but Everitt wrote, "The Vermont State Board of Education has been looking to make larger supervisory unions and would not make Rochester a single supervisory district."
"Small schools can't continue as they have," said Labejsza. "They have to become something different."
The meeting takes place from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the Rochester High School Library on Monday, Jan. 13. Everitt's full report can be read at www.rochesterschool.org.
Stephen Seitz is a freelance reporter for The Mountain Times. He can be reached directly at saseitz@comcast.net.