Neighboring counties differ on approaches to school consolidation

Buckingham County voted to close four rural schools and construct a new state-of-the-art combined primary and elementary school, pictured here during the final phase of construction this summer. Buckingham County voted to close four rural schools and construct a new state-of-the-art combined primary and elementary school, pictured here during the final phase of construction this summer.

Ongoing discussions about rural county schools have raised one question over and over: Are small schools worth preserving for the sake of community, even if it means spending more money? This summer the Albemarle County School Board voted in favor of funding renovations to keep three small elementary schools open, a decision widely supported by local parents. But 40 miles down Highway 20, three similar schools in Buckingham County recently closed to make way for a new Primary and Elementary school parents and teachers alike are already raving about.

When rural Albemarle residents caught wind in July that Yancey might be consolidated with Red Hill and Scottsville elementary schools, parents and teachers went up in arms. Tucked away in Esmont, Yancey fosters a sense of community, and parents argued that they wouldn’t want their kids anywhere else. Working mothers who didn’t have time to drive to and from Scottsville were concerned about putting their six-year-olds on a bus for an hour, and teachers feared losing small class sizes.

After Albemarle County Supervisors Chris Dumler and Duane Snow hosted a public forum at Yancey, Esmont residents packed themselves into the next School Board meeting, where a unanimous vote allocated CIP funds to make renovations necessary to keep the school open.

In nearby Buckingham County, parents and teachers received a similar shock when the School Board announced its decision early this year to close Gold Hill Elementary due to budget cuts.

Despite excitement around the new school, Director of Facilities Ivan Davis said it’s always sad to lose a community school.

“And Gold Hill truly was a community school,” he said. But because the county only has one middle school and one high school, he said consolidating the primary and elementary students will, for the first time, allow all Buckingham students to start and finish school together.

Trich Stone has lived in Buckingham County for five years, and said her two elementary aged students had mixed feelings about leaving Gold Hill for the new school. Her second grade daughter was thrilled at the thought of something new, but she said her fifth grade son was disappointed to not graduate from the school he’d attended since kindergarten.

Both of her kids were asked to be tour guides of the new school—a real honor, as they were part of a select few permitted to visit the new building before Open House.

“As soon as he saw it, there were stars in his eyes,” Stone said. “He fell in love.”

Stone’s ten-year-old was certainly not the first to fall in love with the elaborate new building. The primary school (k-2) is bridged to the elementary (3-5) by the open, airy cafeteria, which not only features long tables, but also a small corner kitchen for cooking classes. Small details—animal footprints in the halls, a deep window seat perfect for a small reader to climb into—are designed to enthrall little learners.

The teachers, most of whom transferred from the recently closed county schools, began preparing their classrooms days before Open House.

An air of excitement filled the hallways Monday, August 20, the day before students would visit their classrooms and meet their teachers.

First grade teacher Wendy Spivey said she loves the feeling of having a fresh start every year, which is heightened even more so now that she gets to welcome her students into a brand new classroom.

Spivey couldn’t pick one favorite thing about her new classroom, but said she was impressed at the amount of thought that went into every detail.

“Right down to the chairs,” she said, sitting down in one of the small colored seats her pupils would soon fill. “It moves, so the kids aren’t just sitting still,” which she said often helps young kids focus.

Outside her own classroom, said she’s thrilled that her students will have access to full-time music, art, and PE teachers. In the past, elective teachers in Buckingham bounced from school to school, limiting their curriculum and involvement with the students. Stone said her son, who has never before expressed interest in music, came home from his first day raving about joining a chorus and learning to play the recorder.

The school is up and running and full of eager students, and seems to be the pride and joy of Buckingham. Enthusiasm has taken over the feeling of loss after Gold Hill closed, and parents and teachers are content that the School Board made the right decision. But officials in neighboring Albemarle say what works for one county may not work for another.

“I can understand parents feeling very wedded to their small schools,” said Albemarle County School Board Chair Diantha McKeel. “At the same time, there certainly are advantages to being a part of a larger school. It goes both ways.”

When the board discussed the option of building a new elementary school three years ago, board members encouraged families to visit the newest schools in the county, but she said rural parents were adamant on maintaining.

McKeel wondered how many Albemarle parents were either ambivalent or supportive of the idea of consolidation.

“You hear from folks that are adamantly opposed,” she said. “Folks tend to come out and speak against something rather than for it. But silence from others doesn’t mean they’re opposed.”

McKeel said collaboration between the School Board and Board of Supervisors is essential in making big decisions.

“Saying ‘We love our small schools’ is different than being willing to step up to the plate and saying ‘Because I believe in small schools I am going to help you fund the small schools,’” she said. It’s hard to predict what will happen to schools like Yancey, she said, but in order to continue to support them, the board with the purse strings must recognize the impact of its financial decisions.

County Supervisor Chris Dumler said there are always trade-offs. The County still has limited music and arts programs due to the board’s inability to fund more teachers, but class sizes in rural schools remain small and commutes remain short, which he says is worth spending the extra money.

“What we’re talking about is a cost saving, structured against something that will probably lead to the weakening of that feel that comes with a rural community.”

Albemarle County’s small rural schools serve as community centers, but Buckingham residents argue that putting all of their children in one building fosters a different sense of community—one that allows high school seniors to graduate alongside classmates they met in kindergarten, and saves taxpayers money.

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