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Declining Enrollment, Part 4: The Funding Gap

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Charlotte Albright
/
VPR
Caitlin Eastman, art teacher at the Marion Cross School in Norwich, guides kindergartners through a project based on the alphabet paintings of Jasper Johns. The Marion Cross School is one of the schools in the state that receives ample funding.

Vermont has a wide variety of schools, each with its own set of challenges and its own supply of resources. A state funding law, enacted under court order in 1997, attempts to level the playing field. But local funding differences mean that some schools can afford more programs and services than others.

One elementary school that enjoys ample funding is the Marion Cross School in Norwich.  

This spring, sixth graders are rehearsing for a play you would more likely see on a college stage:  Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Not only have they memorized their lines, they seem to understand what they mean.

In a well-stocked art studio, kindergartners are learning about Jasper Johns, the contemporary artist. He’s famous for his wildly colorful alphabet paintings. Teacher Caitlin Eastman spreads out some empty grids on a table for her students to fill out with letters, using both crayons and watercolor to get a psychedelic effect.

“I thought they we would make some Jasper Johns-inspired alphabets today--what do you think?" she asks the young artists.  "Because you are learning about the alphabet and you are learning all these letters."

They break out into a spontaneous rendition of the alphabet song.

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Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR
The Marion Cross School, in Norwich, has been named one of the fifty best elementary schools in the nation.

Crossing disciplinary boundaries — in this case, between art and writing — is a hallmark of this elementary school, named one of the 50 best in the nation. In his cozy office, Principal Bill Hammond says staff here are well rewarded with salaries and professional development.

“We get one opening and we have 78 people applying for it or more. When you have that kind of choice, as a principal or as a hiring committee, it’s amazing the quality of people you can get,” he says.

And, he adds, a lot is asked of teachers in return.

Norwich spends about $16,000 per pupil, more than many schools, and offers classes - such as Greek - not often taught to young children. School taxes are hefty, but worth it, says parent Donna Mackall.

“I feel like we get a private education for our kids,” she says.

"We get one opening and we have 78 people applying for it or more. When you have that kind of choice, as a principal or as a hiring committee, it's amazing the quality of people you can get." - Bill Hammond, principal at the Marion Cross School

Mackall is not wealthy. She works as a teacher’s assistant at Marion Cross. She says some of her friends in town grumble occasionally about school taxes, but when the  time comes to vote on the budget, it always gets approved.

About 80 miles north, the Barton Graded School also enjoys strong support from parents and taxpayers. But it’s a very different place from Marion Cross.

In two spacious rooms just across from the main office, children who have trouble learning to read get one-on-one attention from literacy specialists like Karen Devereux.

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Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR
Karen Devereux is a literacy specialist at the Barton Graded School in the Northeast Kingdom. She didn't go to Harvard, but she is so highly valued for her dedication that her principal created a fake Harvard degree for her, in jest, to hang on her wall.

On one chilly morning, she asks three kids to hold up their fingers, depending on how many sounds they hear from two letters, called digraphs. At the same low, round table, paraeducator Nan Mann raises a flash card with the letters "SH" on the front.

“How many fingers are you going to hold up?” Devereux asks one first-grader.

“Two,” she replies.

“SH" makes how many sounds?” Devereux prods.

“One,” answers the beginning reader.

“So you hold up one finger,” her teacher explains.

The Barton School gets federal funding for this literacy program and also for school meals. Unlike Norwich, where only a few students are poor enough to need free or reduced lunch prices, over 70 percent of the students in Barton qualify for that assistance. Principal Bob Partridge says schools in poverty zones are no less effective than richer schools — they just meet different community needs.

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Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR
Bob Partridge, principal at the Barton Graded School, says enrollment has declined since he started teaching there two decades ago, but smaller classes are needed now to ensure student success.

“So our focus is on the basics,” he explains. “We really work hard at our literacy and math programs. Science, social studies follow along behind, but you know we are doing well. We are a little bigger than some of the schools in the district that are not as in good shape as we are.”

Barton now has about 160 students, kindergarten through eighth grade. Twenty years ago, there were almost twice that many; class sizes are shrinking. Still, the cost per pupil is much lower than the statewide average, at just over $9,000 in 2013. The average teacher’s salary is also at the low end, at about $48,000 a year.

Principal Partridge’s wish list includes more support for gifted and talented kids, but he’s proud of what Barton accomplishes on a relative shoestring. Sometimes, he says, they can get what they need by holding a raffle.

There’s one going on right now, for a new playground.

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