Public education in Burlington is broken. The current system clusters low-income kids in two elementary schools, which makes it harder for them to succeed, and somehow that needs to change. That's the view of a task force the school board appointed last year to study Burlington's schools.
The 15-member group issued a report in June recommending that Burlington schools pursue socio-economic integration (SEI). The idea - which has sparked controversy among some parents - is to mix kids of various income levels and abilities together more, especially in the city's Old North End, where more than 90 percent of students live in poverty, with the hope of improving educational opportunities for everyone.
One option being considered is to create a kind of voluntary melting pot by establishing magnet schools - specialized programs designed to attract a diverse array of students from all over the district. During several public hearings in October, parents suggested art or music themes for such schools.
Others have floated the idea of expanding or replicating a program that's been operating for seven years. Dovetail, the district's mini-magnet school, bills itself as "Burlington's non-graded primary." The daylong K-2 program, established in 1999 at Edmunds Elementary School, combines kindergartners and first-graders in two classrooms, and regularly mixes them with second-graders who have a class of their own. Dovetail students keep the same teacher for their first two years, and get to know all three teachers well. The program also employs the "Responsive Classrooms" teaching approach, which emphasizes cooperation and social interaction. Edmunds Elementary School Principal Guy Egri calls Dovetail "a modern version of the old Vermont schoolhouse."
Another key component of the program has always been SEI, according to Egri. The classrooms' population mix is meant to mirror that of the city. To that end, each elementary school in the district is allotted a number of spots in Dovetail that corresponds with the size of its student body.
Administrators and Dovetail parents praise the program as a successful experiment. But critics charge that it's not fulfilling its SEI mission. In fact, Task Force President Stu McGowan claims that Dovetail takes motivated students and parents away from the Old North End schools, and is therefore contributing to the problem.
"My sense is that Dovetail has become sort of an elite little school within a school that doesn't have mixing kids as its central focus," he charges, "and that is insane." A closer look at the program suggests that McGowan may be right.
Although Dovetail is housed at Edmunds, it's mostly separate from the rest of the school. Its three classrooms are clustered in a hallway dominated by a handmade banner that announces the Dovetail philosophy. "Joining together children of different ages and neighborhoods to build a strong community of learners," it reads. The banner is bordered by cutouts of hands, all of them interlocking, as if they're working together, helping one another.
These interactions are on display one weekday afternoon during "investigations," another specialized Dovetail feature. During this time, students can choose from a variety of activities, depending on their interest. Today's offerings are listed on a board in the hall beneath the Dovetail banner. They include Legos, labyrinth board and K'Nex.
Children in one classroom cluster around activity stations. In the center of the floor, four boys play quietly with K'Nex, a colorful plastic construction toy. Egri observes that it's a multi-age bunch. "Some of the kids are certainly bigger and older than some of the others," he points out.
Emma, a first-grader who's drawing a reindeer at a table near the door, says she likes having classes with kids of different ages. "We can relate to older kids more," she says.
Her teacher, Janet Bellavance, says one of the things she likes about Dovetail is that it gives her the opportunity to get to know all 59 of the K-2 students. When the teachers discuss their charges, she says, "It's like one parent talking to another." So it's harder for kids with learning or behavioral issues, for example, to fall through the cracks.
Parents like Karen Newman, whose daughter is a Dovetail first-grader, say they're glad they've been able to choose this environment for their kids. "It's been working really well," says Newman. "It's a great program."
But Dovetail isn't quite living up to its goal of integrating children from different neighborhoods. Dovetail holds spots for students from each of Burlington's schools, but Egri says applications from other schools have declined in the last couple of years. The open spots are filled with students from Edmunds whose parents want them to participate in the program. Egri says he'd sooner exceed the quotas from other neighborhoods, but because of the low numbers of applicants, that hasn't been possible.
Apparently there's no shortage of Edmunds parents who want to opt into Dovetail - there's actually a waiting list. Egri claims that 15 or 16 of the 59 students currently enrolled in Dovetail are from the Edmunds feeder neighborhood. That number is nearly twice as high as it's supposed to be.
