Independent Thinkers: Southshire Community School continues to thrive after 26 years

NORTH BENNINGTON — The Village School of North Bennington has gained recognition over the past year after faculty and community members voted to make the former North Bennington Graded School independent.

Around the corner from the Village School, however, lies another independent school — a school that has been recognized as “independent” since its inception in 1987, but has received much less attention than its nearby counterpart.

Housed in a historic 1850s white farm house at 24 Bank St., the Southshire Community School is unique.

Visit on any given school day and you will find only three teachers presiding over their small group of students, who range in age from 5 to 13 years old.

According to SSCS Co-Founder Ann Fitzgerald, an ongoing goal of the school has always been to keep its enrollment size low. This year, there are only 35 children enrolled.

“The most we ever have is 40,” said Fitzgerald. “What we’re really looking for is for the kids to have that sense of community, to feel that they’re valued and that their way of learning is really important.”

The Southshire unit is one of a family, as the three teachers are all related.

“This is our life”

Fitzgerald teaches daily alongside her sister Colleen Healy and her son Jude Fitzgerald.

“We never really stop working,” she said. “This is our life.”

Southshire was founded on the principle that students thrive when immersed in a community-centered, nurturing environment, Fitzgerald explained, noting that her goals at the time the school was founded were simple and remain simple to this day.

“I wanted a place where kids could really invest themselves in their learning and a place where we as teachers could provide them with a curriculum that met each of their individual learning needs,” Fitzgerald said. “That goal hasn’t changed. What has changed is the way in which we meet each of their goals. We’ve gotten better at it.”

Fitzgerald said the curriculum at Southshire is something she takes great pride in, especially since curriculum development is her area of expertise — she holds a master’s degree in curriculum development from Goddard College.

“We have an academic program that we think is very unique,” she said. “There’s a lot of talk right now about the Core Curriculum. For us, there’s no other way to teach. It’s what we’ve always done.”

Fitzgerald explained that she believes children are most successful when they are engaged in what they’re learning.

“As teachers, we develop a curriculum that reflects the interests of the group and their needs. The students really and truly have ownership of their learning,” Fitzgerald said, explaining that a curriculum she developed this fall for the older students, which was supposed to last only two weeks, ended up lasting eight weeks.

“There was too much there that they needed to know,” she said. “The kids are really invested in their curriculum, as a group and as individuals. They know that the curriculum really opens up to reflect what they need.”

According to Fitzgerald, the students are never tested and their work is never graded.

“We want them to understand that they are accomplishing things, that they’re learning because it makes them feel good,” she said. “It’s their learning, they’re not doing it for an outside reason, they’re doing it because they take pleasure in it.”

An integral component of Southshire is the constant mingling between older and younger students.

“The big guys and little guys all work together,” Fitzgerald said. “Big people are helpful and the little people love having that big brother, big sister contact at school.”

Fitzgerald said she thinks it’s because of this constant intermingling of age groups, among other things, that bullying is virtually non-existent.

“The tone of the school is just so unique,” she said. “Bullying doesn’t happen here because we’re able to understand the kids and help them develop socially as well as intellectually. As teachers, our job is to not only give students a solid academic program, but also to create that sense of community.”

Some may believe that this intermingling of “grades” could pose an issue for students intellectually, but Fitzgerald said this is not the case at Southshire.

Rather than define groups by “grades,” like most mainstream schools, Fitzgerald said Southshire breaks its students up according to age groups for lessons and then again, based on the conceptual understanding students have in each subject area. All the while, students who may need extra help are never made to feel inferior.

“Some kids have more advanced math skills and can share it with the ones who don’t,” Fitzgerald said. “Those who don’t then understand why they participate in math lessons, because they need to be where the other kids are. It all becomes meaningful.”

During the instances when the younger children are paired with the older children for lessons, Fitzgerald said the outcome has yet to be anything other than positive.

“We find that younger people learn most readily being partnered with older kids, than they do with teachers simply telling them what to do,” she said. “Teachers can guide them, but the little ones get excited and enthusiastic when they work with the other kids. It all goes back to that sense of community we’re always trying to create.”

Fitzgerald noted that the school’s sense of community grows with each passing year, and has since grown to encompass the North Bennington community as a whole.

“Inevitably, every year, as the students begin to feel that they are invested in their own community within the classroom, they begin to open up and want to connect with the larger community outside of their school,” she said.

Currently, students are working on a book box project, similar to the one implemented by the Bennington Recreational Center. Students are filling boxes with a variety of books that community members can take, enjoy, and swap for free.

Fitzgerald went on to say that she, her sister, and her son work to ensure that all students feel free to express themselves on a daily basis.

Every morning, students are divided by age into three groups for a meeting: the youngest with Jude, the ones in the middle with Healy, and the oldest with Fitzgerald.

During this morning meeting, both teachers and students set goals for the day, as well as review the day’s and week’s activities.

Students are encouraged to express any concerns or joys they may feel to their classmates and their teachers.

According to Fitzgerald, the meeting also acts as a sounding board and “tone-setter” for the day for her as a teacher.

“I can get a gauge on each individual, how they’re doing, how they’re feeling, who’s going to be a babbler that day, who might need a little extra support,” she said. “Then I can shift and encompass that in what I’m doing for the rest of the day.”

Fitzgerald said this time also gives the students the time and space that they need to “ground” themselves.

“They need that,” she said. “It’s vital to the school that kids be able to express what they’re feeling and thinking. Otherwise, it’s harder to know what they want or need or what’s going on for them. The more they feel free to express themselves, the more this is their school and their learning.”

There is a certain poise that can be found among Southshire students, Parent and Board Chairwoman Nicole Stetson noted — a certain confidence that each child emits.

Stetson said that she’s noticed this trait in both her daughter and her son.

“I think the poise comes not only from each child having ownership of their own learning, but just the fact that they know themselves,” she said. “They’re constantly encouraged to know themselves while they’re here, to explore that’s what makes learning for them exciting. What comes out of that is a whole person, a confident child.”

Stetson went on to note that the students that “graduate” from Southshire, despite the school’s small size, seem to be successful.

“The school is small, yet it’s producing confident, socially-aware, community-driven, individuals,” she said. “It’s really such a beautiful place. What happens here, the world needs more of it.”

When asked how she felt Southshire students dealt with the transition from their small community to a larger school, come age 13 or 14, Fitzgerald said that the outcome really depends on the individual child.

“Our experience is that when kids are ready to move on to a new school, they are excited to be a part of the bigger world,” she said. “Some kids are ‘divers,’ they dive right in and aren’t scared about the changes, while others enter it more slowly, they’re cautious and want to observe.”

The number of students who “graduate” or move on to other schools, changes every year, according to Fitzgerald.

Come each spring, she and her sister and son feel confident in the tools and knowledge they’ve given to their students.

Most importantly, however, they are grateful to have had the opportunity to forge lasting relationships with each of their students, and to have had the opportunity to essentially ‘create’ the world with which each student becomes accustomed to living in each day.

“I think we often forget that for children, school is their whole world. They never forget their experiences. It makes them who they are,” Fitzgerald said. “They think this is the construct of what life is, what they see and experience here. It’s a tremendous responsibility for us as teachers, because we have to look at this world we’re providing for the children and say to ourselves, ‘Is this the world I want?’ This is what they will take with them, and hopefully will recreate when they move on.”

Article by –Elizabeth A. Conkey