Could Sandwich School's future be secured by attracting students from other towns?

SANDWICH — Sheepishly, Mary Ellen Ormond hinted that she knew what she was provoking when she placed "Future Optimal Uses of Sandwich Central School" as the topic of a discussion at last night's Inter-Lakes School Board meeting, as the memory of fighting to keep their small school open is still fresh in the minds of many Sandwich residents.
The ploy worked: more than 40 residents of the town attended the board meeting, held last night at Town Hall.
"I knew it would get you out," Ormond admitted.
If those in attendance feared they would have to again defend their school against closure, those fears were soon allayed. Instead, Ormond, who is still partway through her first year as Inter-Lakes superintendent, told those in attendance that what she saw in Sandwich Central was a "diamond... We're talking among the top 10 schools in the state. Something amazing is going on here," she said, citing individualized, hands-on learning, coupled with committed support from community members.
However, there's another thing going on at Sandiwch Central, something which is seen across most of the state: low enrollment. From as much as 120 students about 30 years ago, recalled  board member Howard Cunningham, the school has shrunk to about 60 students. Several years ago, the district evaluated the feasibility of continuing operation of the school, especially since the district has another elementary school in Meredith. Residents protested, however, and as a compromise the school was reorganized to offer grades Kindergarten through sixth grade, split up over four multi-age classes. Further decline, though, could make even that compromise seem impractical.
Of course, this is a concern faced by school districts almost throughout the state. Ormond reported that she had been approached by the superintendent of the neighboring Moultonborough district, who was interested in luring Sandwich youngsters to her elementary school.
"That's not happening," said said, promising those in attendance that closing Sandwich Central School is "not an option — not even on the table for discussion." Rather, she asked, "How do we nurture it, how do we make it grow?"
Answering her own question, Ormond suggested that Sandwich Central School should market itself to parents in neighboring districts in the hope that they would see the school as preferable to their home district or more costly private school.
Kitty Greene was concerned that bringing more students into the school could be a danger to the quality of education. "One of the things that's so great is that we have such small class sizes."
"I would want to guard how many kids we're putting into that school," Ormond responded, suggesting an ideal range of 90 to 100 students, an amount that could be regulated by either a lottery or wait-list for out-of-district students.
Ormond was less certain about how much tuition the district should charge. She said the cost for out-of-district students to attend the high school is about $16,000 per year, though she would be more deliberate in setting the price for tuition at Sandwich. "I would want to make it affordable, I would want to make it competitive," she said, adding that she didn't want to "drive people away" with sticker shock. "I think there's a market out there that we could reach out to... We've got a great school here and we've got room if you're interested."
She asked the crowd what they'd like to change in the school to make it more compelling to other parents.
Frances Drew thought Sandwich could take a page from urban magnet schools and specialize in creative endeavors. "I'd love to see more arts, I think you could do more with the arts." However, she added that where the tuition rate is set will be critical for the marketability of the school.
"We have to set that rate based on the intensity of the magnet," said Richard Hanson, chair of the school board. "That magnet, based on its magnetism, will justify the tuition."
Jill Ducsai wondered how much the school could add within its existing confines. "The school right now is kind of tapped-out with space. There's not a lot of room in the school to do a whole lot. It's already pretty tight."
"The most memorable day in my education in Sandwich," said Jan Goldman, a Sandwich Central alumnus, "was the day we went to someone's house to churn butter and make rolls." That hands-on learning, she said, is "a golden opportunity, because the school is so small, to do things that can't do in a larger school. Plus, this whole area is full of talented artists and craftspeople... we have a huge wealth of talent to draw upon." Suzanne Weil agreed.
Cunningham, one of Sandwich's representatives on the board, thought the town should look at ways to increase its native growth as well as drawing from abroad. "I see this as a community problem as well as a school problem." The town could attract young families, he suggested, by generously subsidizing the day care center, or find other ways to make it easier for families to move to Sandwich. "It's not just the best schools the parents choose... it becomes a very practical decision for many parents."
John Martin, the other Sandwich representative on the board, wanted to see Sandwich abandon stratified, age-based learning for a system more focused on pursuit of competencies. He asked, "What would happen if we didn't have grades?"
If Inter-Lakes is to pursue a strategy to make Sandwich a magnet school, Ormond said it would take about three years of work, of which last night represented just the first step. Next is for the board to review and digest the feedback and suggestions, and to build a plan from there.
"Some wonderful ideas here, everyone here understands the importance of Sandwich Central School," said board member Sally Whelan.
"I feel a huge sense of relief that we're saying how to make it a great school as opposed to how we're going to keep the school," said Drew.
After the roundtable discussion, Hanson was unanimously re-elected chair of the board. Cunningham was elected vice-chair.