Declining Enrollment, Part 3: What Happens When A Town Closes Its School
Vermont's schools are not just small — around 21 percent would be considered "micro-schools," according to Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe. And Granville’s was not your typical small school. When it closed six years ago, it was one of the only remaining one-room schoolhouses in Vermont.
Despite that unique history, the experience of parents and other residents illustrates the challenges and opportunities facing a community when a school closes.
School buses still stop in Granville. But these days, they come from more distant places, including Rochester, further south on Route 100 and Middlebury, 25 miles away over a mountain pass.
The decision to close
One afternoon as he waited for the bus carrying his daughter, Theodore Smith acknowledged a common sentiment about Granville’s now defunct school.
“It should have been kept open, but they don’t have enough to keep it going,” Smith said.
Granville went through a slow and sometimes painful process before it closed its school. When the end came, it was the result of a decision by voters in neighboring Hancock to close its school and end an arrangement where the two towns divided grades and students between their two small schools.
At that point, Granville was left with about 10 students from kindergarten through sixth grade, and little choice but to close as well.
In the years leading up to the closing, some Granville residents had objected to the expense of running the school, but many were more concerned about the quality of education when there were so few students.
"It should have been kept open, but they don't have enough to keep it going." - Granville parent Theodore Smith
Kate Stauss, whose two children attended the one-room school, says the introduction of grade-specific testing also made it difficult to teach several grades in the same room.
“The main reason that we stopped being able to provide a wonderful education — and we did provide a wonderful education — was because of standardized testing,” says Stauss, who is a teacher in Bethel.
Like Stauss, other parents whose children went to the little schools in Granville and Hancock feel the students got a good education there. But they also feel the declining student numbers gave their children fewer opportunities to socialize with others.
From no choice to school choice
Ironically, while they had no choice in the decision to close, they now have full school choice as a result.
The community has always had high school choice, but when the one-room schoolhouse closed, parents of younger children were also free to send their children to any public or accredited school in the state.
At the time, only Rochester provided bus service to its schools. So Tammi Beattie decided to drive her son to Ripton instead.
“He was starting to flourish in the [Hancock-Granville] village school and I wanted something similar," she explains. "Because I had the choice, that’s where I went."
After a couple of years, a bus started taking students to Ripton and on to Middlebury. Both of Beattie’s children now attend high school in Middlebury.
Other families chose other options.
Today, Granville’s students are spread out among nine different elementary schools, including two independent schools and three high schools.
For Beattie, who’s a single mom, the students’ after class activities and get-togethers with school friends involve a one-hour round-trip drive to Middlebury.
“If that means trucking them over, going to pick them up; driving back over at 8 p.m. after my daughter’s basketball practice, that’s what we do,” she says.
Beattie once served on the Granville school board, and she was involved in the parent-teachers organization. Now she teaches in Middlebury, too, so her life is centered there and she has less contact with the neighbors she knew when Granville had a school.
Lingering education costs
The Granville school budget has always been influenced by the cost of tuitioning high school students.
Now that all the town’s students attend school elsewhere, education costs are solely a function of tuition rates over which the town has no control.
“Our taxes might go down and they might go up, it depends on where they’re going to school. The difference in tuitions is enormous. Warren has been around $10,000 for their elementary school, Rochester is almost double that,” says former legislator Bruce Hyde, who chairs the Granville school board.
Neither do the board members have any say in the programs and policies at the schools their children attend.
But Hyde says there’s some evidence people find Granville’s school choice attractive.
“We’ve had a couple of different instances where people bought a plot of land and tried to use that as a residence for their kids to have school choice. We’ve had a few that we’ve had to deny tuition because of that,” he says.
One concern raised when residents debate closing a school is the effect it will have on their sense of community. And many in Granville feel that sense has been diminished by the loss of the school.
“It was the only common thing that people had," says Jim Dague. He and his wife Eileen have lived in Granville since 1970. Their children attended the one room school. "Even the older folks would go to the school programs," he adds.
It could also be argued that the school’s closing is a symptom as much as a cause of loss of community.
"It was a long time ago that the community was strong. I think it would have gone away - I think it did go away, with or without the school." - Granville parent Eileen Dague
With far fewer local jobs, residents now commute elsewhere for work. Many of the houses in town are second homes. Eileen Dague says lots of factors contributed to the weakening of community.
“It was a long time ago that the community was strong. I think it would have gone away – I think it did go away with or without the school,” she says.
With its quiet natural beauty, relatively low housing costs and its school choice, some feel Granville is poised to attract a new wave of residents.
If they come, they will find a community different from the one that existed before the school closed.
Declining Enrollment continues Thursday with a closer look at school choice and districts that tuition their students elsewhere.