In Ludlow, a new school faces an existential threat

Students go from science to math class at the Expeditionary School at Black River in Ludlow in February. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

One morning this winter at the Expeditionary School at Black River, tenth grader Zach Taylor was trying to solve a computer problem.

Ahead of an upcoming open house for parents at the Ludlow school, students in a physical science course were programming small beeping computers called Arduinos to perform simple functions. Taylor, a Mount Holly tenth grader, had instructed his Arduino to function as a thermometer. But the device had presented him with a challenge.

“What I’m trying to do right now is change it because right now it’s in Celsius,” Taylor said. “I’m trying to” — he paused as the device suddenly emitted a high screeching sound — “get it to Fahrenheit.”

That class — a group of roughly a dozen students engaged in creative, self-directed projects — embodies the hallmarks of the Expeditionary School, an unusual, grades 7-12 independent program in Ludlow.

The roughly 15-student school, which operates in the now-shuttered Black River High School building, offers a unique program: Each student creates a “Personalized Learning Map” and can choose to take courses such as electronic music production, yoga or computer science. Since opening in 2020, the school has prized hands-on, self-directed learning and works closely with students’ families; in some cases, students’ relatives volunteer at the school in lieu of tuition.

Ninth grader Azaiah Allen of Charlestown New Hampshire works on a science project at the Expeditionary School at Black River in Ludlow. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

But the new institution is in a difficult spot.

The school has spent the better part of two years in a thus far unsuccessful bid for state approval. Without that approval, the school cannot accept public tuition money, cutting it off from a key funding source.

Now, the school is staring down a new hurdle: a moratorium on all new private school approvals, effective July 1, written into the state Legislature’s budget bill. 

Gov. Phil Scott vetoed that bill last month. But if lawmakers succeed in overriding that veto — or if a new budget contains the same language — the moratorium could force the school to close its doors.

“That’s a question that, as a board, we have to discuss,” said Gary Blodgett, the chair of the school’s board of trustees, in an interview.

Seventh grader Iris Tucker of Ludlow takes notes during a pre-algebra math class at the Expeditionary School at Black River in Ludlow. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

‘Full local control’

Like much of rural Vermont, Ludlow, a resort town in the shadow of Okemo Mountain, has faced years of slow declines in school enrollment and rising educational costs.

Following the passage of Act 46 in 2015, the state of Vermont offered incentives — and penalties — to convince small rural school districts to merge with their neighbors. After Ludlow joined a new unified district with the neighboring town of Mount Holly, the public Black River High School shut its doors in 2020.

By that time, however, a group of community members had come up with a different plan: to open a private, or independent, school in the Black River High School building.

The idea was to create a school “whose independent status will allow full local control,” its board of trustees wrote to the Chester Telegraph in April 2020 — one “whose vision and mission arise directly from our community, from its character and needs,” where students would have “true freedom to learn based on their passions.”

The Expeditionary School opened in the fall of 2020 with 15 students and one full-time employee, the head of school. In July 2021, the school applied for state approval.

Kendra Rickerby is the head of school at the Expeditionary School at Black River and the school’s only full-time employee. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Administrators said they were told that the whole process — which includes a site visit, recommendation from the Agency of Education, review by a State Board of Education subcommittee and final decision from the state board itself — could take six to eight months.

Instead, agency staffers did not visit the school until March 2022, and a report summarizing that visit was not released until August, a delay education officials attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic.

That highly critical report outlined a series of problems: student documentation was missing, the school did not require “formal lesson plans,” staff did not coordinate with students’ home districts to provide special education, and the school lacked key policies around mandatory emergencies and school safety.

What’s more, according to the report, the school had not been audited, and administrators’ bid for a line of credit from a local bank had been rejected.

“The Independent School review team cannot recommend initial approval, at this time, for the Expeditionary School at Black River due to identified deficiencies in the school’s program,” the agency wrote. “The review team also questions whether ESBR has the financial capacity to remain viable.”

