Editor’s note: This is Part 2 of a two-part series on overcrowding and undercrowding in schools. You can see Part 1 here.
By Rose Arce, CNN
Weybridge, Vermont (CNN) – The sun climbs the steely gray sky, and tiny Weybridge Elementary lights up to greet its young.
At Weybridge, four full-time teachers work with just 52 students.
Black and white cows that look like Oreo cookies sometimes give birth in the playground. The closest neighbor is a cemetery shadowed by towering maple trees.
“We like having small schools and a sense of community in a bucolic setting, but it comes at a great cost when birth rates are falling, and the cost per pupil and property taxes keep rising,” said Spencer Putnam, who runs the town meetings that decide most things in the 250-year-old town, population 800. Just a single child entered Weybridge’s kindergarten this year, and a quarter of the 52 students will graduate from this school in the spring. There just aren’t enough darn kids.
Vermont has the highest per pupil spending in the nation at $15,000, yet Weybridge spends even more than that, an eye-popping $18,000 per pupil. The national average is just under $10,000.
The cost is high because, while the number of kids at Weybridge fell by nearly half in the past six years, the school district still has to run the same size building and pay enough teachers to staff all the educational requirements.
While some U.S. schools struggle with overcrowding, Weybridge reflects a crisis facing all of Vermont. Let’s call it “under-crowding,” which is what happens when a state suffers from a declining birth rate and an exodus of young people looking for better job opportunities and lower taxes. There are not enough kids in some schools to fill all the seats, form sports teams and marching bands or give the range of ideas and diversity some teachers like in a vibrant classroom. There are so few students in some parts that their public schools are filling empty seats with paying students from China.
Dylan, 5, is the lone kindergartener at Weybridge Elementary, a towheaded little thing with probing blue eyes. His parents, Tiffany and Thaddeus, don’t want us to use the family last name because it’s pretty easy to single out any one kid in a town so small.
Dylan shares a classroom with nine kids from upper grades so his teachers have a critical mass. His classmates include his 7-year-old sister, Maddie. The 10 children in kindergarten through second grade have a full-time teacher, an assistant teacher, teachers for art, music and physical education, a librarian for story time and cooks who bake bread and serve up local produce.
“Six years ago, I had a kindergarten class of 24,” says Joy Dobson, Dylan’s teacher. “It’s challenging with so few children because the range of ideas is not as broad. When you ask a question, the life experiences are limited in a small group so one answer doesn’t naturally lead to more questions and a thought process that grows. On the other hand, every child gets listened to and has room for his voice to grow and his or her confidence to develop.”
Dobson has the luxury of getting to know each student so well that she can tell you exactly what words and numbers they have mastered at any given time.
“This is a luxury in some ways,” she says. “Though you don’t want it to get too small.”
She has to plan classes so her teaching doesn’t fly over the heads of the kindergarteners but still challenges the second-graders, who she rewards with their own desks to affirm they’ve reached a higher level.
Maddie and Dylan’s parents enjoy seeing their children in the same small setting where they were educated. They say they are thrilled by how well the teachers challenge them at their own level. To augment the limited social setting, the children have playdates and afterschool activities with peers in other communities. Maddie says she prefers her small classroom, though she sometimes wishes she could escape seeing her little brother at both home and school.
“I love everything about my small school. It’s quiet and it’s fun and the teachers are fun, and I could name every kid in the school, though I’d have to think about it a little,” she said.
Dobson asked Dylan whether he would like to have another kindergartener in his class. “Yes, because it would be more fun,” he said.
“What fun would you have?” she asked him.
Dylan points to the empty chairs around his table one by one. “I’d have a kindergartener here and one kindergartener here and one kindergartner here. One, two, three kindergarteners,” he says surrounding himself with imaginary classmates.
Dobson says Dylan is raising another challenge of such small schools.
“When you have so few kids your age to choose from, you sometimes can’t find that one true friend, that kid who is just like you, until you move up to middle or high school where you have more choices of people,” she said, before letting Dylan out to the playground where he held his own in soccer with much larger boys.
Though Weybridge employs part-time teachers and uses every empty space to offer a range of subjects, the school has so few students that they have an empty classroom for the first time ever. The Addison Central Supervisory Union, which includes Weybridge lower and upper schools, is in one of the school districts in Vermont now having community discussions on how to solve the problems created by a declining school population.
The state required the communities to discuss solutions after they resisted attempts to consolidate small schools into neighboring school districts.
“I do think that, academically, if the classes are too small, and if you consider that learning is social, then both socially and academically the capacity to learn can be compromised if you don’t have enough children,” said principal Cristina Johnson. “But what we have here is a wonderful situation where individuality is celebrated and individual needs are met, where a community forms around its children and every child can voice their thoughts and have them heard.”
Her solution to declining enrollment has been to combine grades, form partnerships with local Middlebury College, bring in speakers, go on field trips and capitalize on the benefits of an intimate learning environment.
Johnson believes the school is the heart of the community and much would be lost if it just went away. The building is the only place where the town congregates, whether for school events or community meetings. It is the town’s common experience, the glue that binds.
“If we lose this school, we really lose our sense of community as well,” she said.
Consequently, when families gathered for the past of six months of community conversations, they resolved to form working groups to address declining enrollments and rising costs so they can keep their tiny school open. The state set a deadline for October 2012 for communities to offer potential solutions, and Weybridge hopes that by having some solutions already in place so they can be ahead of the game.
But Weybridge residents at the last meeting faced graphics that showed enrollment declining every year as tax rates rose steadily and costs per pupil climbed dramatically. One man asked why they hadn’t just allowed the schools to consolidate years ago and complained about high taxes. Another woman made the crowd laugh when she rebutted that they could “shoot all the kids” and still wouldn’t solve the problem because they are required to provide services from K to 12.
There was a big vanilla cake with a drawing of the town square, and the children sang songs about the quaintness of Vermont. An art display punctuated the walls, and gallons of fresh milk and cider were passed around as children played in the halls and library. The turnout was called “big,” and maybe 60 people were in the room.
Vermont’s government traditionally rules by consensus, so people were asked to put dot stickers on posters outlining problems to show which they thought were the most pressing. Perhaps not surprisingly, the posters with the most dots talked about addressing financial issues.
Even so, the crowd dug into the cake, caught up on town gossip and pledged once again that no cost was too high to keep Weybridge and its schools a small-town experience.