BRATTLEBORO—A “greeter” meets visitors to the Academy School at the locked front door. She gives each of them a visitor’s badge, and asks them to sign the visitors’ log.
Secretary of Education Armando Vilaseca stops to sign the log. Gov. Peter Shumlin and his entourage follow suit.
The log and visitor badges are a longstanding security measure. The greeter and locked door reflect the response to a week of heightened security after non-specific threats were made toward school-aged children late last month.
Law enforcement officers and school administrators responded to the threats with heightened security measures at schools within the Windham Southeast and Windham Central supervisory unions. Many parents decided to keep their children home Monday, Jan. 28, with WSESU reporting absenteeism at around 52 percent.
Academy School Principal Andy Paciulli stood in the hallway outside the school offices on Tuesday watching visitors sign in.
The threat issue appears resolved and the daily school life returned to normal at Academy, he said.
“Any school is no safer than the community in which it’s located,” said Paciulli, adding that Brattleboro is still a relatively safe community.
The next discussion he expects with parents and the town School Board is “where do we go from here and what ‘normal’ is in the future,” said Paciulli.
Paciulli said he never expected that police officers would take up permanent residence at Oak Grove, Green Street, and Academy schools, the town’s three public elementary schools.
“It’s going pretty well,” said Windham Southeast Supervisory Union Superintendent Ron Stahley.
Stahley said that administrators continue to monitor school doors and secure buildings. Recess and after-school programs have returned.
He added the situation is “pretty complex” and it was hard to comment at this early stage on lessons learned.
WSESU has always had a close relationship with local emergency responders like the police department, said Stahley. The events of last week highlighted and tightened this relationship.
Vilaseca, who had only recently heard of of threats made toward Windham County students, said that from a statewide perspective, Vermont has a statewide crisis plan to help mitigate dangers to schoolchildren.
A 15-member crisis planning team represents the Department of Education, law enforcement, guidance councilors, mental health specialists, school administrators, and teachers, he said.
Vermont is a safe state but officials need to stand vigilant, said Vilaseca, who added that threats on schools are rare in Vermont.
Going forward, schools will need to find a balance between keeping their doors open to the community while providing safety for their students.
Touring the school
Shumlin toured Academy School on Tuesday with school administrators, press, and staff in tow.
Stopping by two kindergartens, a Spanish class, and a second-grade class, Shumlin asked the students to make him a promise.
He urged them to stay in school as long as they could — even beyond college if possible — and to work hard and remain persistent.
The second-term governor delivered the same message during an all-school assembly.
Students asked Shumlin questions: How does he get all his work done? What does a governor do? How did he get to be governor?
“It’s the best job in the world being governor of Vermont, but you have to be willing to work hard,” Shumlin told students.
When one student asked if Shumlin wanted to become president of the United States, he answered that the best aspect of Washington D.C. was coming home to Vermont, where he said he wants to remain governor.
Shumlin told multiple female students they should run for office when they turn 18.
“We need more girls in politics,” he said.
Shumlin touted his platform to make Vermont’s education system the best in the country, as he laid out in his second-term inauguration speech last month. He has called for measures that include investing a portion of funds slated for the earned-income tax credit for early education, permitting high school students to simultaneously earn college credit, and tightening the connections among potential employers and school curriculums.
The governor told students that he wanted to ensure they had the best education and jobs when they grew up so they could stay in Vermont.
Shumlin said he would help create these jobs through his four goals of bringing high-speed Internet to every last mile, making Vermont the first state where health care is a right, having the best education system in the country, and moving the state’s energy usage away from coal and oil and toward renewable energy.
“Learn to like school,” he told students. “Because it’s absolutely true that the more school you do, the better living you will make.”
Celebrating a turnaround
Vilaseca said the purpose of the day’s visit was to highlight schools that turned around low student achievement, as measured by the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) tests.
The challenge Vermont faces, said Vilaseca, is closing the achievement gap. Academy was an underperforming school a few years ago, but through a concerted school-wide effort, students made huge improvements in their NECAP scores.
While Academy has continued to ascend, other schools around the state have hit plateaus.
Academy School stands out because it is an example of a “regular school” serving a mixed-income student population. Other schools that have improved its scores are located in higher-income areas, said Vilaseca.