There are several ways to explain this imbalance. When Dovetail was launched, it was the only all-day kindergarten option available in the district, and that's no longer true. The district also used to provide transportation for kids in the New North End, for example; it no longer does. And before the federal mandate No Child Left Behind, Dovetail combined all three grades; now it separates the second-graders. That helps the older students meet the standards, but it dilutes the "nongraded primary" approach.
Some people also say the program isn't promoted as well as it once was, an assertion bolstered by the fact that no information about Dovetail appears on Edmunds' or the Burlington School District's website.
Karen Newman says she followed Dovetail closely since its inception, and was eager to enroll her daughter. But she only found out about the deadline during a chance visit to the Edmunds school office the day before applications were due.
"It just seems crazy to me that it's not better publicized," she says. "You would think it would be the crown jewel."
Egri insists that he and Bonnie Clapp, the district's director of early childhood education, promote the program through press releases, posters at early education sites, and fliers sent home to parents. But he also suggests Dovetail has become "old news" to the district, and many parents probably find out about it from other parents.
"I think, just like a lot of things in Vermont, it's word of mouth," says Egri. "One parent mentions it to the next. I wouldn't minimize that."
That statement irks Stu McGowan. "Word of mouth is a good way to say it's sort of an 'in-house' kind of thing," he says. "If you know about it, you know about it."
McGowan, who lives in the Old North End, says relying on word of mouth puts low-income people at a disadvantage, because poverty is isolating. "People in my neighborhood do not associate very often with people on the Hill," he says, "or with the administrators in the schools."
He adds that many residents of the Old North End, particularly refugees, lack the wherewithal to seek out such a program, and to jump through the required hoops to get their children enrolled. "Only the most committed, the most focused parent that wants to get out of the Old North End will ever find that information, even if it's put right in front of their noses," he says. "I'm sure they send out flyers. But that doesn't mean that anybody's paying any attention to them."
But clearly someone in McGowan's neighborhood is paying attention to Dovetail - unlike other schools, Barnes and Wheeler regularly fill all their allotted Dovetail slots. Both McGowan and Barnes Principal Paula Bowen say that's because some better-educated, middle-class Old North End families use Dovetail to remove themselves from local schools. Once a child enrolls in Dovetail, they point out, he or she is allowed to stay at Edmunds through the fifth grade. Their siblings would also have an easier time getting into Edmunds.
Bowen notes that Barnes actually offers many of the same advantages as does Dovetail, including a K/1 classroom, and a chance for students to have the same teacher two years in a row. Barnes also uses the "Responsive Classrooms" approach. So what sets Dovetail apart? "It's not Barnes or Wheeler," she says. "I think that sometimes that is the attraction."
McGowan claims that was definitely what drew parents who left H.O. Wheeler when Dovetail first came to town; he was president of the Wheeler PTO at the time. "They were the parents who would have done really a lot of good at Wheeler," he suggests. "The minute they heard about Dovetail, they booked. It was a golden opportunity."
He admits that he's only talking about a handful of people. "Just two or three or five," he says, "but we noticed it." He also points out that Dovetail teacher Janet Bellavance was recruited from Wheeler, where she was "one of [the school's] best teachers."
Assessing the number of Dovetail students who qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program might shed some light on this argument, but apparently those statistics are hard to come by. Superintendent Jeanne Collins refers the question to Guy Egri, who says he doesn't have the answer, but the Food Services office does. Food Services points back to Egri.
But school board and ex officio task force member Amy Werbel says she's seen the data, and recalls that Dovetail's FRL numbers are relatively low when compared with those of other schools, which would bolster McGowan's argument.
McGowan stresses that he's not opposed to the philosophy behind Dovetail. "I think the idea is phenomenal," he says. But he'd like to see it expanded and housed at Barnes or Wheeler, so it would bring motivated parents into those schools, rather than taking them out. Edmunds was chosen originally because it had extra space, and because of its central location, but McGowan wants to switch things up.
"I think it's proven what it can do well and what it can't do well," he says, "and now it's time to take those lessons and apply them on a bigger scale."
Superintendent Collins says that's definitely possible. "I think that right now everything's on the table as we're considering what options work," she says. "Would it be moving [Dovetail]? Would it be moving the actual teachers? Would it be creating another one? I think it's too soon to know. But I hope to know soon."