by Matthew Strong
You can hear the pride and excitement in Headmaster Tom Martin’s voice over the phone. He is proud of his staff of teachers, and excited about what the community, the school, and the children have accomplished. The newly independent Village School of North Bennington (VSNB) is now more than halfway through their first year separated from the state’s public school system, and while it has not been easy, so far things are going well according to Martin.
“We have two more kids than last year, two less staff members, better programs, and an overall savings of right around $200,000” said Martin in a phone interview.
In looking at the timeline for the change that occurred in North Bennington, a theme emerges from state officials, and is summed up in a quote from Education Secretary Armando Vilaseca, “I am opposed to closing down a public school and opening up an independent school in its place,” he said in an interview with VT Digger.
This is all happening at a critical time in Vermont. Legislators are looking at possible education funding reform in this session. Education officials and experts met over the summer in Montpelier as part of a study committee for lawmakers, and the report on the study was released on Dec. 16th. One of the issues is a growing trend of towns in the state choosing to convert their local public school into an independent school, which still receives tax payer funds but are not required to meet certain state standards, with North Bennington being the most recent example.
The VT state Constitution only references public schools once, and almost as an afterthought. Under General Provisions, sandwiched between “laws to encourage virtue and prevent vice” and “religious activities”, it is stated this way: “and a competent number of schools ought to be maintained in each town unless the general assembly permits other provisions for the convenient instruction of youth.” VT state law currently requires the department of education to approve of what happened in North Bennington and the outgoing Secretary of Education had the following recommendations in his report for lawmakers (which did not reflect the views of the rest of the study committee members):
“1. Forbid privatization of a public school. This will require state legislation.
2. Require independent schools that accept publicly funded tuition students to offer free and reduced lunch. This would require legislation.
3. Recommend repealing statutory provisions that allow the electorate to approve payments of higher tuition rates to approved independent schools by amending Title 16 § 823(b) and 824(c).
4. Recommend amending Title 16 § 828 so that public tuition paid to privatized schools that have publicly funded enrollments of 25 percent or more is paid only to those privatized schools that:
- a. provide ALL services public schools are required to provide.
- b. meet ALL federal guidelines public schools are required to meet
- c. have an action plan for a “safe” environment and school crisis planning, and;
- d. participate in USDOE Adequate Yearly Progress determinations.
5. Amend State Board Rule to delineate between independent schools that serve the general population vs. schools designated to serve a specific population (ie. special education disability category or other specialty such as training for athletic competition.)
6. Amend State Board Rule to require that independent schools which are accepting publicly funded students for general education are approved for all special education disability categories, even if they do not currently have enrolled students in each category.”
This last point was mentioned many times by state officials throughout the study committee process. When asked about the state’s concern regarding special education in independent schools, Headmaster Martin responded with the following statement in an email, “This is undoubtedly the area of greatest misunderstanding and misinformation. At times it appears that the misinformation being advanced is intentional. As an independent town academy, we serve ALL the children of the North Bennington Graded School District without exception. All of the special needs children who attended our public school last year have returned and are being served by the independent school this year. We provided a comprehensive Special Education program including instructional services provided by a certified special education teacher, speech and language services provided by a licensed SLP, evaluation services, and Occupational and Physical Therapy. Those of us involved in this process from the onset were very outspoken in our assertion that we would not participate in this process if it were to result in some form of denial of services to special needs children. We are deeply offended by those who continue to imply that we supported this initiative as some clever ruse to begin denying services to children with special needs. “
VSNB has wasted no time in taking advantage of the independence. “We have begun a Foreign Language program for our students in grades K-6 through a joint program with Bennington College, thanks to a couple of very supportive professors at the college (one of whom is a parent for us). We now have advanced language students coming into the school weekly doing language instruction in all our classes. It has been a ‘win – win’ as the experience has been wonderful for the college students as they are able to use their advanced language skills in a non-traditional way while at the same time our kids are receiving the benefit of exposure to foreign language at a very early and as the research has shown, very effective time in their school experience. Due to the requirements for a ‘unified’ curriculum as the Supervisory Union level, it would have been unthinkable to do this a year ago.
We are also part of the “1:1 Initiative” that provides computer access via a tablet (for us IPADS) for every child. Beyond the 1:1 initiative, we have made vast improvements to our technology program that, again due to the structure of the Supervisory Union, would not have been possible a year ago” said Martin in regards to changes within the school.
Unfortunately for the taxpayers in North Bennington, the savings achieved this year are not being passed along to them. The supervisory union is still requiring payment from the district, even though most of their services are no longer needed. So, rather than reducing their staff and bureaucracy proportionally, the supervisory union has made it known in the other districts they will raise the funds from the smaller number of districts if they vote to let North Bennington reduce their assessment (property taxes to fund the supervisory union).
The most recent testing (New England Common Assessment Program’s test from last spring) put North Bennington in the top ten schools in the state according to the scores. 80% of the fourth-graders tested last year were proficient in science at a fourth grade level. By comparison, their neighbor, Bennington elementary’s fourth-graders were assessed at 22% proficient on the same test. In the future, VSNB will still be required to participate in the NECAP assessments, but will not have to make their scores public if they do not wish to, said Martin. And, all other assessments will now be voluntary, including the new Common Core State Standards.
It is clear Headmaster Martin is proud of what they have accomplished and is looking to the future.
“Our staff has always been somewhat non-traditional in their views and approach to teaching and learning. My sense is that as we move beyond the issues of setting our school up, the values and beliefs that characterize this staff will truly begin to blossom under the light of independence. “