The Expeditionary School at Black River is housed in the former Black River High School building in Ludlow. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

‘This approval system is flawed’

But, in a December response clearly laced with frustration, Expeditionary School leaders rebutted those claims. The school had corrected many of the deficiencies, but the Agency of Education was simply wrong about others, administrators said. State officials had not clearly communicated the approval requirements, were difficult to reach and often failed to reply to emails, Expeditionary School leaders said.

And the entire process — by that time, nearly a year and a half in — had dragged on much longer than the expected six to eight months.

“I believe this approval system is flawed,” Blodgett, the school’s board chair, wrote to the State Board of Education in December. “We are a beginning school, just in our third year, with lots to learn. Although we took issue with some of the visiting team’s findings, we did learn from the report, which finally reached our hands, and have made many adjustments.”

Ted Fisher, a spokesperson for the Agency of Education, said that Covid-19 had created a backlog in the independent school approval process.

“Both the Board and the Agency are working hard to address this backlog as quickly as possible and have made significant progress in recent months,” Fisher said. “The AOE is executing the State Board’s review process as it is articulated in state law and state board rule and working as expeditiously as possible to clear the backlog.”

But from one perspective, it’s clear why the situation would be frustrating. Amid the push to consolidate small school districts, pressure from the state’s education agency ultimately drove Ludlow to close its public school. Now, that same educational bureaucracy seems to be standing in the way of the town’s efforts to replace it with a sustainable private school.

In December, the state Board of Education ultimately voted to deny the Expeditionary School’s bid for approval. The school submitted a new application in April.

By that time, however, the Vermont Legislature was mulling strict new requirements on independent schools. One key provision was written into the state’s budget bill: a moratorium on all new independent school approvals, effective July 1.

If that language ultimately takes effect, it could leave the Expeditionary School with too little time to be approved.

A hard deadline

Expeditionary School administrators and parents say the school is an invaluable asset to its community and its students, many of whom have struggled in traditional education settings.

The Expeditionary School “saved our son, as a learner, but more so as a person,” Becky Wynne, the parent of Expeditionary School students, wrote to Board members last month.

“ESBR has been able to provide my daughter with the support she has needed to push past her anxieties, to be more present and engaged with her learning and to grow in her sense of community,” Christine Reid, another parent, wrote in a separate letter to the board. 

But the school’s approval still appears to be a long shot. It’s unclear whether the usual steps — a recommendation from Agency of Education staff, review by a subcommittee, and then a decision from the Board of Education — could happen in time.

“The Agency is still in the process of reviewing the application and gathering additional information from ESBR,” Fisher, the Agency of Education spokesperson, said in an email. “We hope to be able to provide a recommendation this month. It is premature to say if the Agency will recommend approval, and the decision to approve is ultimately the State Board’s.”

Even if the Agency does issue a recommendation in time, an approval would require 11th-hour action from the state Board of Education, which has ultimate authority over private school approvals.

“I just don’t see the requisite things that need to happen happening before July 1,” said Jennifer Samuelson, the chair of the state Board of Education, which has ultimate authority over private school approvals.

“I mean, I will consider anything that’s ready for the board to consider it,” she added. “But I haven’t seen anything.”

Kendra Rickerby is the head of school at the Expeditionary School at Black River in Ludlow. She recently accepted another position elsewhere. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The last week

This past week was the Expeditionary School’s last week of class, and students and teachers were busy with final projects and an end-of-the-year play. One student was expected to graduate on Saturday, the school’s fourth ever.

Administrators said they did not know what would happen if the moratorium took effect before the Expeditionary School could be approved. Amid the uncertainty, the head of school recently accepted another position elsewhere.

Since its inception, the school has relied mostly on donations and fundraisers to operate. On Town Meeting Day, voters approved an unusual ballot article to give $75,000 in public “bridge funding” to the school. Ironically, trustees said, the school is receiving public money from the state of New Hampshire for a student’s tuition — even as it is ineligible for Vermont funds.

But it’s not clear if the school can sustain itself through fundraising for another year.

The board “just works and works and works to try to raise the money to do this,” Blodgett, the board chair, said. “And people have lives. They see the importance of this, but they have lives too.”

Students work in a science lab at the Expeditionary School at Black River in Ludlow on Monday, February 27, 2023. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

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