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Rochester residents face school choices in January

Within the state's current public education system, many schools in less-populated areas are facing declining enrollment. Just south of The Valley, Rochester School's secondary student body is down, causing the school to question how—and if—it can continue to be a viable community resource.

This past October, Vermont School Boards Association (VSBA) consultant John Everitt presented a study titled "Options for Sustainability of the Rochester Secondary School" to the Rochester School Board. The study sought to answer two major questions: "What needs to happen in order for the secondary program to grow and attract more students?" and "If the program does not grow, what are the options for students and what are the tax consequences?"

Rochester School offers public education for students in pre-kindergarten through the 12th grade. The school's total enrollment has decreased from 250 in 2004 to 143 in 2013, and the high school program has decreased from 94 to 55 students in that same time.

While Rochester School's high school completion and post-secondary enrollment rates are in line with state averages, many of the school's high school students are scoring below state averages on statewide assessments in reading and mathematics.

In order for Rochester School's secondary program to increase its enrollment, it would have to draw additional students from outside of Rochester, Everitt's study states, and "in order to draw additional students, Rochester needs to take advantage of its small size and community strengths," Everitt writes in the report summary. "The program needs to become known as the place where students have individualized programs that focus on proficiency as the basis for graduation; technology-based instruction and assessment systems; learning opportunities designed around students' interests; and active learning with apprenticeships, internships and student-designed experiences."

The secondary program must grow, Everitt reports, for it to continue to operate. If it does not grow, he presents three options: Rochester School could close its secondary program and designate an area high school for its students, it could close its secondary program and allow families to choose the program they'd like to attend or it could establish a joint high school with one or more area high schools and develop magnet campuses, with the Rochester campus focused on the arts.

Closing Rochester School's secondary program, Everitt reports, would actually increase costs for the community by approximately $176,000 a year rather than decrease them and that estimate does not include transportation and special education costs.

At a public forum on November 18, the Rochester school board heard thoughts from the community about each of the options, and an article by Martha Slater that appeared in a November 21 issue of The Herald said the forum "was mostly a positive discussion," and that "many rose to praise the Rochester School, citing the amount of individual attention their children received."

The following issue of The Herald, however, included a letter to the editor from Kathryn Schenkman and Ed Wissner of Rochester, who said that Slater's article "did not include information shared with the public that is critical to voters," who will vote on whether or not to eliminate Rochester School's secondary program on January 14, 2014.

According to Schenkman and Wissner, that information includes the fact that, at $22,061 per student, Rochester has the highest allowable high school tuition rate in the state for FY2013, and despite its small student-to-teacher ratio (8.7 to 1), Rochester student performance is consistently below state averages on state assessments.

In their letter, Schenkman and Wissner presented a fourth option not included in Everitt's study, "which would be for the community to establish an independent town academy that could operate ... without the restrictions imposed by the Agency of Education, which often inhibit the ability of a small school with financial restraints in developing programs that meet the needs of individual students."

Everitt's report states that the "repeated turnover in leadership has played a role in the current state of the high school" and that the "public's perception of the board, through previous votes, public comments, etc. has expressed an unclear message and clouded the true mission of the board, [who are] committed to creating a more unified, positive, professional, student-centered model [and] to continue the engagement of community members and parents."

But now, it's up to residents to decide via Australian ballot on January 14 whether or not to close Rochester School's secondary program. An informational public meeting will take place the day beforehand.

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