Vermont’s 1777 constitution is the oldest state constitution, ten years older than the 1787 constitution of the United States. It provides that "a competent number of schools ought to be maintained in each town unless the General Assembly permits other provisions for the convenient instruction of youth."
This wording, coupled with Vermont’s mountainous terrain, difficulty of transportation, especially in the days before automobiles, and its ranking as the state with the highest percentage of rural population, led to the development of state law which allows local areas the option of having its own schools or paying the tuition of its resident students to obtain their education at schools of their choice in or out of state or even out of the country. Today more than one-third of the state’s towns lack an elementary or secondary school, or don’t have a school at all.
A prime example of what is possible with the energy released by implementing vouchers and school choice and fewer attempts to regulate local schools by remote governments not responsible for results, thus freeing a school of many unnecessary regulations, is Vermont’s 1000-pupil Saint Johnsbury Academy, arguably the most unusual and best secondary school in the nation, and possibly the world. That is a strong statement but for which there is evidence – the third time this has been done over a period of years.
The Academy was founded in 1842 as a day school and added residential capacity in 1900. It is also a regional vocational center and, since 1986, has served New England as an Advanced Placement training center for teachers. The town of St. Johnsbury has its own K-8 public school system but long ago, as permitted by state law, it decided not to have a public high school. Instead it pays tuition to send its students to a school of their choice. Most of them go to the Academy but they also have the option of attending other schools, not only in Vermont but beyond.
The state authorizes tuition rates up to the state average but a town may pay more if local citizens approve. The rate for day students for 2011-12 is $13,875. This is not only consistent with Vermont’s average but corresponds with a recently announced national average of about $13,900. Out of state students of necessity are nonresident boarding students. Their tuition and fees are currently $42,800 but they are eligible for financial assistance, which is available.
Lest one thinks the Academy is one of New England’s elite boarding schools, it has 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 said that some special education students have been accepted even when they were not expected to learn to read. Even with these special students and programs, about 80% of the Academy’s seniors go on to higher education.
In addition to special programs, the Academy has as many as 225 courses, including 22 Advanced Placement, 40 in fine and performing arts, 20 in technology, pre-engineering and computer science, and five languages. Extracurricular opportunities include 40 teams and 60 organized activities.
Sports include baseball, basketball, football and soccer, and less common ones such as alpine, nordic and cross country skiing (this is Vermont after all, where one high school is for skiiers), gymnastics, and even ultimate frisbee. The 60 organized activities range from a badminton club, bowling club, and Chinese, German and Japanese clubs, to a Highland bagpipe club (Vermont has many Scotch-Irish), and even a "Geek Alliance."
Several years ago the school even sent a team to Asia to attract students. The result was a million additional tuition dollars. Not one of America’s 100,000 public schools, which loudly claim they accept all students, can say the same.
For a more complete picture visit the school’s website – www.STJAcademy.com – for a more in-depth review. Better yet, for those serious about school reform and the potential that can be realized when individual and institutional choice is taken seriously, with less (no?) need for bureaucratic regulations, visit the school. A Google search for "St. Johnsbury Academy" returns thousands of hits.
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