Many Quit at School With Few Walls

A public high school near Brattleboro has about 350 students, few walls, and a high dropout rate. Most of the class “rooms” at Bellows Falls High School are separated only by makeshift barriers including bookshelves and the kind of low partitions usually found between office cubicles. “The noise was distracting,” Sam Bledsoe said. “Usually I could tune it out, but if the teacher in the next ‘room’ was talking loudly it would completely take you out of what you were supposed to be learning.” Bledsoe went to Bellows Falls High for four years and graduated in 2006. He went to college and now works as an agricultural research scientist at a mid-size company near Philadelphia.

Priscilla Lambert is a teacher at the school. “Both my daughters went to school here and had a great experience,” she said. “The open concept building works well. Students who can’t handle the noise go to tech school. The lack of walls is good if I need to leave the room for a few minutes because the teacher next door can hear if my students are having a problem.”

According to the Vermont Department of Education web site, in the 2011-2012 school year, the “four-year cohort dropout rate” at Bellows Falls High School was 23 percent, far higher than the state average of 9 percent.

The school’s principal, Chris Hodsden, did not immediately respond to a phone message or to an e-mailed request to be interviewed for this article.

Robert Maloy is an Education professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He has written several books about education. “In the late 1960s and early 1970s, some schools were built without walls. It made for a difficult learning environment,” he said. “I’m not aware of any other schools [besides Bellows Falls] that don’t have walls now.” The schools in Amherst, Greenfield, Holyoke, Northampton, and Springfield all have walls between classrooms, Maloy said. Bellows Falls High was built in 1971.

U.S. News and World Report magazine ranks high schools using a so-called “college readiness index.” In a comparison of eight local, public high schools, Bellows Falls was at the bottom of the rankings. The other schools were Brattleboro, Keene, Greenfield, Northampton, Amherst, Holyoke, and Springfield.

Maloy said other measures besides test scores should be used to compare schools. “Do students want to come to school? Do they like it? Are there democratic processes that give students a voice in decisions at the school? Are there extracurricular activities besides sports, like theater and art? Are there community service opportunities?”

The school’s teachers are members of a union, the National Education Association.

John Lawlor was a student at Bellows Falls High for two-and-a-half years, about a decade ago. Now he lives in Vermont and works at a ski resort in winter and at a 150 acre, organic vegetable farm the rest of the year. “The lack of walls in the school made it noisy,” he said. “It was distracting. Some teachers were better than others at keeping their students quiet.”

Rusty DeWees is a stand-up comedian from Vermont who performs as “The Logger.” In the 1970s he went to another Vermont high school that, at the time, lacked walls between classes. Bledsoe retold one of The Logger’s stories. “I could be sitting in math class, shoot a spitball through the French class, and hit the Health teacher.”

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