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Connecticut's Rural Schools Get Creative To Stay Viable

David DesRoches
Brett Mayer, left, and Carson Evans during a multi-age grouping at Hampton School last year.

Schools throughout rural Connecticut have been shrinking or closing for years. Many districts have consolidated with neighboring towns to pool resources, in a process called regionalization.

And some schools – like Burnham School in Bridgewater – have taken a more creative approach.

Bridgewater has a population of about 1,600. It’s about 10 minutes northeast of Danbury. Enrollment at Burnham has been dropping for years. At one point, there were only three kids in an entire grade there, said Teresa DeBrito, director of curriculum and assessment for the district.

"What are we really offering kids if there's only three of them in a classroom, and they stay together for six years?" Debrito said.

So they got creative. Last year, Burnham combined its six grades into essentially two classrooms. Then the marketing began.

They made a promotional video to get people to move to town. They also spent about $6,000 to send glossy, eight-page pamphlets to 5,000 homes in surrounding towns.

It worked for parent Rhei C. Gordon.

"I was looking for something different but I didn't think I could afford it,” she said. She was visiting a friend who had received a pamphlet in the mail, advertising the school.

"A Montessori-type model would be more of my ideal, and then she was like, 'This might be just for you,' and I was like, 'Yes, this is just for me,’” she said.

The Gordons are one of 10 families that spent at least $2,500 to send their kids to Burnham last year. The school is among the few in the country tackling enrollment problems by charging tuition, according to Allen Pratt, executive director of the National Rural Education Association.

"Actively marketing or going after -- it's generally not that way across the U.S.,” Pratt said. “It may be in pockets, but usually in your rural, remote areas there's not a lot of choices out there."

Rural schools are having to become increasingly creative to stay viable. Some are partnering with nearby bigger towns to provide vocational training. Others are offering more online classes, and some -- like Burnham -- are looking at what’s called multi-aged groupings.

But among the biggest struggles for the state’s 41 rural districts? Teacher shortages. It's even harder to find qualified substitutes, said Frank Olah, superintendent of schools in Hampton.

"It's difficult. Very, very difficult,” Olah said. "As soon as you go long-term sub -- they have to be certified. If it's a long-term sub in art, you have to try find a person who's certified in art first. If you can't, then you have to find somebody who's just certified. So, it's very difficult."

Hampton -- population 1,800 -- is across the state from Bridgewater, about 10 minutes west of Rhode Island. The districts have the same problems, but they don't have the same resources. Half of Hampton's budget comes from state dollars. Bridgewater residents are more affluent, so they get less money from the state.

At the same time, Hampton residents last year voted not to consolidate the administrative costs of Hampton Elementary with two other schools from neighboring towns. That's because people here love local control, Olah says.

"So what does that tell ya?” Olah said. “They are willing to pay for a small Hampton Elementary School, with an administration that focuses on this school."

But at least four classrooms were empty last school year at Hampton. Others have only a handful of students.

During a conversation with Hampton School Board Chairman Rose Bisson and superintendent Olah, the topic comes up. How much is local control worth?

"We're working really hard to do our multi-age grouping, which consolidates the amount of staff we need,” Bisson said. “And I think it makes sense to go in that direction, and we're not there yet. It's been a long and difficult road to change, a very basic change in the way children are educated."

Unlike at Burnham, Hampton is just beginning to experiment with these multi-age groupings. Two grades will pair up for a certain lesson, and the teachers share instructional duties. But things can get confusing when you take one class with two grades and two different teachers.

Like what happened when the third and fourth grade teachers discussed a photo project. The fourth grade teacher asks her colleague about how the third grade cites photos. At one point, they talk over each other and some students seemed confused about who to pay attention to.

Connecticut residents have often favored regionalizing upper grades, but have been hesitant to do the same thing for young kids. Also, regionalization isn't a silver bullet.

A report commissioned by the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving earlier this year found that there's a balance -- regionalizing up to a certain size can work. If the school gets too big, that can also get expensive. And regionalizing usually doesn't lead to the cost savings that some people hope for, according to the report.

So it's back to being creative.

At Burnham School in Bridgewater, their advertising and marketing program seems to work. For the first time in at least a decade, there was a bump in enrollment last year. They gained two students.

David finds and tells stories about education and learning for WNPR radio and its website. He also teaches journalism and media literacy to high school students, and he starts the year with the lesson: “Conflicts of interest: Real or perceived? Both matter.” He thinks he has a sense of humor, and he also finds writing in the third person awkward, but he does it anyway.

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