BRATTLEBORO—Eight years ago, Dot MacDonald applied one of the things she loves, long-distance bicycling, to another love, her job as schoolteacher at the Neighborhood Schoolhouse. She organized the first annual Dot’s Ride, a 100-mile-plus bicycling event to raise scholarship money for parents who wanted to send their children to Neighborhood Schoolhouse but couldn’t afford it.
Every year since then, the event has raised about $10,000, sometimes more.
This year is MacDonald’s last as a teacher — she is retiring after 27 years at the school. To celebrate her, and to ensure the next round of students has the opportunity to attend the private school serving pre-K through sixth-grade children, Dot’s Ride organizers hope to raise $27,000 during this year’s three-day event.
“It’s a great ride,” MacDonald said. “We raise money, it’s a ton of fun, and we camp out."
The weekend before the big three-day ride, MacDonald and crew take a shorter ride from Townshend’s Commons to the Vermont-Massachusetts border on U.S. 5.
The first leg of the big ride, which is from May 19 to May 22 this year, starts at Vermont’s Canadian border and runs 60 miles, ending in Stowe. The next morning the riders take off for Pittsfield, traveling about 62 miles. On the final day they bike 75 miles, ending at Jamaica State Park. It’s the same route every year, MacDonald said, and includes camping every night.
“At the end of the last leg, the whole school meets us” at the park, MacDonald said, and welcomes the riders back with a big picnic.
“The majority of the people who have done this ride have never done a bike ride like this,” MacDonald said, noting some had never even gone 10 miles on their bike. “Some got into long-distance biking because of this ride,” she said.
MacDonald told The Commons most participants in the ride are parents and former Neighborhood Schoolhouse teachers who still care enough about the school to want to carry on its tradition, and that of the bike ride.
The same is true for some of the donors.
“I just got a donation out of the blue from a woman I taught with here 25 years ago,” MacDonald said.
“This year, the guy who is organizing the ride, Cory Frehsee, was the school’s first Kindergarten student, in 1981,” MacDonald said. Frehsee’s three children attended the school, too.
“It’s a different sort of school,” MacDonald said about the Neighborhood Schoolhouse.
“It’s child-centered, with hands-on learning and projects,” MacDonald said, before running down a long list of activities and features for the students: environmental education, visits to the River Gallery School, fiber arts, chess instruction, daily one-hour recess, and what she considers crucial: a social curriculum.
MacDonald and Principal Alissa Bourque explained there is a social-emotional component to learning any subject, even spelling and math.
“In [children’s] development, they can see their progress in how they get along with others, and not compare themselves with others,” Bourque said.
“If children feel safe and secure, they’re willing to take those risks that lead to learning,” MacDonald said, adding, “the greatest gift you can give a child is teaching them how to get along with others.”
“For every child, you have to find that one thing you love about them. Teaching is a relationship, it’s unconditional caring,” she said, noting that in some larger public schools, “the relationship is broken down by bureaucracy.”
Those relationships are what MacDonald will miss most when she retires.
“I’ll miss those kids,” she said. But MacDonald wants “time to do my other ‘life list’ things,” like biking and hiking, “while I can.” Her plans include circumnavigating the U.S. on her bicycle by riding along the northern tier, the southern border, and the east and west coasts — though perhaps not all in one trip.
MacDonald began her career at Neighborhood Schoolhouse in 1989. She was running a printing company with her partner, but turned the company’s operations over to him when she decided to adopt a child.
With her son Michael on the way, MacDonald knew she needed a different job, one that had a schedule more conducive to parenting than owning a business.
“I saw an ad in the paper for the job — it was an aide to a little preschool boy,” she said. That was at the Neighborhood Schoolhouse.
From there, MacDonald went on to assist the kindergarten and first-grade teacher, then was the kindergarten teacher for 20 years, tutored, and taught the second to sixth-grade class for five years.
Teaching wasn’t MacDonald’s first career choice, although she said her mother always knew better: “She said, ‘You would love teaching. Kids love you, you love kids.’”
Mom was right.