Rochester High School students return to class after their lunch break. For the 75 students here, small class size and individual attention make this tiny public school feel like home.
"In a big school you're so lost in this big ordeal, and these kids can stand out in their own way. It's like a big fish, little fish situation and everyone can be the big fish," said Ada Bowman, a sophomore.
But Rochester-- one of the smallest high schools in the state-- faces serious challenges. With a dwindling student population and fixed costs, town residents have a difficult decision to make. They'll go to the polls Tuesday for a nonbinding vote on whether they support keeping the high school open.
School principal Cathy Knight is new to the job and despite the challenges, is bullish about the school's prospects. From a dedicated core of teachers and staff, to the $300,000 renovation to the auditorium following flooding from Tropical Storm Irene.
But a report commissioned by the school board lays out some sobering realities:
" ...Performance on state assessments in reading and math is below state averages..."
" ...The draw of larger schools with a variety of opportunities is stiff competition..."
" ...Financial pressures will continue to mount, requiring more austere budgets and increased tax rates..."
The bottom line-- the school must attract new students.
"We've got staff here that are committed to it and students and parents and community members who are behind the school," Knight said. "We're going to change up how we do it next year. If we cut costs, change the program-- try and bring back some of the students that we've lost to Middlebury and Rutland and Ripton."
Town leaders say even if the school is able to stay open for now, a future battle looms.
"Declining enrollment and rising costs may make that decision inevitable at some point, without some major turnaround in demographics, I think that may be. Is this the moment for that-- I'm not quite so sure of," said Larry Strauss, chair of the Rochester Select Board.
"I thought it was a fair report," said Barbara DeHart of Rochester. "I have heard from other members of the community that it was very negative, and I'm saying, 'it's negative because it doesn't exactly say what you want to hear.' And I thought it was a fair report."
Down at the Rochester cafe, where many patrons either went to the school or have children that do, the upcoming vote draws mixed reactions.
"If we were to close this school, there goes our community. You know we came through Irene and it showed what a great community we are and how we blended together. And what's to say the community isn't going to boom either," said Liz Steventon of Rochester.
Others who asked not to appear on camera said the cost of the school was driving away new residents and forcing others to look elsewhere.
The nonbinding vote comes at the same time the State Board of Education is applying pressure to dissolve the school's supervisory union, the Windsor Northwest Supervisory Union, and divide the local schools among neighboring supervisory unions. Last month, the board gave local districts until June to come up with a consolidation plan or have one forced on them.
A small town's difficult decision over the future of its school.
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