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Sarah Rivers, 10th grader and student representative to the merger committee. She liked Potsdam's sugar shack, but has concerns about the auditorium size and a divided middle and high school. Photo: Sarah Harris.
Sarah Rivers, 10th grader and student representative to the merger committee. She liked Potsdam's sugar shack, but has concerns about the auditorium size and a divided middle and high school. Photo: Sarah Harris.

Inside school: to merge or not to merge?

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Canton and Potsdam school districts are considering a merger.
The idea is to save money and offer more opportunities to students.

A 28-person committee of administrators, teachers and students and a Buffalo-based consulting firm are studying how it could work, and what the pay-offs would be. They're on a short deadline, with a recommendation due in the late spring. Then the two communities will vote.

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Potsdam middle school principle Mark Bennett in one of the school's several music rooms. Photo: Sarah Harris The committee convenes in the high school library to talk curriculum. The library was originally the school's gymnasium. Photo: Sarah Harris Instruments! Photo: Sarah Harris

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Reported by

Sarah Harris
Reporter and Producer

Last Wednesday night, Potsdam schools were filled with grown-ups, not kids. The merger committee wandered the halls and peered into classrooms.

Mark Bennett, principal of A.A. Kingston middle school, leads part of the tour. He explains that the middle school is basically four squares lumped together.

"You’ve got three houses or three wings, one that houses 5th and 6th grade, one that houses 7th and 8th grade, one that houses our special education program," Bennett explains. "The center of the building is a square and that’s what houses the library, gymnasium, cafeteria and offices."

Bennett takes the group all over the school: through music rooms, classrooms, labs, the cafeteria.

He unlocks the middle school library.

"We have a great librarian who works a lot of projects with our teachers on a daily basis, so we do a lot of research projects here, so this is kind of the instructional hub of the building, this is kind of where the life is."

The committee did a similar tour of Canton schools last month. They’re trying to figure whether a merger could benefit the two schools – and how to make it happen. Do towns retain their own elementary schools? Could a middle school become a high school, or vice versa? Where do you put everyone?

Tom Van de Water teaches high school science in Canton.

"I’m just trying to look and see what’s here, what would fit, what’s possible. It’s a real challenge because you have to envision what if there were a middle school of all of Canton and Potsdam or what if it were a high school?"

The Potsdam high school was built in the twenties. It has original black boards and a neat throw-back feel. But would it meet code if there were more kids?  

Potsdam has a sugaring program, complete with a shack where students make maple syrup.

But the auditorium might not be big enough if there were more students.  

Potsdam has a great greenhouse and athletic facilities. But it doesn’t have a pool. Its swim team practices at Clarkson.

There are pros and cons to the curriculum too. Class sizes, enrollment numbers and AP courses are similar at both schools are both schools. Potsdam has more high school art classes, but Canton offers sculpture and ceramics. Both schools have strong music programs. Both have suffered a similar cuts.

But merging the schools – and winning millions in state funds – theoretically means that educators could offer a more robust curriculum.

Meg McGovern teaches high school English at Canton Central School.

"We want to make sure that those kids when they graduate are prepared to whatever it is that they choose to do. Maybe it’s college, maybe it’s not," she said. 

Sarah Rivers is a 10th grader in Canton. She’s one of the student representatives to the committee.

"I’m a big music person and I also like the arts and stuff, and every year we hear, like, oh, this might leave soon. And that just scares me.”

 She’s in favor of a merger.

"I think a high school that provides more options is definitely preferable to having two separate high schools." 

At the end of the meeting, committee members get three stickers. They’ve listed the pros and cons of Potsdam’s physical plant – and they have to put their stickers next to the issues they find most important.

Sarah Rivers considers her choices.  

"I put my first one on the auditorium," she explains, worrying that it's too small for a merged school.

Her second sticker goes next to the sugar shack:

"It’s relevant around here because there’s all kinds of maple sugaring and it’s something unique."

And her third sticker goes on the fact that Potsdam middle and high schools are in different buildings.

"It prevents opportunities between older kids and younger kids and I think that that is beneficial," Rivers said. 

But what would benefit both communities? The committee will meet again in February and again in March and April. By May, they think they’ll know. 

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