Informal Education Series: Fifth Graders in Berlin “are the future of everywhere”

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The Brown Elementary School in Berlin, NH, which the city was forced to close in 2019 due to lack of funding.

In our third installment of the “Informal Education” series, our Policy Director Liz Canada introduces us to Aubrey and Hannah, two fifth graders she met during her time in Berlin.

When I was a high school English teacher, I would tell my students a story from when I was in fifth grade. We were at our desks, with our Literature books open, and we were supposed to copy down sentences from the book, and then underline the subject once and the predicate twice.

Remember subjects and predicates?

My teacher, Ms. Pizzelli, came over to my desk – as I had not started. She asked me to get to work, and my response to her was – and I quote — “Why do we need to learn this? I’m never going to be an English teacher.”

My students would, of course, laugh. I would jokingly warn them to be careful what proclamations they made.

And truly, this fifth-grade moment accurately summed up my lack of interest in almost all things related to school, which didn’t subside until about halfway through my senior year.

When I visited Berlin, I had the incredible fortune in meeting two fifth grade students: Aubrey and Hannah. They know a lot about education funding: more than most adults I know. I asked how they became interested in this topic, and Aubrey shared, “I eavesdrop a lot when I’m in my bed and I heard my dad talking about it. The next day, I came to school and asked my teacher.”

I asked, “What did you ask your teacher?”

“I told her that I heard about the funding and the stabilization aid and stuff decreasing, the money.” She was referring to the cuts in stabilization grants, which has resulted in a $1.3 million loss in state funding in Berlin since 2017.

To hear a fifth-grader use the phrase “stabilization aid” – and to use it correctly — is a bit…well, surprising. I’m not intending to underestimate fifth graders with that statement. Instead, I wonder what it is like to live in a city in which this concern is so prevalent, that fifth graders are worried about it.

They aren’t just worried: Hannah explained that they teamed up, wrote petitions, and used up their own lunchtime and recess (“two recesses,” Aubrey corrected) to inform their peers and teachers about the decrease in stabilization aid. They sent their petition–with over 400 signatures–to the other schools in Berlin. They made a video that students and families could watch. And on and on, to let other students know – students who openly wondered why they would spend their recess (two recesses) that way – that their city was losing funding, and that they all needed to do something about it.

Then they wrote to the legislature. Hannah explained, “We wrote a letter to the legislators of New Hampshire, [because] we were trying to convince them to give us more school funding.” They also travelled down to Concord to talk to legislators directly.

I mentioned in last week’s post that Brown Elementary School closed this June. Kindergartners through fifth grade will now go to the former middle school, and sixth, seventh, and eighth graders will go to the high school. 

Aubrey and Hannah brought this up in relation to their younger siblings. Hannah started, “I have a little brother who is a Kindergartner and [Aubrey has] a brother in first grade,” and Aubrey finished her sentence, “and they are terrified to come up here.” 

I would ask a question unrelated to Brown, and they would answer the question, but then they would go back to how scared their siblings were and are when they think about going to a different, and bigger, school next year.

They also feel the same fear. 

Aubrey talked about her family’s tradition of seeing The Nutcracker at the middle school, and how her grandmother would say, “Some day you’ll be in this school building.” Aubrey said to me, “It made me excited. I was only like five. So I looked forward to that. But it can’t happen now.” 

Instead, she will go to Berlin High School. They talked at length about their own fears of going to the high school, sharing a cafeteria, sharing a gymnasium, and having limited space in the building for their classrooms (“only a hallway,” Aubrey described). 

Aubrey and Hannah have been interviewed by the media, they’ve talked to legislators, and they’ve talked to elementary school students. They aren’t looking for fame, they are looking for funding. I told them I was going to ask them what might seem like a silly question: why did they do this?Aubrey explained: “We wanted to spread the word and we wanted to let people know that it’s not fair, and that we want an education because we are the future” — she paused — “of everywhere.”

Our new “Informal Education” series explores education through the eyes of real people. Over the next few weeks, we’ll provide insights into what we learned speaking to city and district leaders, educators, family members, and students in Berlin and across the state. Want to share your story? Email us at staff@reachinghighernh.org