Rural Iowa schools look to innovate as enrollment declines

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ANDREW, Iowa (AP) — Tristan Sikkema starts his day at Andrew (Iowa) Elementary School.

As a physical education teacher, the Andrew native plays games with the students to get them physically active.

At about 10:30 a.m., Sikkema packs up and drives southeast down Iron Bridge Road — the road on which he grew up.

About 20 minutes later, he arrives at Easton Valley Junior/Senior High School in Preston.

There, he walks not into the gymnasium but the computer lab.

Sikkema is the school's computer science teacher.

Every day, Sikkema switches back and forth between these two teaching positions for two school districts. Although he is not a fan of the drive, he appreciates the diversity of his workday.

"It's a good breakup in the middle of the day," Sikkema told the Telegraph Herald . "I get to teach two subjects that I enjoy."

The arrangement allows him to provide a necessary service for both school districts.

Chris Fee is the superintendent of both the Andrew and Easton Valley community school districts.

He said Sikkema is the lone teacher among the two districts with the credentials to provide computer science training for students. Instead of hiring someone else to teach computer science, the two school districts took a more efficient route.

"We're able to save money by having him work these half-days," Fee said. "It allows us to bring that necessary programming without adding to our costs."

Easton Valley and Andrew are among the school districts that, as they face declining enrollment and, as a result, falling state funding, continue to work to find creative ways to continue delivering programming for their students.

Easton Valley's enrollment fell from 495 students in 2013 to 450 in 2018 — a 9 percent drop. Over that same time frame, Andrew School District's enrollment fell from 162 students to 136, a decline of 16 percent.

The two districts have shared a superintendent since July 2014. Fee is in his third year serving in that role.

Officials with both districts created the arrangement to reduce costs for both entities — both because the salary is split but also because of state-offered incentives for sharing the position — but it doesn't stop with the superintendent. The districts also currently share a human relations director, a business manager and a transportation director. State incentives are offered for those roles as well.

Fee said the need to continue to find ways to increase efficiency has not subsided in the past five years.

"We've been seeing a continuing downward trend," he said. "The question that is always on our mind is how do we keep operating efficiently despite the declining enrollment."

The decline in students has prompted some school districts to consolidate.

In the 2000-2001 school year, there were 374 school districts in Iowa, according to the Iowa Department of Education. The total now stands at 330.

The reduction includes Preston and East Central school districts, which consolidated and were renamed Easton Valley in 2012.

While most local school officials said school district consolidation is treated as a last resort, many already are working toward cooperative arrangements with other districts as a means to ensure their respective survival.

For many of these school districts, declining enrollment is largely out of their control, as it is mostly the result of generally declining populations in rural communities.

West Delaware County Community School District, with schools in Manchester, Iowa, has experienced a 6 percent drop in enrollment since 2013.

Not surprisingly, the communities from which the district draws students also have decreasing populations. For example, the population of the largest — Manchester — dropped by 3.2 percent from April 2010 to July 2017, according to the latest figures available from the U.S. Census Bureau. Delaware County's population has dropped 3.4 percent in that same time frame.

West Delaware Superintendent Kristen Rickey said the district historically served the students of families of surrounding farms, but the decline in family size and the growing size of farms has had a significant impact.

"For the past eight years, we have had declining enrollment," Rickey said. "Farms are becoming larger and larger, and that's having an impact on us."

Meanwhile, Benton (Wisconsin) School District has experienced a 20 percent decline in enrollment since 2013. Superintendent Todd Bastian points to similar circumstances.

"We used to have a lot of small farms in the countryside," he said. "These were big farm families sending five to six kids. You just don't see that anymore."

The decline in enrollment has a direct impact on them financially.

A large part of funding for school districts is per-pupil state aid.

Southwestern Wisconsin Community School District, based in Hazel Green, has had a nearly 10 percent enrollment decline since 2013.

Superintendent John Costello said the school district receives $9,460 per student from the state.

This year, the school district lost $150,000 in aid because of declining student enrollment, compared to last year.

"We're losing that funding, but we still need to maintain that same level of programming," Costello said. "It puts us in a position where we need to become very creative."

Superintendent William Caron, of the Scales Mound (Illinois) school district, said rural school districts also are struggling to find teachers to fill necessary roles.

While he noted that the shortage is affecting all school districts, he stressed that it can be particularly challenging for districts located in rural areas.

"Recruiting top-notch teachers is getting harder every year," Caron said. "We just aren't seeing as many candidates as we used to."

School districts with declining enrollment have developed several strategies to reduce costs while still maintaining programming.

Some save money by having administrators and teachers wear multiple hats, such as teaching multiple subjects.

School districts also have looked to work together to deliver programming.

Rickey said West Delaware School District collaborates with surrounding districts to provide specialized classes and programs.

This semester, students from Edgewood-Colesburg Community School District travel to West Delaware High School for welding classes.

