Homework, backpack, gym bag. Those are the sorts of things most Vermont high school students grab on the way out the door each morning.
But a passport? A handful of pupils can’t attend school without one.
In communities along Vermont’s remote northern border, 13 students are choosing to attend a small private school in Québec rather than a stateside high school. What’s more, several of those are taking Vermont taxpayer dollars with them — roughly $12,500 per student per year — to partially fund their international educations at Stanstead College, located about a half mile from the U.S.-Canadian border.
It’s an extreme version of school choice, a hot topic in state education circles these days. Schools statewide are bracing for a change that will next year allow students to freely choose between the state’s 61 public high schools. For the moment, that choice is restricted to the 93 Vermont towns that don’t have high schools. There, families can choose a public or approved independent school to educate their kids, bringing taxpayer “tuition” dollars along with them.
Most choose Vermont schools. But 315 students cross
state lines to attend class in New Hampshire, New York and Massachusetts — or to study abroad. In the 2011-12 school year, two families sent their kids to high school in Costa Rica using Vermont tuition dollars while seven headed north to Stanstead College. In the past, public school students have ventured further abroad — to Switzerland, Italy and elsewhere.
Rep. Alison Clarkson (D-Woodstock) has a problem with that. She says she’s watched public school enrollment decline during her eight and a half years in the legislature and worries that allowing students to take tuition dollars out of state only exacerbates the problem. Clarkson has introduced legislation that would prohibit students from using state tuition payments at out-of-state independent schools.
“We are helping fund the problem by enabling kids to take our property taxes and that talent out of state,” says Clarkson, who unsuccessfully pushed a similar bill last year. “Those are our statewide Vermont property tax dollars. I am not sure they should be going to Switzerland or boarding schools all over the country.”
Stanstead College actively recruits students from across the border. When the U.S. dollar was stronger, more Americans were enrolling because the private education was a better bargain. But Ross Murray, the school’s communications coordinator, says the number of U.S. students is holding steady.
“We’ve had kids coming across the border for years,” says Murray.
Three-quarters of Stanstead College’s 196 students board in stately brick dormitories lining the campus. Four of the day students from Vermont come from Montgomery and Coventry, school-choice towns that pay $12,500 per student toward the $20,000 yearly tuition. The remainder come from families in Craftsbury Common, Holland, Irasburg, Derby and Newport, who are paying full tuition — occasionally offset by scholarships or financial aid — to send their kids north.
Stanstead College doesn’t feel like an American public high school — it’s more Harry Potter than “Glee.” Classes here are small — typically just 12 students — and the student-faculty ratio an enviable eight-to-one. The boys wear crisp coats and ties, the girls pleated skirts and sweaters emblazoned with an ornate “S.” Students belong to one of four houses and compete for house points in a series of games such as ice carving.
Classes are primarily conducted in English, but all students study French. Participation in sports is also mandatory, and hockey is an especially big draw; one of last year’s Stanstead graduates was a first-round draft pick for the Calgary Flames.
French, Spanish and Chinese were among the languages being spoken during lunch on Valentine’s Day. Boisterous students streamed into the school’s dining hall, a bright and airy space with exposed rafters and enormous windows. Three dozen flags hung from the ceiling representing the native countries of students past and present. The students had just come back from February break and were finding their new table assignments, which change every few weeks.
After a brief prayer and some announcements, students or faculty members at each table dished up a family-style meal of pasta and roasted vegetables. In honor of Valentine’s Day, a few older boys traipsed into the dining hall dressed in Cupid costumes, complete with heart-covered boxer shorts, holding roses and love notes in their teeth for giggling recipients. The school’s headmaster and upper administrators took in the scene from cushy, leather-bound chairs around a table at the center of the room.
In total, 20 countries are represented among the current student body. That’s a big draw for some Vermont families, says admissions director Joanne Tracy Carruthers.
“It’s a different choice, for those kids that want an international experience right up the road,” she says, adding that it’s a radical shift from the more homogenous student body of most Vermont public schools.
“Being from a small town, you don’t see a lot of different cultures and races,” says Erin Butler, a 15-year-old from Coventry who attends Stanstead College. Sadie Smith, a 15-year-old freshman from Montgomery, says she’s now considering attending college abroad, inspired by her time at Stanstead and interactions with an Australian exchange student she befriended there.
For some Vermont students, the Canadian private school is just as close as their local public school. Spencer Martin, 17, says Stanstead is an easy 10-minute drive from his home in Derby, roughly the same distance as it is to North Country Union High School in Newport. Martin’s family has sent him to Stanstead since the seventh grade — mostly for the hockey program — and pays full tuition because Derby isn’t a choice town.
For others, Stanstead is a long haul. Smith wakes at 5:30 each morning for the trip to school. Her parents drive her the first leg to Coventry — over Jay Peak on Route 242 — to meet up with two other students: Butler and her 17-year-old brother Rory, who drives the rest of the way to Québec.
Smith’s commute can take more than 90 minutes each way, and on busy days, she doesn’t get home until 9:30 p.m. The Butler family actually moved from Montgomery to Coventry last summer to reduce Erin and Rory’s time in the car.
But long distance and the logistics of daily border crossings — students must obtain a special study permit — aren’t deterring other Montgomery families from considering Stanstead. In fact, Carruthers says there’s so much interest from Montgomery families this year — six additional students have made inquiries — that for the first time the school is thinking about running a bus.
Does it constitute a trend? Probably not. Many more students in the school-choice communities of Montgomery and Coventry are staying stateside, opting instead to attend local schools: Coventry students typically head to Lake Region Union High School in Barton or North Country Union High School in Newport; most Montgomery residents choose Enosburg Falls High School or Richford High School.
Courtney Close, the school counselor at Coventry Elementary School, says school choice can be an overwhelming decision for some eighth graders, especially those who have attended the same small elementary school for their entire lives. In her experience, most students think more about where their friends are going — or what school has a better football team — than about academics.
“They’re so excited about moving on, period,” says Close.
And even with a big chunk of the tuition bill paid, many Vermont families can’t afford to pay the balance, says Coventry Elementary School principal Matthew Baughman. The Northeast Kingdom has the highest unemployment rates in the state, he notes, and a few thousand dollars extra can be hard to come by. Public high schools, in comparison, remain free of charge under the choice system.
Students like Smith and the Butler siblings agree that if it weren’t for the help of their school-choice tuition dollars, their families likely wouldn’t have ever considered Stanstead College. Even with that discount, Smith says her parents insisted she and her sister, who may attend the school next year, apply for scholarships and financial aid.
Now that they’re in, though, they rave about their school — the small classes, the clubs and sports, their math and science teachers. Even after hours on the road each day, and homework that keeps her up late, Smith insists Stanstead is “definitely worth the time and effort.”