Letter, Opinion

Ludlow to launch Black River Independent School

Dear Editor,

The time is now for our Black River community. We are ready to make a big move.

You have been hearing from us for three years now, in some form, about our mission to open an independent school in Ludlow, to serve any area student, tuition-free. A school whose independent status will allow full local control. A school whose vision and mission arise directly from our community, from its character and needs. One that is not another attempt to cut-and-paste a large urban high school onto our rural mountain town.

In the past year, you’ve seen a concrete vision for what this school could be. Six pillars. 75 students, and in future years, perhaps 150 or 200. A school where “personalized learning,” “vocational education,” and “environmental commitment ” are not just buzzwords. Where a student, with the support of their family, has true freedom to learn based on their passions. To look towards a career that excites them. To count on a truly diverse and well-rounded education that will prepare them to live the lives they want, and to lead, whether here in Ludlow, or anywhere in the world.

That vision is the same. That’s where we are headed, as long as our community supports it.

Over the past month we’ve been zeroing in, with laser focus, on how that vision will begin in August 2020. We’ve taken input from our local representatives, from the very helpful contacts that we’ve developed at the Vermont Agency of Education, from specialized fundraising and legal consultants, and from a few of our best candidates for Head of School, who we’ve recently been interviewing. The message we’ve received has been clear: with a big vision, it’s always better to start small. It’s better to create what you want to see at a scale where you feel confident of success, and grow it into the future.

The coming school year will be our pilot program. We’ll start with 14 students and two faculty, including our Head of School, supported by one business manager, and, of course, our 100% volunteer board of trustees. This will be done on a budget of just $200,000. We’ll be sharing that budget in the next few weeks. You’ll find that, compared to the district budgets we all review and vote on every year, ours is quite short and easy to understand. That’s because at a small scale, things are simple, and overhead is reduced — especially administrative overhead. In fact, our per-pupil cost will be just $14,294 dollars — about 15% lower than local districts.

In this pilot year, we’ll be doing this without public tax dollars. For the first year of operation, our goal is to preserve as much local control as possible. The state of Vermont’s process for public funding for independent schools, where town tax dollars are channeled on a per-pupil basis to that pupil’s school of choice, involves significant oversight by the state. We believe that if we come to that process with an established school, with a strong record of success and with parents and a community behind it, we will come through with our vision still intact. We expect to do that as early as next year.

That means that for 2020-21, the Black River Independent School will be funded on a 100% donation basis. We need our community behind us to make this happen. We’ll be asking our major donors not how much they can give, but how many students they can fund — $14,494 each. If that’s you, we’d like to hear from you, and you can expect to hear from us. For those of more modest means, we ask that you do whatever you can. We are intensely aware that this is a time of great economic uncertainty. If you are unsure of what the next month brings, we ask that you think about the following month. If you are not ready in the summer, we will be here in the fall.

We are already over a third of the way there, having raised $79,000 so far. Our goal is to hit $200,000 by the end of 2020. But to open the doors in August, we need to make significant progress in the next three months. We will not invite students to begin their school year at a school that is not on solid financial footing: if we have not made significant progress towards our goal by the end of June, such that we feel confident about reaching our goal, we will not open in August.

We are sure our towns can do this. If every one of the 3,200 full-time residents of Ludlow and Mount Holly contributed $64, we’d be there. If 14 generous donors, individuals or families, who love our towns and can support a vision that will help ensure their viability as genuine communities, where families can live and succeed, supported one student each… we’d be there.

We need your help, whatever your means. The 14 students who will commit to this pilot year will be brave pioneers. They deserve your support, and your belief in them. But it’s not just about them. Their success this year will set the stage for this pilot program to be scaled up in subsequent years, thanks to Vermont’s generous and innovative system of public funding for independent schools.

It has to start somewhere, and it’s starting now. If you have questions or input, please contact any one of our trustees, who are carrying this vision forward until the Head of School begins work early this summer. You can also respond to this email. We will be contacting students who have already enrolled on our website to discuss how this new vision can include you.

The Black River Independent School Board of Trustees:

Sean Williams, Chair

Pat Pullinen, Vice-Chair

Marissa Selleck, Secretary

Kristen Garvey, interim Treasurer

Melissa Perrino, Trustee

Suzy Buckley, Trustee

John Bannon, Trustee

Julie Abraham, Trustee

Summers Williams, Trustee

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