'Day Under the Dome' introduces Hiland Hall students to the Statehouse


MONTPELIER -- Students from Bennington's Hiland Hall School visited the Vermont Statehouse on Tuesday, where they met Gov. Peter Shumlin and were recognized by the House of Representatives.

The students traveled to Montpelier by bus, as part of the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce's annual "Day Under the Dome." Residents paid $30 to sponsor a student for the trip. While students from any local school are welcome to attend, said Hiland Hall chaperone and longtime chamber member Jonah Spivak, a group of Hiland Hall students have been going on the trip since it first began about five years ago, and many of the students in attendance on Tuesday had made the trip multiple times. They were also accompanied by Hiland Hall middle school teacher Ani Schaeffer.

Others traveling with the chamber for this event included chamber executive director Joann Erenhouse, president of the chamber's board of directors Brenda Jones, Bennington selectman Michael Keane, Shaftsbury selectman Art Whitman, retired educator Jan Martin Bopp, and Bennington residents Jeffrey Grimshaw and Sam Restino.

Shortly after arriving in Montpelier, the group was greeted by Rep. Mary Morrissey, who led them into the House Chamber, where they were introduced before the House. Morrissey, one of Bennington's representatives, described them in her introduction as "the group that brings southern hospitality to the Statehouse" every year.

After filing out of the House Chamber, the group was escorted to Gov. Shumlin's office by Morrissey and other local legislators. "I always love it when Bennington shows up, you have the best legislators around," said Shumlin when everyone had finished filing into the room. Addressing the students, he praised them for their interest in how the government of Vermont is run, and said, "We need more students who get beyond high school, who have the skills to do the jobs we need. I talk to employers who say, ‘I can't find enough skilled workers to do the work, or else we could grow even more!'"

He began by fielding questions from the adults which focused primarily on the state's reputation and how to boost Bennington's economy. Spivak asked the governor how he thought Vermont could improve its reputation to tourists, after a winter full of bad press regarding heroin. Shumlin responded that he "didn't buy" that the state's proactive strategy for dealing with heroin addiction was a black mark. "If I could correct all the things that are written, that would be great, but I can't. I wouldn't say, as a tourist, that I'm not going to deal with Vermont because they admit and are dealing with a problem that everyone is dealing with." He said that Vermont has a great way of life that naturally attracts visitors and that, "The one thing that can compromise that way of life is to continue burying our head in the sand on this heroin issue."

To the chamber employees, he said, "Keep up the great work, great things are happening in Bennington."

"Connecting education with employment, and then delivering a quality education, will ensure a bright future in Bennington," he said, pointing to programs like the "Emerging Leaders," a partnership between Mount Anthony Union High School, the Career Development Center, and the Community College of Vermont, where high school sophomores and juniors are giving the opportunity to meet and interact with local business owners and professionals. Shumlin met with members of the group in Bennington last week.

At the end of the question and answer session, Shumlin posed for a picture with the students, after which one, Shayla Sisters, asked the governor to pose for a selfie. He graciously agreed.

Hiland Hall School is an "approved independent school, where students have the opportunity to learn at their own pace, in their own style," according to the school's website. The school enrolls about 35 students. "They're a progressive school, they don't actually have grades, but this is their equivalent of middle school," explained Schaeffer, who said that seven students made the trip, because a few were sick.

After the meeting with the governor, the adults split up to attend various committee meetings, while the students and their chaperones received a tour of the building from Statehouse employee Sher Yacono. She explained the history of the building, showing the students pictures of the three different buildings that had housed the legislature over the years. She then walked the students through the building, pointing out paintings of various significant governors, such as Madeleine Kunin and Howard Dean, and explaining the history of the furnishings in both the Senate and House chambers.

The students also visited the Vermont History Museum, which is next door to the Statehouse, in the afternoon.

Derek Carson can be reached for coment at dcarson@benningtonbanner.com. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB


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