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Leland and Gray struggles to meet students’ needs

By Christian Avard | Special to the Vermont Guardian

Posted November 17, 2006

TOWNSHEND — Leland and Gray Union High School is going through rough times.

Located in picturesque Townshend, the high school serves the communities of Athens, Brookline, Jamaica, Newfane, Townshend, and Windham.

For years, Leland and Gray High School Board has struggled to maintain school facilities and, more importantly, address necessary changes to meet students’ needs.

According to The Commons, a Windham County newspaper, 18 seniors out of a class of 67 did not complete last school year. The school board expelled three students while 15 dropped out, some leaving within the first two months of the term. This dropout rate of 22 percent is almost four times the school’s 2004-2005 dropout rate of 5.54 percent for all ninth through 12th graders. The Vermont Department of Education reports that the average high school dropout rate was 5 percent in 2005; nationally it was 8 percent.

“What I thought was missing was those kids who dropped out last year, they were disconnected and disaffected, so that goes back to why co-curricular activities are so important,” said Lloyd Szulborski, the school’s principal.

But facilities at Leland and Gray are lacking and ever since Szulborski took over the reins; juggling these activities to meet all students’ needs has been difficult.

“It’s an unbelievable range of stuff up here and when you try to run those co-curricular activities, you start to run out of space for the activities. For instance, the theater groups did these performances recently. When those things go on, they’re big productions. So, most of the work gets done in this little activity room where the kids eat lunch but then the week before, they need to rehearse on stage. So the gym gets vacated. They take the gym over. Well, if that happens in the fall, your phys ed kids get kicked out, there’s no place for phys ed classes. If it happens in the winter, you have basketball going on. It’s a mess,” Szulborski said.

In 2002, a $5 million bond was presented to voters to establish a 32,000-square-foot structure. This facility would have served as an open space for multiple uses ranging from gym classes to music programs. It also included an auditorium. But the vote was soundly defeated. Shortly afterward, a citizens’ advisory committee was established and an outside consultant developed a long-range facility plan.

The group determined that the focus was no longer just theater and athletics, but the entire school. The new facility would serve as a “cafetorium” where students could eat, and hold numerous classes and special programs. The project’s estimate was $7.5 million and on Election Day, the school board presented a $5.37 million bond vote to cover a majority of the costs. The bond failed again, 1,347 to 964. Critics of the proposal see it as a waste of taxpayer dollars by throwing more money at the arts.

“Every year, we have a certain percentage for arts, all you can do is get the Town Meeting book for every single year,” said Elizabeth Dery, a Townshend resident and outspoken opponent of the bond vote. “It’s pretty big now. None of us want to cut it back but it’s all just enough.”

Instead, Dery believes the school should focus more on academics and taxpayer accountability and less on bureaucracy.

“After 20 years of pouring money into the arts, now we’ve achieved a 25 percent dropout rate last year. That would indicate to anyone, anyone with half a brain, it’s not working and the arts are not alone going to save the disaffected kids. We need a more direct and effective way to deal with that problem,” Dery said.

But despite the dropout rate, Szulborski believes that academics alone is not sufficient to engage students.

“Somehow you got to hook a kid and you just can’t keep throwing writing, math [at them] and say if you don’t get it, you’re on your own kid. You got to find out what it is they need. We need to build some support systems around those kids,” the principal said. “We’re trying to do all we can do to identify those kids and try and create programs to meet their needs and to improve teacher quality by integration and professional development and all that stuff. To make a school work, you can’t just point to one thing.”

The Leland and Gray School Board is now pondering whether to propose another vote on the proposal. At the last school board meeting, the board weighed its options — hold another vote, settle for a smaller bond amount, or do nothing. But that did not stop angry citizens like Dery from letting her voice be heard.

“You can change the name, but they remember the performing arts center and the 36,000 [square] feet. No matter how much Vasoline you put on it, we’re not supporting it,” she contended.

As for the school facility and the bond vote, Szulborski believes things could have been communicated better to the public.

“I think there was a suspicion that although they spent a lot of time on this, to them they thought they’re still just building a theater, and it wasn’t about arts. It was about a kitchen, it was about a cafeteria, and it was about special ed programs, it was about an art program, and alternative ed program, a middle school tech ed program, it was a whole variety of needs that were going to be met here,” he said.