Presently, in Manchester, we boast arguably one of the best high schools in America, a K-8 private day school that is thriving despite the down economy and a pre-K-8 public school that offers universal preK and full day kindergarten at no cost. These schools combine to employ 253 full-time workers. Include part time workers such as coaches, tutors and Bennington Rutland Supervisory Union support personal and the number swells to well over 300. These schools are only serving the baseline need for the area and the potential for growth is astronomical.
Manchester's ability to grow the industry does not stop with the schools. Add in other educational entities such as Hildene, The Mark Skinner Library, The Tutorial Center, The Manchester Village school, Southern Vermont Art Center and Northshire Day School for potential growth. Even the Northshire Book Store pitches in with a great lecture series. Yet we spend far to much time ignoring this avenue and concentrate on what store is going out of business and who is moving in.
If we do not move forward with a serious evaluation of education as a town industry, we could be in danger of slipping behind. We like to think as our schools as innovative. They are not. They are superior at preparing students for a four-year college experience, which is commendable. However the fastest growing area for the country's K-12 schools is preparing students to succeed in training schools or two year colleges after graduation. We need work in this area. Vermont is becoming known as an excellent destination for foreign students to attend school. Burr and Burton Academy has tapped into this resource, others in town have not. Virtual Schools are popping up all over the country in places where employees want to live. I could think of no other place better than Manchester with a ready supply of talent to start tomorrow. School athletics are becoming big business. How about a town that is 20 minutes from three ski slopes, has its own ice rink, Nordic ski trails and plenty of land for expansion for a winter sports academy? Also this town is three hours from one of the largest cities in the world. From culinary experiences to small scale farming Manchester has the ability to grow its educational offerings.
I could opine for pages on how untapped the growth potential is in the educational industry for Manchester, but I hope with the examples I provided that we can all agree it is there. To stay true to my idea of staying away from vision and big picture here a some sensible ideas that are tangible and can achieve some of the goals "A Look Ahead" is advocating for.
First, I would start a board inviting the leaders of the institutions I mentioned with the sole purpose of how to use education as an economic engine for the future of Manchester. This could be done by the town or the chamber of commerce. Both have a large interest in this area. There are extremely knowledgeable people in these leadership positions that can offer insights about business and education, yet when they come together it is not around town economics. It is important time is set aside for this purpose.
Second, I would look to revamp our middle school pertaining to grades 6-8. This is an area of weakness as we expect relatively few teachers to cater to every child's need. Manchester and surrounding towns do a good job K-5 teaching needed skills and BBA speaks for itself, but at a time when students are forming their passion for education we are coming up short. Charter schools and innovative theme schools are becoming increasingly popular for good reason. I would start another board with the idea to close the middle school and create a series of academies for grades 6-8 within Manchester. There could be a Math and Science Academy, a Literacy and Performing Arts Academy, a Practical Arts and Horticulture Academy or whatever the local educational leaders felt was a need. These academies would then feed into a system that does all extracurricular activities together such as sports, after school clubs and dances. It is basically what happens now, but all the local middle schools are teaching the same thing. I guarantee you if this was created the surrounding towns of Manchester would abandon their middle schools and send their students to this academy system. It would also be extremely attractive to families looking to relocate. The ability to customize an education is the future. To wrap one's head around this please do not think in terms of bricks and mortar and building more schools. There is plenty of space in town and with a little creative thinking these can be housed in multiple locations. More importantly, we have three independent schools in town who we could partner with and quickly cut through red tape.
Third, I would start a K-12 virtual school tomorrow. There are presently few of these in New England and while we are not going to a virtual school society, there is growth in this area. For a myriad of reasons every student cannot or chooses not attend a traditional school. This would bring jobs to Manchester, particularly those 20 to 30 year olds that the town wants desperately. This would need to be funded by taxpayer monies and directed through the Manchester school system. However, it could be started for less than the roundabout and the pool house and actually create permanent jobs with the idea to pay for its self over time.
These are just a few ideas of how to use education to build the towns economy. My challenge to town leaders is explore these ideas or come to some consensus on how do we use our schools for economic development and can we create an education industry. For far to long we have been producing exceptional students to only watch them move away and make their mark elsewhere. It is time to take a true look at what is the backbone of Manchester and invest wisely in that area.
William Bazyk is a resident of Manchester and professional educator.