School’s Out… For Ever?

Congratulations to our son Campbell, who will enter Phoenicia Elementary School for the last time today – as a pupil, at least. Next September, he will move on to the Onteora Middle School. And a couple of years after that, we presume, for the time being, to the neighboring High School – on which same day, all things being right with the world, our Noel will walk through the doors of Phoenicia Elementary to wend his own way through the Onteora School system.

The Sixth Grade Graduation Ceremony took place on Wednesday evening, a meticulously rehearsed event which was proudly led in and out of the “cafetorium” by our very own Campbell – for no other reason than he happens to be the shortest person in his Grade! (Anyone who knows my wife’s tall family will no doubt be as baffled by this fact as we are.) With only 31 children in the Grade, each had the opportunity to say a few words; Campbell, rightly enough, thanked his first teacher at the school, Mrs McInerney (or Miss Mac as she invited herself to be called), whose exuberance and enthusiasm proved crucial to settling him in when moved up from the City two school years ago.

In fact, most School Districts graduate kids out of Elementary School after 5th Grade, and so we were delighted that the Onteora School District held them on for an additional year, initially because it gave Campbell a chance to settle down in the community without changing schools twice in two years; retroactively, because Campbell still doesn’t look big enough to move on to a vastly bigger school.

All of which makes it most unfortunate that our school board’s trustees voted a couple of weeks back to reconfigure the Grade system, opting to make the Middle School Grades 5-8 and thereby reducing the Elementary School system to K-4. It’s not something I agree with. For one thing, nothing I have seen in paper or practice convinces me that putting 10 year olds in with 14 year olds is beneficial for those younger kids, nor that there is anything to be gained by removing those 10-year olds from their roles in elementary schools as mentors to lower grade children. But also, due to declining rolls in the area and the vagaries of a complex bond system, such a reconfiguration would likely point to one of our three remaining elementary schools being closed. And for too many reasons to go into here, the most likely candidate would be Phoenicia.

Campbell with his 6th Grade teachers. Thanks to everyone at the school for making it such a pleasurable two year experience. Here’s looking forward to Noel going the whole nine yards – and seven years.

These past couple of weeks, then, have been somewhat bittersweet – while watching our older child emerge from a loving and nurturing school, located in the heart of an active and thriving village, we’ve also been involved in the initial groundwork necessary to forestall any attempts by the District to start down any path that might close that same school. Wednesday evening at Phoenicia, watching Campbell receive his diploma, I was still recovering from the emotional Board Meeting the previous night. That meeting was held some 15 miles away, at West Hurley – which was, until a few years ago, the community’s fourth elementary school. (Currently ‘mothballed,’ it’s used for the rotating board meetings and not much else.)

Speaking at that board meeting, trying to cram as much as I could into my allotted two minutes, I talked about how the closure of schools can only accelerate population decline, and offered studies that show how small villages with community schools are showing population increases – even as the overall rural population in America declines. Phoenicia school is full of kids like Campbell whose parents moved out of the city to permanent homes in the country, partly because of the school’s excellent reputation. That should be something to celebrate and encourage – and I firmly believe that by taking a positive attitude, this area can attract yet more people for full-time residence, even if it’s true that young adults raised here often feel the need to move on.

I will leave it there for now. The Phoenicia Times has a cover story about the schools debate here. Feel free to read it.

Back to Campbell and his Graduation. I would not pretend it’s been the easiest two years for him. He’s been moved out of the city, into the country, and introduced to a new school with small classes where most kids already knew each other, and among other things, we learned very quickly just how far ahead these country kids were in terms of education, compared to Campbell’s former inner city school. His sense of stability has hardly been helped by the process of his parents building a new home. So we were extremely proud that not only did he get a special award for Library Studies, but that he also finished the year with overall A Grades: scoring an average of 90+ across all subjects. For this, he – and the many others who also scored high – received a special diploma. Unfortunately, it comes from the White House and it has the current President’s signature on it. Oh well. You can’t frame everything!

Time now for Campbell to enjoy the last lengthy summer of his pre-Middle School childhood. The vacation will surely fly by: there’s a week in Virginia where an aunt has a lake-side house; two weeks in England with his Granny; a week doing a computer course in New Paltz; a week or two at the Jersey shore with his mum. Before we know it, Labor Day will be here, and he’ll be setting his alarm some perilously early hour, so as to get to his new school at 8am every day. Fortunately, our new house will be that much closer to it – and presumably we’ll be living there by then. Congratulations, Campbell. Enjoy your summer – you deserve it.

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