DES MOINES | Inside a nondescript aluminum-sided building just off Iowa 14 near U.S. 20 Exit 208, a small group is talking about patriotism.
“This is a time of war,” says John Carver, superintendent of the Howard-Winneshiek School District. “If you don’t adapt to the changes, you’re either a coward or you’re unpatriotic.”
But this isn’t a gathering of veterans, battle re-enactors or weekend militiamen. This group consists of superintendents, school administrators and teachers from rural school districts along with three state lawmakers who represent small school districts.
Carver’s war is the competition for jobs in the global marketplace. He worries his students won’t be able to compete if they aren’t exposed to technology at an early age and worries about being able to attract and keep tech-savvy teachers to rural school districts like his.
“If you’re not into social media,” he says, “then get your resume ready.”
LOWER ENROLLMENT, LOWER PAY
Shrinking rural school districts receive a smaller cut of state dollars as their enrollment dips. They also generally get less revenue from local property taxes because they have fewer properties to tax and the values are typically lower than similarly situated properties in urban areas.
As a result, teacher pay is usually lower in rural districts than urban ones, and rural districts often don’t have the funds to hire teachers to instruct — or the students to populate — specialized classes.
For decades, the answer to this problem in Iowa has been school consolidation, with 117 school district reorganizations taking place since 1965. Consolidations aren’t always popular. Parents worry about students being forced into larger class sizes or exponentially increasing their travel times. Students may have a hard time adjusting to a new school in a different town, while people in the towns that lose their schools also lose some of their identity.
Rep. Josh Byrnes, R-Osage, thinks there could be a better way. He started a rural education task force to come up with ideas that he and other lawmaker members of the group — state Reps. Patti Ruff, D-McGregor, and Brian Moore, R-Bellevue — could introduce as legislation.
“I think we’ll have something, I intend to,” Byrnes says. “Right now, we’re still in that listening phase.”
That’s what brought the group together at the Cedar Valley West building in Holland, Iowa, at the suggestion of Ann Lebo, a task force member from Grundy Center. At Cedar Valley West, students from four nearby school districts take dual-credit classes through a program with Hawkeye Community College.
“I leave right after lunch, come here for my two classes and then go back for one more,” says Jodi Johnson, a junior at Aplington-Parkersburg. She hopes to have 15 college credits by the time her year is done.
ONLINE PART OF ANSWER
Although it didn’t specifically address rural schools, the education reform proposal unveiled by Gov. Terry Branstad last week did call for more investment in online learning, which some see as a way to stave off unpopular district consolidations.
Online learning also offers an alternative to the Cedar Valley West model, which keeps school districts intact but does require the capital investment of an offsite building and can disrupt home districts.
“You’re taking some of your best students, maybe 20 to 30 percent of your juniors and seniors, out of the building for an extended period of time,” says Tim Gilson, an assistant professor of education at the University of Northern Iowa who studies the effects of school consolidations in Iowa. “These are the student leaders, and you want them in your building, not traveling to another site.”
Gilson, a former principal in Oelwein, surveyed students, parents and tracked test scores during eight school consolidations from 2001-2005.
His research found no significant difference in student test scores from before and after the reorganizations occurred. He also found it was parents who are more bothered by the idea of consolidations, in general, than the kids who, he says “tend to roll with it.”
But he says the loss of identity can be very real.
“You don’t have to travel very far in Iowa to find towns that have been decimated that you can trace back to right about the time the school shut down,” Gilson says. “It is a very real concern.”
Steve Ward, superintendent at Central Springs School District, says that last point “in many cases is a chicken-and-the-egg argument when it comes to a town. The town is already going through something or there probably wouldn’t be talk of reorganization in the first place.”
The Central Springs School District is roughly a year and a half old, born of a merger between the Nora Springs-Rock Falls and North Central School Districts.
Ward says that since the merger, student enrollment has stabilized in the district of roughly 900 students and he can offer more classes to children than they could get in their old districts.
He’s not sold on the idea that online is the answer.
“It’s relatively new, too new to really make a statement about,” he says.
Gilson, who teaches online courses, agrees.
“Online learning can keep students afloat (in home districts), but it’s not always better,” he says. “The quality of the learning and the quality of the teaching, it’s just different.”
It can all be rather perplexing to lawmakers who have to figure out if and to what extent the state should be involved.
“We have to do something,” Byrnes says. “Otherwise, we’re just going to have these dying towns with no schools and no identities, and that’s no good.”