Providing a broad variety of activities, athletics, clubs and arts has been a challenge for schools of any size for several decades. Academic rigor and larger course offerings, as well as college preparation and/or specialized tech programs to prepare students for life after high school, put pressures on the normal school day schedule. Carving out time for activities and clubs as well as making arts a priority in scheduling takes a concerted effort by schools as a whole and forces a creative and flexible approach.
Smaller schools feel the same time pressures and constraints as larger schools as they try to offer a broad variety of activities for a smaller student base. Schools must make clubs, arts and athletics a high priority if they are to be successful with these activities.
Thetford Academy in Thetford, Vermont, is a small private school with a public mission serving students from local towns in the central eastern part of the state. It borders the Connecticut river and sits high on a hill with wonderful views of the New Hampshire White Mountains.
Founded in 1819, it is the oldest secondary school in Vermont and has an enrollment of about 300 students in grades 7 through 12. This is a common size for small schools in Vermont, and it provides a good example of how small schools can maintain a broad spectrum of clubs and activities as well as providing a strong fine arts/performing arts department and support a flourishing athletics program.
Thetford Academy has a 50-minute block of time built into the middle of each day to accommodate time for grade-level advisories, a weekly all-school assembly, clubs, teacher office hours and lunch. Thetford Academy calls this time Power Hour. Each day is slightly different. Mondays and Fridays are designated for grade-level advisories, Tuesdays and Thursdays accommodate office hours and club time, and each Wednesday is set aside for an all-school assembly where student accomplishments are honored, school business and announcements are given, and student performances are presented. Advisory, assembly and club time is 25 minutes and the remaining 25 minutes is for lunch.
The model used at Thetford provides substantial time each week for teachers to meet individually with students to help with academic needs, and it also gives students a chance to make up class work and tests without having to come after school. Clubs have adequate time to accomplish goals, and grade-level advisories give teachers an opportunity to stay in touch with a specific group of students. It is a high priority of Thetford Academy to make sure that each and every student is well known and has caring adults to help during times of stress and celebration.
A variety of clubs is offered during the Tuesdays and Thursdays Power Hour time slot, including a gardening club, knitting, table top gaming, outing club, newcomers’ group, lunch bunch, and a GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) and gender equity club. There is also open gym time as well as open art and music room opportunities for students to practice their instruments, paint or draw or play basketball and other indoor sports.
Thetford Academy does not have an Honor Society; however, several academic subjects have “embedded honors” in the course curriculum for students who wish to dive deeper into their studies and have it reflected on their transcripts. The Power Hour model allows for students to meet with their teachers individually to help with the required work. History 9 Honors, English 9 Honors and Science Fiction Honors are offered during Thursday’s Power Hour time.
Small schools should attempt to maintain a strong athletics program with several sports offered for boys and girls. Track and field, soccer, basketball, softball, baseball and cross country are common school sports and have a strong tradition at Thetford Academy. Football and hockey are difficult sports to support with a small student base and high budgetary concerns.
There are several students who have chosen to play football and hockey at Thetford. The academy has worked with larger neighboring schools who have football and hockey programs to allow them to participate on their teams. Hartford High School has a Division One football team and Oxbow High School has a Division Three team. The same situation holds true for ice hockey, as neighboring schools have ice rinks and hockey teams.
Traveling to distant schools for away games may take an hour or more in some states and daylight hours become precious in the fall and spring. Therefore, schools must be flexible concerning early release times. In Vermont, the program that enables students to participate in a sport at a different high school is called Member to Member and is sanctioned by the Vermont Principals’ Association. The VPA oversees athletics, activities and All-District/All-State music festivals in the state.
In addition to offering athletics, clubs and a variety of other activities for students, maintaining a diverse fine arts/performing arts program is of paramount importance within a school. Students should have a variety of arts programs from which to choose to develop their experiences and help them become well-balanced and broad thinking across many disciplines.
The courses offered by the Arts Department at Thetford Academy are not considered activities but are worth mentioning here because of the intrinsic value to the student body. Students have a wide range of courses to choose from including timber framing, graphic design, cooking for health, meal planning, foods around the world, pastries, ceramics, art, advanced art, middle school drama and one-act play.
Performing arts classes include chorus, musical theater production and instrumental music. The annual musical theater production is built into the daily schedule during the spring semester. This is unique to Thetford Academy as very few schools offer this opportunity for students during their regular school day. With so many fine arts and performing arts choices within a small school, class sizes are small and students receive a good deal of individual attention from their teachers.
It is advantageous for small schools to have multi-faceted teachers who are capable and willing to coach and mentor special activities for students. For example, Thetford Academy’s art teacher also is a certified yoga instructor and teaches that class during the regular school day. A number of teachers also serve as after-school sports coaches. A custodian helps with several of the boys sports teams. The choral music teacher also teaches middle school drama and an English teacher teaches drama classes and acting activities. With talented and committed teachers and staff, small schools often do not have to look outside of their own pool of personnel and are able to help sustain vibrant activities and sports programs.
Many regions of upper New England are experiencing a noticeable decline in student enrollments, so it is more important than ever to provide a broad base of activities in all disciplines to engage and shape students into strong contributing members of society. Smaller schools compete with each other to attract students. School clubs, activities, athletics and arts help to promote schools and make them desirable to attend. School boards, administrators and teachers should make maintaining activities a high priority for the overall health and well-being of the student body.
Greg Mellinger is director of instrumental music at Thetford Academy in Thetford, Vermont.