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St. Johnsbury Academy: Proof That Choice Works and Schools Can Be Better
By David W. Kirkpatrick (11/06)

In what is known as the Northeast Kingdom of the state, the poorest section of basically rural and low-income Vermont, there Is St. Johnsbury Academy, founded in 1842, at the very time Horace Mann as Secretary of Education in neighboring Massachusetts was establishing the groundwork for what has grown in today's 50 million pupil public education system.

The Academy has been described as "a cutting edge voucher school" and "arguably the most complex high school in America and certainly the most original and dynamic." Those words are not self-praise from one of the school's own promotional pieces but came from Bruce E. Buxton, headmaster of Falmouth Academy in Massachusetts who further notes that the school also serves New England as an Advanced Placement training center for teachers and a regional vocational center.

The school is a combination of an area high school and a boarding school whose 900 or so students come from 30 New Hampshire and Vermont communities, about 20 states and nearly as many foreign nations.

More than 90 of Vermont's nearly 250 towns have no full K-12 system of their own. Instead they are "tuitioning' towns who, under long-standing state law pay tuition to send some or all of their students to public or private schools, even beyond Vermont's borders.

The law permits local towns to pay tuition up to the state average, and they may even go beyond this if a town's citizens approve at a town meeting. Of St. Johnsbury's $14 million budget nearly half comes from tuition revenues from Vermont (44%) and New Hampshire (4%). Thus Buxton's terming the Academy "a cutting edge voucher school." Nearly 10% of the budget comes from other student tuition and the rest comes from various sources such as Annual Giving and the school endowment.

The school's more than 160-year history speaks for itself about the validity of such an approach.

But consider this:

The student body's average SAT score of 1072 is respectable but hardly startling and is a rebuttal to those who say vouchers will draw off the "cream" of public school students. The school offers further strong evidence to contradict those who say voucher schools won't accept students with special needs. At the Academy there are students and programs in the areas of Learning Impairment, Specific Learning Disability, Learning, Visual, Hearing, Speech or Health Impairments, Emotional-Behavioral Disability, Autism, and Traumatic Brain Injury. It is reported that some of its special education students are accepted although they will never learn to read.

Yet 78-82% of the Academy's seniors go on to higher education, a rate that places at or near the top among all Vermont schools.

And while students are at the school, the extent of the offerings also make the institution highly unusual and quite possibly unique. There are as many as 225 courses which include 22 Advanced Placement, 40 in the fine and performing arts, 20 in technology, pre-engineering and computer science and five languages. Extracurricular opportunities are presented with 40 teams and 60 other various organized activities.

Sports include the usual, such as baseball, basketball, football and soccer, and the less common alpine and nordic skiing, cross country, gymnastics, and even ultimate frisbee. The 60 organized activities range from a badminton club, bowling club, and Chinese, German or Japan clubs, to a Highland bagpipe club and even a "Geek Alliance."

As long as 20 years ago the school sent a team to Asia to attract students. The result was a million additional tuition dollars. Which of the nation's public schools, which loudly claim they accept all students and independent schools do not, can say the same.

All of this for a day student tuition of about $11,000, comparable to public schools in Vermont. Costs may be tripled for out-of-the-area boarding students, including room and board costs.

Most public school educators have probably never heard of St. Johnsbury or its outstanding record even though a Google search for "St. Johnsbury Academy" produces about 39,000 hits. But then public educators rarely express curiosity about what's occurring in neighboring districts. Probably no field is as intellectually somnolent as education.

Such insularity is a major reason why the system doesn't improve

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"‘After a lot of years of trying to improve schools,' laments John L. Anderson, the president of the New American Schools Development Corporation, ‘we don't have one district of any size or diversity of population where good schools are the norm not the exception." Lynn Olson, "Growing Pains," p. 29, Education Week, Nov. 2, 1994

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Copyright 2006 David W. Kirkpatrick
108 Highland Court,
Douglassville, Pennsylvania 19518-9240
Phone: (610) 689-0633

E-mail (tchrwrtr@aol.com)

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