For many of these small districts, specialized programs such as welding would be impossible to maintain individually. Along with the required investment of supplies and tools, interest in certain school districts sometimes doesn't exceed five students.

Rickey said agreements like the one between West Delaware and Edgewood-Colesburg allow for them to provide specialized programs to students at a reasonable cost.

"We want to offer students the highest quality of education," Rickey said. "When we're collaborating with these other school districts, we're able to fill a classroom for classes that we usually couldn't by ourselves."

Fee said these types of partnerships are widespread among rural school districts today, and it signifies a considerable shift in the ways that these districts had historically behaved toward each other.

"There was a time when school districts were always competing with each other, competing for students, but it's really flipped," Fee said. "Now, these school districts have realized that they all need to work together if they want to survive."

Fee said Easton Valley and Andrew school districts are working with other districts in Jackson County to construct a separate building that would be used to provide specialized classes for students. It would be used for more technical courses, including advanced manufacturing and automotive classes.

Although he anticipated the project is two or three years away from coming to fruition, Fee said he believes it will be the start of a much larger cooperative effort among school districts in the area

"These kinds of partnerships are really benefiting rural school districts," he said. "I think there is a lot to be gained."

Other districts have taken advantage of technology to provide advanced programming to students at a reasonable cost.

Belmont (Wisconsin) Community School District has enjoyed a 4.3 percent increase in enrollment since 2013 and turns to technology to aid students.

Belmont Superintendent Christy Larson said high school staff take advantage of teleconferencing technology to provide advanced classes online.

"We're able to provide more advanced courses and early college credit programs through it," Larson said. "Having those kinds of courses is really important for our students, and this makes it more affordable for a small district like ours."

Sadie Willborn, a senior at Belmont Junior/Senior High School, is taking a physics course via teleconferencing, in which her instructor is a physics teacher in the Monticello (Wisconsin) School District.

She said the teleconferencing took some getting used to, but she is glad the course is available to her.

"We usually don't get as many options as bigger schools, so this is really helpful," Sadie said. "We get to be like a bigger school even though we aren't."

Despite these steps taken by local small districts, many still face challenges.

Larson said much of the lost revenue would have been used for general repairs and upkeep of school facilities.

"You can't cut programs because you're down a few kids, so perhaps repairing the roof waits or the flooring," Larson said. "There is that impact on our facilities."

Costello said rural school districts that are unable to maintain their buildings increasingly are forced to ask voters for additional funding for repairs or new construction.

Southwestern Wisconsin Community School District recently completed a $10 million upgrade to its high school, which included the addition of a middle school wing. The project was financed through a bond referendum held in April 2017.

Voters in Belmont Community School District recently approved borrowing up to $10 million to finance safety and security upgrades, classroom additions, technical-education remodeling, roof renovation and upgrades to heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems.

"A lot more school districts are going to referendum," Costello said. "They just don't have the general funds to address these issues, so they are forced to go to referendum."

However, Costello said, a referendum doesn't solve the fundamental problems of not having enough funding. If the downward enrollment trend continues for local districts, he said, he anticipates some will start holding referendums to pay for operational costs.

"I fear that is what it is going to come to if things don't change," Costello said. "We're going to have to start looking at other options."

One option that some school districts have considered is consolidation. Costello said officials with the Southwestern district have discussed consolidating with other area districts, but the option has not been pursued.

Officials with every district who spoke to the Telegraph Herald for this story echoed that sentiment. The primary reason cited was school pride.

"The school is the heart of the community," Rickey said. "It's much more than economics. For a lot of these communities, their local school district is a defining aspect of them."

Despite examining the possibility of consolidation, Costello said, district residents have expressed little interest in the idea.

"It's not something that we want to do," Costello said. "It's the identity of the community. If you combine the two school districts, you lose that."

Rickey said the benefits of consolidation for rural school districts are also questionable and not guaranteed to produce cost savings.

She pointed to transportation, an already-considerable expense for rural school districts that would grow if consolidation were pursued.

In the 2016-2017 school year, West Delaware's average transportation cost per student was $746.46. The state average was $636.48.

Plus, there would be the challenge of managing travel times.

"At some point, you are just too big and students are just too far away," Rickey said. "You don't want a 5-year-old on the bus for an hour."

Despite declining enrollment, local superintendents said they are hopeful for the future of rural schools.

Fee said he anticipates continued collaboration between school districts to continue to serve students well.

Larson said she is hopeful that state legislatures will work to provide more equitable funding for rural school districts.

More than anything, rural school districts have their communities, Bastian said, and he believes they won't let any of their local districts go quietly.

"I think that's an underrated part about smaller school districts," Bastian said. "The community support is what really keeps us going."


Information from: Telegraph Herald,

An AP Member Exchange shared by the Telegraph Herald.

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