Home Uncategorized EDITORIAL: A Salute to Spaulding High School 9.11.14

EDITORIAL: A Salute to Spaulding High School 9.11.14

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by Nat Frothingham

At a recent breakfast meeting in Barre with Ed Rousse and Norma Malone, I developed a solid respect for what Spaulding High School has been able to do and achieve–which could well be an example for other high schools across Vermont.

Ed Rousse, a Barre native, graduated from SHS in 1979. He went on to college, but returned to live in Barre. He has long worked as an insurance agent for National Life and now serves as president of the new Spaulding High School Foundation. Norma Malone has two children who graduated from SHS.  During their tenure at Spaulding, she served on SHS committees. She won election to the SHS board in 2009 and became its chair in 2010.

As our conversation proceeded it became clear that, while SHS is achieving great things, it is also facing great difficulties—and is breaking important new ground.

Schools in Barre City and Barre Town are organized differently from those in Montpelier. Montpelier High School, Main Street Middle School and Union Elementary School are combined into a single, city-wide school district. In the Granite City, Barre City Elementary and Middle School has its own budget, while SHS’s district encompasses both Barre City and Barre Town.

In turning down their school budgets on Town Meeting Day last March 4, Montpelier and Barre became two of the 35 municipalities in Vermont to reject their school budgets—a tax revolt of sorts.

But there’s a small distinction worth noting.  While Montpelier voters went back to the polls in April and quickly approved their school budget, Barre City voters went to a fourth vote before finally approving their elementary and middle school budget. The fate of the SHS budget depended on voters in both Barre City and Barre Town.  And though the No votes prevailed in Barre City, there were enough yes votes from Barre Town to pass the SHS budget last March.

There’s also a difference in income, wealth and family need between the two communities. In Montpelier, some 30 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches—a measure of household need. At Barre City Elementary and Middle School, 71 percent of the students qualify; at SHS, the figure is 52 percent.

Across Vermont, school enrollments are down. Enrollments at SHS have dropped more than 20 percent since 2000, from 1,000 students to the 770 enrolled last year.

On the achievement side—not unlike other Vermont high schools—SHS is reporting mixed results. High-achieving students take rigorous advanced-placement courses, and standout graduates, Malone says, are getting into top schools across the nation, including Ivy League schools.

But Malone didn’t paper over the downsides. She talked about Spaulding programs for kids from broken homes, kids from abusive backgrounds and socially disadvantaged kids. She described alternative programs that have been put in place so that, regardless of their personal and family situations, students can get the support they need to qualify for their diplomas. She mentioned three off-site programs. Two serve challenged students whose physical or mental challenges simply cannot be met in a traditional classroom setting. A third helps students who are close to meeting their graduation requirements but whose life situations make it difficult to attend school. “Oftentimes, these students are working full-time to support themselves and/or their families,” Malone explained.

In a subsequent note to me, Malone reminded me of a saying: “High school is never over.” It’s never over, she elaborated, because it’s a critical period in growing up. As she put it, “Much of what we become as adults is determined in this short time period.”

It’s that conviction that is driving SHS to do everything that a school can do to give each student a good education and the prospect of a solid life as a parent, in a career, as a citizen, as a community and civic leader.

Impressively, I thought, SHS is making a commitment to students who are already out in the working world.  In one of the off-site programs, students can pursue diplomas by working with a teacher as early as 6 to 8 a.m., or coming in late in the day, to complete their high school educations.

On student drug abuse, Malone said, “It’s the scourge of our times. Drugs are in every high school in Vermont. We are addressing it. It’s out there.”

Against this mixed and sometimes stark background of academic rigor and high student achievement but also families and children in need and sometimes grudging voter support for Barre schools, neither the SHS leadership nor Spaulding alumni are relenting in their efforts—which is where the new ground is being broken.

Spaulding has an active alumni association with thousands of members, who get together at reunions in Barre during summer months. Alumni going back to the class of 1936 have designated contact persons to keep in touch. The school has a total scholarship endowment of over $9 million, with $4 million under direct management–making the endowment one of the largest such funds in New England. At last June’s graduation, SHS awarded over $300,000 in college scholarships, with four individual scholarships of $40,000 each.

Beginning in 2012, a partnership that included SHS leaders and alumni organized a new Spaulding High School Foundation, with tax-exempt status under IRS rules. Over and over again in past years, SHS alumni have given money for scholarships for deserving SHS graduates. The new foundation, which Ed Rousse leads, gives the school’s generous benefactors an additional option beyond the pre-existing scholarship funds.

The foundation will create opportunities for alumni and friends of Spaulding to help students not just after they graduate but also while they are SHS students.

A printed circular announcing the foundation lists three priorities for projects and initiatives “above and beyond what the school budget can support.” The first, Rousse related, is an athletic fields renovation project that includes lighting improvements—which are already nearly complete, thanks to donations totaling an estimated $220,000. The improvements call for upgrades to the track and the football field, an expansion and reconfiguration of other playing fields, and a mile-long walking path for community use.

The second priority is to create an SHS performing arts center; a third priority is to fund so-called enhancement grants aimed at improving the students’ scholastic classroom experiences.

High schools across Vermont might well look to Spaulding as an example of a school that keeps on relating to its thousands of graduates. Grateful for what Spaulding has given them, those graduates have made generous donations to support various scholarships at the school. Now the alumni are being invited to support the experience of students while they are still in high school, too.

For a state that is actively wondering how it can continue to support, and indeed improve, high school education, Spaulding High School has put a powerful idea into play.

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