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Shutter the Hometown School? The hardest animal to kill in Illinois is a school mascot

Phyllis Hopwood sent all six of her children to Steward Elementary School. She has taught her neighbors’ children in the tiny schoolhouse for almost three decades. So it is difficult for her to watch what is happening to Steward.

The surrounding farms of Lee County in the northwest corner of the state, which for decades supplied the school with students, are growing larger and supporting fewer families. Couples with children are chasing jobs in bigger cities. Young adults, whose kids might someday fill these halls, instead graduate, leave and rarely return to settle here.

Steward is shrinking. This year, there are 97 students in nine grades. By 2005, enrollment could dip below 80.

“A school means everything to a small town like this,” Hopwood says. “This place is what keeps the community together.”

However disheartening, reality is similar for prairie towns all over Illinois. Census 2000 numbers show people are fleeing the once-vibrant farming communities of the Midwest.

An analysis of the census count and enrollment figures indicates that, over the next few years, small districts that have long resisted merging with large districts in nearby cities may be left with little choice.

Illinois has 249 school districts serving fewer than 500 students. The latest census figures show that in more than 200 of those districts, about 80 percent, the number of school-age children within those districts’ borders will drop by 2005. In 32 districts, the number of potential pupils could drop more than 20 percent.

Experts say the sagging numbers and the diminishing tax dollars that go with them will force dozens, even hundreds, of tiny districts into a fate they avoided for decades: consolidation, which could someday mean a far-off school board will decide to shutter the hometown school.

“It’s the last vestige for these commun-ities,” says former state schools Superintendent Robert Leininger. “The elevator closed. The gas station shut down. But they’ve still got their high school. If they lose that, some people believe they lose their identity.”

Educators and residents from small districts contend they want to keep what they’ve got: incredibly low student-to-teacher ratios, relatively few discipline problems and local decision-making. There is no talk of merger in Steward.

“What we do is what a lot of larger districts are trying to emulate,” says Steward Principal Colette Sutton.

But Leininger and other longtime educators say pride too often prevents withering rural districts from seeing the positive side to consolidation until students and taxpayers are suffering.

“The hardest animal to kill in Illinois is a school mascot,” says Max Pierson, a former school superintendent who now teaches at Western Illinois University in Macomb and prepares consolidation studies for districts across the state.

Local resistance is one reason Illinois has the most fractured public school system in the United States. Illinois’ system is the fifth-largest in the country in number of students, but has more districts (891) than all but two states: 

California with 1,048 and Texas with 1,041. Texas has twice Illinois’ 2 million pupils. California has three times as many.

This state’s ranking comes after a half century of mergers. Illinois had 12,000 school districts in the 1940s, about 2,000 a decade later and less than 900 now. Dozens more are looking into consolidation because of enrollment dips, financial strains or a combination of both.

Examples of shrinking school systems can be found in every corner of the state, from northwestern Illinois to the Ohio River. Otter Creek-Hyatt District in LaSalle County, already the smallest in the state, was home to 51 children old enough to attend school last year; the number could be 29 in 2005.

McClellan District 12, near Mt. Vernon, could drop from 105 school-age residents to 61 in that same time frame.

In Ogle County, just north of Steward, the Kings district’s pool of potential pupils could fall from 155 to 105.

“We get bubbles, but we have sustainability,” says Kings Superintendent Lynn Dewey. “One year, we’ll graduate a large class and a small kindergarten class comes in. Another year, we graduate a small class and get a larger incoming kindergarten class. So our numbers stay about the same.”

No, people in places such as Kings and Steward are not talking about consolidation. They are planning for the future.

Just three years ago, Steward voters approved a tax hike to rebuild the K-8 school without a dime in state construction aid. Parts of the job were done with donated materials and labor.

The project combined a state-of-the-art facility with historic sections of the old school, including the gymnasium. Despite the shiny new walls, walking through Steward’s halls is like visiting another era. Parents flow in and out constantly, each greeted by first name by whichever staffer spots them first. 

The fourth and fifth grades share one classroom and one teacher, Mrs. Hopwood. In the cafeteria, a lone cook prepares a home-style meal for a few dozen students. A traveling music teacher leads half the band here, the other half at another school miles away.

Principal Sutton says her students get the same curricular, and extracurricular, opportunities as kids in big-city schools — with some added bonuses. For example, everyone can play on sports teams because the school needs all the players it can get.

The biggest bonus is personal attention. One reading class had a teacher working one-by-one with her nine students, the kind of quality teaching time urban and suburban teachers dream of.

“We chose this for our children for a reason,” says Phyllis Hopwood. “They’ve all ended up being successful.”

Sutton says school officials are optimistic about future enrollment, too. Steward got one new student in the past year. The child’s father drives more than an hour to work in the far western Chicago suburbs. She’s convinced enough people will choose Steward and its quiet lifestyle that the school will remain viable.

However, education researchers such as Leininger and Pierson say small districts need to look beyond keeping just enough kids to hang on and instead focus on the quality and cost of education.

Researchers say curriculum can be limited in some smaller districts, which may lack resources for foreign language courses, computer training or up-to-date science labs. Instructors may have to teach outside their fields of expertise. Some do not have enough money to offer extracurricular activities such as music, art or football teams.

There is a financial cost, too. State Board of Education statistics show Illinois districts with 500 or more students spend 3 percent of their budgets on administrative costs, such as superintendents’ salaries. Those costs are double, about 7 percent, in districts with 500 or fewer students and 11 percent in districts with 200 or fewer students.

Leininger points to some counties where a single high school draws students from a half-dozen or more independent elementary districts within a short drive, each with its own buildings and superintendents.

“Why not have one superintendent? The system is inefficient and ineffective,” Leininger says.

Available statistics show no pattern of higher tax rates in smaller districts. Nor is there reliable data to determine whether mergers result in lower property tax rates. Pierson and Leininger say that’s because the money saved still needs to be spent — but now it can be spent in the classroom.

Leininger has a high-profile opportunity to push a statewide reorganization of districts. He chairs a committee studying school funding for the State Board of Education. The group’s final report likely will identify consolidation as one way for the state to get more out of its education dollars, he says.

The former state schools chief jokes that he still has “battle scars” from debates during the 1980s over statewide consolidation. The idea was killed by political leaders facing incredible opposition from all corners: rural towns, Chicago suburbs and union leaders whose members might lose jobs because of mergers.

The time may be more favorable now, Pierson says. The state faces a widespread shortage of teachers and superintendents. Mergers may reduce the number of education jobs, but that can be a good thing when there are not enough candidates for the jobs anyway, he says.

Besides, barring a sudden shift in rural population trends, consolidation is going to happen anyway. Leininger says it should be planned carefully on a regional basis, rather than crisis-by-crisis in individual districts.

“Many districts that have reorganized had to because of a lack of students,” Leininger says. “There’s no question there is going to be some natural consolidation, but I don’t think we can just wait around for it to happen.” 

John Kelly is a special assignment reporter for The Associated Press in Chicago, where he covers Illinois state government and statewide issues.

Illinois Issues, March 2002

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