Austin Pellegrino, a junior at Whitcomb High School in Bethel, thinks he wants to be a graphic artist. But the friendly teen said his small school doesn't offer any classes that would help him explore that field.
Lydia Morris, also in eleventh grade at Whitcomb, wants to take Advanced Placement English next year — but Whitcomb High, with just 87 students in four grades, doesn't offer any AP classes.
If Pellegrino and Morris attended 1,211-student Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg, on the other hand, they could choose from a 72-page catalog of courses. Pellegrino could consider a dozen design and technology classes. Morris would have twice as many English courses to choose from, including AP English.
When a congress of students from Whitcomb and three other small high schools met at the Bethel Town Hall on April 4, "the single greatest thing the students talked about was more diversity of classes," said Whitcomb math teacher Andy West.
Many more Vermont schools with small student populations and high per-pupil costs are similarly handicapped.
Policy makers acknowledge that these academic inequities violate the state's obligation to provide all students with equal educational opportunities. Nevertheless, a proposal to take a tiny step toward aiding small schools failed in the House this session.
"I see kids being shortchanged," Rep. Oliver Olsen (I-South Londonderry) said recently, after speaking on the House floor about the unfair gaps between small and large schools. "They don't have the same variety of opportunities."
The reduced offerings at small schools have consequences for students. Course variety can be the key to keeping students interested in high school and helping them explore future careers, school officials say. Advanced courses better prepare students for college and may earn them college credits — getting them graduated faster and with less debt.
Rep. Laura Sibilia (I-Dover) is among those impatient to act because, she noted, the problem isn't new. She shared a 2012 analysis of course offerings at 49 Vermont high schools, conducted by Northern Economic Consulting for the towns of Dover and Wilmington, which documented that "larger high schools in Vermont offer greater education opportunities in core academic courses, fine arts, athletics and extracurricular activities than do smaller high schools."
Vermont has 59 public high schools; other schools also take publicly funded students.
Sammy Cunningham-Darrah, Sibilia's daughter and a sophomore studying nursing at the University of Vermont, attended 139-student Twin Valley High School in Wilmington. Cunningham-Darrah said she didn't find as many chemistry and biology courses as she needed to prepare for college studies in a medical field.
"We did have the opportunity to take online courses, but I'm just not an online person," she said. Cunningham-Darrah struggled in her first-year science courses at UVM. "They covered everything I had learned in a week and a half," she said. "I felt like I was starting at zero."
Twin Valley offered only three Advanced Placement courses when she attended — in history, French and calculus. She wasn't interested in history and had studied Spanish, not French, so she only took the AP math course.
"Many of my friends have come in with a semester of credits" because of the AP courses they took in high school, she said. Without those, and because she switched majors, she'll have to take an extra-heavy course load every semester — plus summer school — in order to complete her nursing degree in four years.
The Vermont legislature has been trying to rectify school inequality since the Vermont Supreme Court ruled on the Brigham v. State of Vermont case 18 years ago. That's when Amanda Brigham and students from other property-poor towns sued the state, claiming that its education financing system deprived them of the same educational opportunities as their counterparts in wealthy communities.
Lawmakers responded in 1997 with Act 60, which "equalized the ability to raise money for education," Olsen noted. "The same tax rate will yield the same dollars." But, he added, "It in no way ensures equity of opportunity."
Addressing that particular injustice was one of the drivers behind Act 46, a law passed last year that requires school districts to consolidate into larger districts capable of offering more opportunities to their students.
The law spelled doom for a small-school grant program lawmakers established 17 years ago, to offset the higher cost of doing business on a small scale. Because it contradicts the pro-consolidation policies of Act 46, the program is phasing out beginning in 2019.
House Education Committee chair David Sharpe (D-Bristol) helped write Act 46. "The first step is creating these more integrated school districts," Sharpe said. "Then, within these, how can we make more equitable opportunities going forward?"
Four of the state's tiniest high schools — Chelsea with 64 students, Rochester with 37, South Royalton with 126 and Whitcomb in Bethel — will soon become part of a newly merged White River Valley Supervisory Union. This change was in the works before Act 46.
Geo Honigford, a school board member in South Royalton, said the gap is "huge" between the academic and extracurricular options big schools offer compared to these four tiny schools, which will collectively graduate 80 students this spring.
"Most have no AP," he said. "Some of these towns have no bands," he continued. "Most don't have a chess club or outing club."
"If you are in a small school and you have one teacher for science and if you love science and that teacher isn't your cup of tea — that is it," Honigford said. "You can't schedule away from that teacher."
"I like small schools," he said, but he suggested 500 as the ideal number of students. "We have what I call micro schools." The parent of a high school senior, Honigford said he isn't persuaded that money is the answer: "We squander money because we are running all these small programs right next to each other."
Olsen said purchasing power matters. He noted that CVU offers many more courses — at a cost of $13,300 per pupil — than Black River High School in Ludlow, with 122 students, or Twin Valley in Wilmington, which both spend more than $16,000 per pupil.
Twin Valley, the product of a recent merger of two tiny high schools, has pared its school budget in each of the past two years to avoid the state's spending penalty, said principal Tom Fitzgerald. Under the penalty provision, taxpayers face higher taxes if their school district spends more than 121 percent of the average spent by all districts.
"The spending penalty really only hits rural communities," Olsen said. The squeeze will increase in 2020, when the percentage drops to 119 percent, he said.
"If we have to continue to cut, we will have to cut our offerings," Fitzgerald said. Several nearby towns offer their high school students a choice of schools. If Twin Valley's course offerings shrink, tuition students might choose other high schools in the region, "which would put us in a downward spiral," Fitzgerald said.
Olsen and Sibilia want the Agency of Education to analyze whether providing more money for students in rural schools would improve educational opportunities. They had hoped to delay the step-down to 119 percent in 2020 to allow the agency to undertake that study, but they failed to persuade their colleagues this session. All they got was a provision directing the agency to come back next year with a plan for the study.
Sibilia shrugged at the tiny accomplishment. "It keeps the notion alive," she said.
In the meantime, legislation enacted in 2013 opens new doors at many high schools. The "flexible pathways" law requires schools to offer options such as work-based learning, virtual courses, and dual and early enrollment in college.
But even those opportunities aren't a cure for inequities, said Jeff Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, "because the opportunities are inequitable across the state." Some high schools are close to colleges; others are many miles and mountains away.
House Education chair Sharpe noted, too, that the flexible options fail to expand opportunities for all students in a school. Often students need to drive to college courses or internships. "For kids who have cars, families of means, that is not that big a deal," he said. For others, it may be a hurdle they can't clear. In small schools, too, outside options may siphon off the critical mass in some courses, leaving too few students for robust discussions.
Still, for three juniors at Whitcomb High, options outside their brick K-12 school seem like the best ways to achieve their educational aspirations.
Lydia Morris said she hopes to take Advanced Placement English at South Royalton High School.
Zak Gillette, an avid soccer player, will enroll at Norwich University, combining his final year of high school with the chance to earn college credits. Gillette is interested in exercise science. He could take a semester of anatomy and physiology at Whitcomb, but he will get so much more, tuition-free with college credit, at Norwich, he said.
Pellegrino, who had no graphic art options at Whitcomb, intends to pursue his interest at Lyndon State College, also under the state's early college program. He said he would take an English course there to fulfill his high school graduation requirements. He will have plenty of graphic art choices, because Lyndon State offers a bachelor of fine arts in design with intro courses in typography, digital illustration and motion graphics.
"It gives me the option to feel out my future," Pellegrino said.
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