(Host) In Whitingham and Wilmington, students who were sports rivals in the past came together as classmates last week. In a time of shrinking student populations and rising expectations, school mergers like this could become more common.
VPR’s Susan Keese has more.
(Loudspeaker) “At this time, would all teachers and students please report to the gym for the assembly.”
(Keese) In their sneakers and tee-shirts, these students don’t look like they’ve come from different cultures. But until recently some of them were Trojans and some were Warriors. The Warriors went to this school in Wilmington. The Trojans went to Whitingham.
Now they’re all classmates at Twin Valley High School. Seven miles south in Whitingham’s former K-12 school, the new Twin Valley Middle School is also getting started.
(Frank Spencer) “At this time, it is my pleasure to welcome you to the first day of – not just school, but this school.”
(Keese) Frank Spencer, the former Wilmington High School-Middle School principal, is the principal of the new, combined high school. He says people in the two rural school districts have talked about combining resources for decades. In the nineties, the two towns actually voted not to merge. Last fall, they reconsidered.
Spencer says declining enrollments may have tipped the balance. Last year Wilmington had only about 130 students in its four upper grades. Whitingham had just over 60. But he says the goal was always to create more opportunities for kids in both towns.
(Spencer) “There is a point where most parties would agree that a school can be too small. And I think that’s the basis of what finally pushed the two communities to make it happen, was this real sense that we were spending a lot of money and the value we were getting for that money could be so much better.”
(Keese) Whitingham principal Marilyn Hannam heads the Twin Valley Middle School.
(Hannam) “The reality was that we could not offer the students all the things that we wanted to offer them. So the collaboration now allows us to give them what they need, plus an incredible number of electives.”
(Keese) With student numbers declining in 85 percent of Vermont’s schools, the situation isn’t unique.
(Winton Goodrich) “It’s happening a fair amount around the state. We’re facilitating four supervisory unions’ governance study processes and a couple of joint contracts very much like Whitingham and Wilmington have done.”
(Keese) Winton Goodrich is associate director of the Vermont School Boards Association. He says the state is encouraging schools to consider organizing in new, more efficient ways. But he says that local schools are at the heart of many rural communities. So the process of joining forces is often thorny.
The boards in Whitingham and Wilmington struggled for years over cost-sharing and balance of power on a new, joint school board. But the biggest issues were rooted in tradition and local pride.
Skip Galasky of Whitingham has two students in the newly created high school.
(Galasky) “It’s a hard knock to realize that you can’t decently support your school and on top of that there’s always been a sports rivalry with Wilmington.”
(Keese) But on the soccer field this week, things seemed to be going pretty well.
(Soccer player) “I thought personally it was going to be a lot harder to, like, get to know everyone. But people are getting along really well and everyone’s really friendly.”
(Keese) Make way for the Twin Valley Wildcats.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.