Cabot, News

School’s Future Contemplated in Small-group Forum

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CABOT – Two drum sets and a piano sat dormant on stage inside Cabot School’s Performing Arts Center on a recent Monday night. Instead of filling with music, the building hummed with discussion about the future of the school.

by Lucia McCallum
Forum participants (from left) Taeryn Robbins, Cecilia Gulka, Rebecca Nally and Susan Dineen, discuss and jot down answers to questions posed at Cabot School’s Sustainability Forum, June 17.

Roughly 30 people came that night to talk about what makes the town’s small school work and how officials can improve its offerings to students. Among the takeaways: Most attendees said the school’s small size and project-based learning style gives students an edge over those from other schools, though some cited lost trips and events and said they believe students need more structure and clearer standards.

Hosted by the Cabot School Board, the June 17 forum marked a departure from most meetings about the future of the school, which has weathered calls for closure for years. The agenda was swapped for a set of questions that community members would answer together in their small groups.

At the end of the forum, moderator Jeanne Johnson asked: “Do you feel you’ve been heard?”

“Based on the questions? Yes,” said Alicia Heber after a moment, though she and others think there’s more that needs to be addressed.

by Lucia McCallum
Cabot residents meet at a forum June 17, sharing their responses to questions developed by the School Sustainability Committee about what students should learn, how well the school is doing to meet those needs and how it might improve.

When community members arrived, they were divided randomly into six groups. Each sat at a table with three giant pieces of paper to record their answers to three questions: What skills, knowledge and attributes should our kids develop through their education? What is Cabot School doing well now to help kids develop those? How could Cabot School improve to help kids develop those?

The questions came from the school board’s sustainability committee, made up of two board members and eight people from the community. It was formed shortly after Town Meeting Day and has had two meetings since, said member Stefanie Burtt.

The forum came in the wake of residents this past Town Meeting Day voting to keep the high school open by a 367–239 margin. Voters rejected a petition that would have closed the high school in June and sent students to schools of their choosing with tuition paid for by the town.

What’s discussed at the forums will help inform school board decisions going forward, said Chris Tormey, the board’s vice chair. “We’re not a big town,” he said. “The more we talk the more we may find solutions.”

The forum lasted about two hours. Groups discussed each question for 25 minutes before sharing their key takeaways aloud for the committee to document.

“It’s an opportunity to hear each other, so we have the expectations that you share your thoughts and listen respectfully and assume the best intentions of your table-mates,” Johnson said as a preface to the night.

Most conversations stayed calm throughout the event, largely following the format of the forum. Community members emphasized problem solving and communication as attributes they value for Cabot’s students.

Rebecca Nally, a member of the school board committee who has had five children graduate in Cabot, mentioned the importance of “exposing our kids to different cultures” outside the rural town. The school has taken students to Belize, Boston, Montreal and Washington, D.C., in the past, Nally said.

Karen Robbins shared for her group and noted Cabot’s size. Robbins has one child going into high school and one who recently graduated. She said the small population makes it easy for faculty and students to develop close bonds and for increased “interaction between different ages” because Cabot teaches students from pre-K to grade 12.

Melissa Pratt, who is also on the committee and has three children in the school, added that she appreciates the affordability of the school when it comes to things like lunches and extracurriculars.

“It’s pretty much a level playing field economically when it comes to in school activities,” she said.

For the final question about how Cabot school can improve, Cameron North pinpointed the school’s “restorative” discipline. North has four children, two of which attend high school elsewhere and two who attend elementary at Cabot.

He said he believes it “caters to disruptive kids” by having them take short time-outs or conversations with the teacher instead of “holding them accountable” with harsher consequences.

“My understanding of it is that it’s making everybody feel accounted for and welcomed and all that. And we’re not making somebody be the one (person) off (to) the side,” said North, “but what we need to learn is that that one person’s the one person putting themselves there.”

Issues with the project-based learning style widely used throughout Cabot’s program were brought up at another table. “Project-based learning, this is just our opinion, needs more framework limitations with foundations prioritized,” said Stefanie Burtt, a member of the sustainability committee who has four children in a different school.

Heber has lived in Cabot since 2021 and has two children in the school, ages 10 and 13. She said she appreciated the format of the forum, especially the randomized seating. “It was a good way to get everyone engaged and hear different perspectives.” She believes some key issues within the school went unaddressed in the forum, citing aging infrastructure and staff shortages, including the principal’s job.

“Everyone was heard, but I think it missed the mark,” she said. “There is still a major divide in the community that we didn’t address.”

In a previous interview in March, school board chair Ellen Cairns said community conversations about high school closure wouldn’t stop after Town Meeting Day.

“We will look at all the options,” said Cairns, “including school choice.”

Burtt, from the committee, said more conversations are in the works. “We wanted to find out what people want first, in a positive light,” she said, “and later on discuss maintaining a pre-K through 12 school.”

People can submit comments, questions and thoughts about the future of Cabot School in dropboxes placed around the town, including at the general store, the library, Neighbors in Action and the recycling center.

The next forum is tentatively set for August 26.

Lucia McCallum interns as the Hardwick Gazette's community resilience reporter with support from the Leahy Institute for Rural Partnerships. She works with editors at Community News Service, a University of Vermont journalism program.

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