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, the 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 that his students won’t be able to compete if they aren’t exposed to technology at an early age, and he worries about being able to attract and keep tech-savvy teachers in rural school districts such as 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. Also, they 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, and 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 — 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 Hawkeye Community College Western Outreach Center building in Holland, Iowa, at the suggestion of Ann Lebo, a task force member from Grundy Center. A consortium of four nearby school districts runs a program called Cedar Valley West out of the building. Students from the four districts take upper-level classes and earn dual credit through Hawkeye Community College.
Jodi Johnson, a junior at Aplington-Parkersburg, is one of those students.
“I leave right after lunch, come here for my two classes and then go back for one more,” says Johnson, who hopes to have 15 college credits by the time her year is done.
Byrnes thinks the Cedar Valley West program could be replicated across the state so school districts wouldn’t have to reorganize. The pilot program is in the middle of a five-year trial. Each of the participating school districts — Aplington-Parkersburg, Grundy Center, Dike-New Hartford and Gladbrook-Reinbeck — contributes money, staff and/or expertise to run the program.
For instance, Aplington-Parkersburg’s Johnson takes a psychology class that’s taught by Dan Reisner, who teaches at Gladbrook-Reinbeck through the program. It’s a class that but for Cedar Valley West, Johnson wouldn’t be able to take and Reisner might not be able to teach if he had to depend only on enrollment from his home district.
But the program comes with costs, not the least of which was construction of the nearly $1 million building and working out a lease agreement between the community college and the school districts. There’s also aligning school day calendars and figuring out how to pay teachers, especially when union contracts vary slightly between districts.
There are social costs, too.
“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 and 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 that it was parents who are bothered more 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, the superintendent of the 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 district is roughly a year-and-a-half old, born of a merger between the Nora Springs-Rock Falls and North Central 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.
Online learning part of answer
Gov. Terry Branstad’s push for more investment in distance learning and online education offers another option to school consolidation and to the Cedar Valley West model because it keeps school districts intact but does not require the capital investment of an off-site building and does not disrupt home districts.
Ward is not convinced that online learning 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.”
Byrnes hasn’t asked for recommendations from the task force yet. Although he’s leaning toward the Cedar Valley West model, he wants see what else is out there before he starts work on a bill.
“We have to do something,” he says. “Otherwise we’re just going to have these dying towns with no schools and no identities, and that’s no good.”