The place that caught my eye first, the gem of an 18th-century home that led me here from Boston, was in Passumpsic. After a three-hour drive and an hour of poking through my potential future home, the listing agent asked us some questions, and tried to get a sense of what other types of things were important to our choice of home. Somehow we got on the topic of St. Johnsbury. My sons were seven and four at the time, and the agent pulled me aside and said in a hushed tone, “Well, you don’t want to live there. The St. J. School has a lot of problems.”
Despite her warning, I ended up finding a little place on the edge of St. Johnsbury. It was listed as a “gentleman’s farm.” What I soon learned was that it had once housed the City Dairy of St. Johnsbury. I also learned that it was known as the Boardman farm, or the Penniman farm if you really want to dig back that far. It had beautiful old buildings, a wooden silo, rolling hills, and was walking distance to town. I was in love. We drove by the St. J. School as part of our tour of the town, and I saw this beautiful building. “What could be so bad about this place?” I thought.
Granted, this was 2010, and the St. J. School budget had been voted down twice. There was also a pay freeze for teachers in play, and there was little positivity or hope apparent in the media to suggest that the situation was about to improve. I learned long ago not to limit my news intake to headlines, so I decided to do my own research.
When I got back to Boston, I called the St. J. School to talk directly with the administration. I explained my sons’ backgrounds, their educational needs, and the supports they were receiving in Boston. I learned that this “large” K–8 school had small class sizes, caring teachers, and hardworking staff. All this painted a very different picture than the one that had been provided to me on paper.
Two months later, I was driving north, moving trucks in tow, ready to begin the next chapter in my family’s life. My sons entered Grade 2 and Pre-K at St. J. School, and everyone we met at the school and in the community gave us a warm welcome.
Fast forward to 2015, dozens of parent-teacher conferences, band concerts, and open houses later, and I had gained a better understanding of the “problems” that the real estate agent had forewarned. In my first five years here, the school administration had been turned upside down and put back together several times, there were more budget problems, and I got a strong sense of people being spread too thin. Reading the news, the school seemed to be under attack on a regular basis.
Despite my short history in St. Johnsbury, I have tried to work hard to get to know and do positive things for this community that I care for deeply. I decided to run for the school board in 2016, and I can definitely say that it has been a labor of love. “Why are you doing that?” asked several friends. “It’s a thankless job,” I heard over and over. Well I can tell you, over the last year, I have found this job anything but thankless. In fact, I have been thanked by many people in the community—people who care for this town, for its children, and for its future.
This job is not without challenges, of course. In the past year I feel like I’ve learned a lot, but I also feel it’s just the beginning. There are amazing things happening at St. J. School—things I wish more people knew about. The biggest priorities for me in the coming year are to try to get more members of the community involved, and to learn to work more effectively as a board. So please, come to a meeting. Come to a school event. Stop me in the supermarket and I’ll be happy to tell you what I feel both the strengths and the challenges are in this district. Invest some time in learning about the school; your interest and involvement will pay dividends for all of us in the long term. We need to move past the headlines, engage with, and listen to one another in order to make things better. I look forward to continuing to serve you in this role.
Christopher Wenger serves as a St. Johnsbury School director.