Wednesday, February 18, 2009

School Choice Article in the Valley News

The Valley News had a great article yesterday about school choice. Readers of the Blog should pick up a copy of the Valley News if still available, contact Valley News to purchase a copy or go to your local library to see the map in the article.

It appears that 10 public schools are vying for students in the real world prices go down not up when you don't have enough customers. It would seem that these schools should try to control costs to get their neighboring district's students into their buildings.

Spelling and grammar errors as well as typos are left as an exercise for our readers.

Making Their Pitch
Valley's High Schools Court Tuition Students

By Kristen Fountain
Valley News Staff Writer
The eighth-grade students trooping through the hallways at Windsor High School one morning last week were quiet, very quiet, as they peered over the metal railing at a gym class under way and listened to the school's technology coordinator describe how different classes use the computer labs.

“I hope you brought plenty of questions,” Windsor Principal Hank Ruppertsberger said to the group from Weathersfield Elementary School at the beginning of the tour. “It's your chance to get out in the building and see how our teachers are teaching and our students are learning.”

Ruppertsberger and other high school principals are making their best sales pitch to eighth-graders and their parents from the 10 Upper Valley “choice” towns. As the number of high school students declines, competition for tuition students is heating up.

Corinth, Hartland, Sharon, Tunbridge, Weathersfield and West Windsor in Vermont and Cornish, Lyme, Piermont and Unity in New Hampshire do not have a high school in their school district, do not belong to a regional or union high school district and have not contracted solely with a particular high school in another district to educate their students. (See map.)

The law in both states allows parents in these towns to choose the high school, and in some cases the middle school, they want their children to attend for high school. Their school districts pay the tuition to the districts students choose to attend. This arrangement is special to Northern New England.

“It's kind of historic Vermont,” said Bill Talbott, chief financial officer at the Vermont Department of Education and a former state legislator. “It evolved as the academies went away and the union schools emerged.”

It is popular among parents and often cited as a selling point in area real estate ads. And for decades, school choice advocates have pointed to the practice as an example of a competitive voucher system in action.

The choice is especially wide in Vermont, where the law allows parents to apply public funds toward tuition at private schools as well, as long as the schools have been approved by the Department of Education and do not actively teach from a religious perspective. As a result, students from Tunbridge, for example, frequently attend The Sharon Academy, a private school.

In the case of private or independent schools, a student's home district in Vermont is required to pay only up to the average tuition of union high schools across the state, which is $10,921 annually for the 2008-2009 school year. Parents make up the difference. However, the law states the district must pay the full tuition at any public school that a resident chooses.

In New Hampshire, public funds cannot be paid to independent or private schools, except for a group of old private academies that include Thetford Academy and St. Johnsbury Academy. Both are considered public schools by the state a Vermont, another quirk of history.

The cost of public school tuition can vary widely from $10,300 this year at Hartford High School and $12,500 for Windsor to $14,877 at Thetford Academy and $17,200 at Hanover High School.

Various “choice” towns have tried different policies to manage the wide disparity in cost. In Piermont, for example, the school district limits the choice to high schools with which the district contracts. A vote at Town Meeting several years ago determined that the district will only contract with schools that have tuition within given range, one that now excludes both Thetford Academy and Hanover, said Piermont Elementary School Principal Joann Torsey.

Concern about tuition costs was one reason that the nearby town of Warren, N.H., recently decided to affiliate with Woodsville High School in Haverhill, said Torsey. But for her community, the limited choice was preferable to no choice. “Piermont definitely embraces the school choice philosophy and loves it,” Torsey said.

For the high schools, as demographic changes in the Twin States have caused enrollments to dwindle, drawing in additional students from “choice” towns has become more and more important to maintaining the size of the student body and keeping costs down.

Almost half of the students at Windsor High School are from the surrounding tuition towns, said Ruppertsberger. “You can bet those dollars are important to offset costs in our budget,” he said.

Dresden School District Superintendent Wayne Gerson calls the tuition students at Hanover High School “vital,” both to the diversity of perspectives in the school and to the district's bottom line.

The competition for students among high schools is another advantage to being a “choice” town, said Cornish Elementary School principal Mary Bronga. “Enrollment is down all over so it is a buyer's market.”

For the students and their parents, a variety of considerations come into play when they are making their choices, some practical, some sentimental and some academic.

Because few high schools offer bus transportation to these tuition students, many end up attending schools close to their homes or in the community in which their parents work. For example, Corinth students in the main attend Oxbow Union High School in Bradford. And Unity students generally go either to Stevens High School in Claremont or Newport High School.

The decision is often based on where students' parents went or their siblings go or where most of their friends are going, said principals and guidance counselors. It can also be the result of connections made to teachers and coaches through sports teams and other extracurricular activities. But school administrators also try to push their students to consider a school's academic offerings and its culture when thinking about what would be a good fit for them.

“Our kids take that decision very, very seriously, which is good to see,” said Jeff Valence, principal at Lyme Elementary School. “Siblings do have an influence and some are influenced by friends, but quite a number of students are making a decision purely on how they see the school.”

In their pitch last week, Windsor's administrators and staff stressed the school's active drama program and the no-cut policy for its sports teams, but also said that the school, with roughly 300 students, is a nice size. It is big enough to offer a diversity of courses and activities, but small enough that students can develop close relationships with their teachers, said Ruppertsberger. “It's neither too big or too little; it’s just right.”

On the tour last week, it became clear that among this group of 19 Weathersfield students, most seem to be headed for Springfield High School.

“We're glad that you guys locked into Springfield are at least giving us a chance,” said Windsor Athletic Director Bob Hingston.

It might have been because their minds were already made up. Or perhaps they were silenced by uncertainty. But the Weathersfield eighth-graders didn't have any questions, even after an informational video in the auditorium and visits to a math and a civics class. But they did pay close attention all morning and their wide eyes took in everything.

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