Vermont superintendent says low enrollment can't be ignored
By DAVID DELCORE
Jan. 08, 2018
CALAIS, Vt. (AP) — Three: That is the number of kindergartners expected to attend Calais Elementary School when August rolls around.
It's why the School Board has been wrestling with what to do about an undersized class of undersized students, and why members at least briefly considered exploring a limited alliance with their counterparts in neighboring East Montpelier.
A meeting between the two boards to discuss the possibility of kindergartners from Calais attending East Montpelier Elementary School in the fall was scratched at the last minute last week.
Superintendent Bill Kimball said the abrupt cancellation occurred after school officials consulted with parents of the incoming kindergartners. Those parents, he said, expressed a strong preference that their children — all preschoolers at Calais Elementary School — stay put.
Rather than "rush" an idea without parental support, Kimball said board members agreed to defer the discussion and pursue an alternative that would create a multi-age classroom for incoming kindergartners and first-graders in the fall.
Barring an influx or exodus of children in those two grades in the next few months, that combined class will have nine students. There is only six children enrolled Calais' kindergarten this year.
That figure is expected to drop to three in August even as this year's 24 sixth-graders make the move to U-32 Middle & High School.
Three in, 24 out. The result?
Enrollment at Calais' pre-K-6 school will likely drop from 110 students to 92. That number would dip to 84 the following year, according to administrative projections based on preschool enrollment.
Declining enrollment isn't a new development, and it certainly isn't unique to Calais, but the numbers there and in neighboring Worcester are one of the reasons Kimball is calling for a broader conversation in the five-town, six-school Washington Central Supervisory Union.
Kimball delivered that message in a three-page letter to board members responsible for elementary schools in Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Middlesex and Worcester, as well as jointly owned U-32 Middle & High School, last month. He reiterated it last week to members of the U-32 board.
Inspired by a question posed by a Worcester board member who wondered how much money it would take to make "good" local schools "great," Kimball concluded the obstacle to that transformation isn't financial.
"It's not that we need a bunch more money," he said told the U-32 board. "It's that we need to change some of our structures and we need to find some flexibility."
Kimball pointed to the then-pending meeting between school boards in Calais and East Montpelier as a positive sign, while acknowledging structural change would be a sensitive subject, as it was during a frequently contentious two-year response to a law — Act 46 — that encourages, incentivizes and could eventually compel school district mergers.
"I know that talking about consolidation is not a popular thing to do," Kimball said before being cut off by School Director Scott Thompson.
"The problem is, it's been too popular," said Thompson, who represents Calais on the U-32 board and was the primary author of a report asking the state Board of Education to allow Washington Central to retain its multi-board governance structure.
Others on the board agreed no matter what the state decides with respect to the pending request, school officials from all five towns and U-32 need to collectively confront some of the challenges cited in Kimball's letter. Declining enrollment, and how that effects the quality of education, is one of them. School finances are another. The other two involve putting teachers in the best position to successfully do their jobs.
Kimball argued requiring a shrinking number of staff to take on increased responsibilities due to budget cuts isn't the answer and doing nothing won't improve uneven performance data that can be tracked back 20 years.
"We can keep doing what we're doing and that's OK, but don't expect different results," he said.
Kimball said he has some ideas, but no "presupposed solutions" and believes all of the Washington Central boards should engage in a collective discussion of education from pre-K through graduation.
"I believe the only way we are going to solve these issues is to look at the data together, review what best practice research is telling us improves learning and then determine how we apply it to our collective context," he said.
U-32 board members agreed the supervisory union's executive committee should create the framework for that process.