Rally ramps up local effort to keep Hancock schools open

by Kate Shunney

Students, teachers, parents and several generations of Hancock graduates showed up at Hancock Middle-Senior High School last Tuesday evening to make clear their commitment to keeping Hancock schools open for future classes.

Wearing bright blue “Save Our Schools” t-shirts on the first warm afternoon of March, people of all ages held signs and signed petitions urging officials with Washington County Public Schools to veer away from consolidating or closing Hancock’s schools.

A committee formed by Councilman Tim Boyer in February to deliver that message and rally community support has been busy. Last week’s rally was just one of several angles being worked by committee members and supporters since it became known that the county school board had asked their Facilities and Enrollment Advisory Committee to look at school closures. Hancock is one of the communities whose schools under the microscope.

Committee member Amy Gillespie led Tuesday’s speeches, saying she was pleased to see the turnout of more than 120 people.

“It’s about coming together to save this school. We want to make sure it’s here for our kids,” she said.

Gillespie pointed out that there has been a “massive amount of work” done by the town to encourage economic development, bring families into Hancock and build activities for families and youth who live here.

“Without a school, there won’t be any kids in the community,” Gillespie said.

Rev. Allen Weatherholt said, before a prayer with the group, that school closure isn’t a new issue being fought in Hancock.

“It came up years before and we thought it had been put to rest,” he said.

Weatherholt said schools and church are anchors in the community.

“We need them,” he said.

Mayor Ralph Salvagno echoed the fact that Hancock had put up a fight three years ago when talk surfaced about school closure.

Gillespie pointed out on Tuesday that Washington County Commissioners were in attendance at the rally. Salvagno told the crowd they shouldn’t let the county officials leave without making it clear how Hancock families feel about the possibility of having either Hancock Elementary or Hancock Middle-Senior High School closed, and students sent elsewhere for daily learning.

Gillespie said Clear Spring – the nearest schools to Hancock – are not the best option for local students. She said Clear Spring schools are already pretty full.

County school officials have said if they choose to pursue any school consolidations  or closures on the recommendation of the Facilities and Enrollment Advisory Committee, those changes wouldn’t take effect until the 2023-2024 budget year.

Gillespie said this is a long-term project to keep Hancock schools open.

Hancock residents signed a petition calling for Washington County Public Schools to keep the community’s two schools open for students.

Students & teachers want to stay

Colton and Tucker Welch, both Hancock 6th graders, attended the rally to support their school. They say they want to keep going to classes in Hancock. Their mother, Cristina Welch, said the family moved to Hancock 12 years ago specifically to enjoy small-town living, including a small community school.

“One of the reasons we bought here was that small town feel,” she said, including having personal attention in the classroom from teachers.

Tracy Salvagno said she had come to the rally because she’s lived in Hancock her whole life, and her children went to Hancock schools as well.

“School is such a central thing to a community,” she said. Hancock rallies around the schools and their students’ activities.

Sherri Kratz was born and raised in Hancock, her children and her father went to Hancock schools, and now her grandson attends Kindergarten at the elementary school.

Kratz said she wants her grandson to have the experiences his father and all Hancock students have had.

“I want him to be part of sports, and a small school. I don’t want him to be shipped hours

up the road,” she said.

Marsha Flowers, who teaches at Hancock Elementary, is also a town resident and parent.

“I have a lot at stake in the success of these schools,” she said.

“There are many options other than closing schools,” Flowers said, pointing out how the last year has opened up many alternatives “with everything we’ve done with virtual learning.”

One option for growing enrollment in Hancock schools would be for the county to offer more enrichment and specialty programs in Hancock using virtual platforms – programs that could bring students back from larger county schools, or attract families from other communities.

“They might return to the high school for accelerated, specialty courses,” Flowers said. “We have room for it.”

Flowers said sending Hancock students to other schools would impact the amount of time they’d be away from home, how much attention they’d get from school stuff and who would influence them.

She said students in a small community school will see their teachers at the local store, at their sporting events and around town, reinforcing their connection to school.

Hancock students shared their message with county school officials.

Payton Mosier, a Hancock 9th grader, said she can’t imagine going to school anywhere else.

“I love this school. I was born and raised in Hancock,” she said.

Mosier had a rough year last year, she said, with medical diagnoses that affect how she works through her school day.

“The school makes sure I get what I need and other students help with it,” she said. “I do love this school. I don’t think it should be shut down. It’s more like a family than a school.”

Jenna Wells is also a Hancock 8th grader and lifelong friend of Mosier.

“We’ve been friends for 10 years because we went to Little Panther Preschool together,” said Wells.

Her brother is a member of Hancock’s senior class and he absolutely wants to graduate from his high school.

“I don’t know if I get a senior year here,” said Wells.

“We’ve been a family since elementary school. I don’t want to be split up because we couldn’t image graduating without each other, crossing the stage without each other,” Wells said. “We don’t want to graduate from anywhere else.”

Hancock’s Save our Schools committee continues to plan more events and efforts to urge county officials to keep local schools open into the future. Their events and more information can be found on their social media page.