Thirty-six days from today, March 1, the results of the only elections to be held in 2021 will be determined, but we as a county will have failed to address one of the major issues facing our area. When the polls close, we will still not have adopted a more efficient and better way to educate our children.
We had a study done that cost more than it should have and resulted in a recommendation that in my opinion was doomed to fail (consolidation of two districts with leaders who really don’t like each other very much) because the other two districts seemed not willing to participate. I wanted to write this column when I saw where the study was headed, but I decided to let the scenario play out without adding my own negativity. Now, instead of saying, “I told you so,” I’m saying, “I should have told you so.” Forgive me.
Understand I have much respect for the knowledge and integrity of the four men who headed the study locally: Dr. Bob Mulch, Jerry Williams, Don Karban, and Tom Baker. Their signatures were on the well-written letter that ended the work of the MCEDC School Study Commission; the letter appeared in the July 27, 2020, edition of The Journal-News. Dr. Mulch’s medical help is one of the major reasons I’m alive to think and write today; obese, asthmatic, and diabetic, I was hospitalized 12 years ago with a blood infection. As one who won’t take time to care for himself, I needed a doctor who could keep my heart beating, and he did that. Daughter Dawn needed an accounting job locally to use her CPA degree, and she found employment for a firm in Litchfield of which Mr. Williams is a partner. I was and am grateful. Don Karban has been a friend (I hope) since his son played freshman basketball for me; he’s done good things, mostly behind the scenes, for Hillsboro. I know Tom Baker only from a distance, through the Connor boys. He headed Hurst-Rosche, and my impressions were always positive. Collectively, though, they thought rationally, in the box, about an issue controlled by those who put self-interest ahead of rationality. I think they were ambushed. I am grateful for their efforts, as we all should be.
Admittedly I am biased against the gentlemen who conducted the feasibility study. The Midwest School Consultants group–none of whom I know personally–reminded me too much of the Education Department professors I encountered at Blackburn and then later in two classes at SIUE. One of Blackburn’s instructors, there as a guest instructor for only a year, Dr. Otto, was above average for his genre. I took a course called “Teaching English in Secondary Schools” from him, and one of his practical bits of advice was, “Don’t take a part-time job during your first years of teaching; you won’t have time.” That’s the only wisdom I ever received in an education class at any level.
At least one of the presenters at the Litchfield meeting where the results of the study were revealed was entertaining, but much of the material presented on the 244 pages seemed cut and paste, perhaps designed to overwhelm by volume rather than to elucidate and convince. The situation didn’t call for the bureaucratic nonsense that educational boards often feature.
I want to make two more references before I propose a solution that might work. One is an opinion presented in the State Journal Register on Aug. 28, 2019. It was written by Adam Schuster of the Illinois Policy Institute (an organization with which I don’t always agree). Schuster points out, “The bloated education bureaucracy means precious state and local tax dollars have been siphoned away (to administration) and wasted, instead of going to the classroom” His solution? Don’t consolidate the schools, just the administrative teams that run them. (I have a copy of his article I’ll be glad to share if it’s still not in print anywhere–give me a call at 532-5139 or e-mail me at www.thejournal-news.net.)
The last reference also comes from the SJR (Jan. 7, 2020) and it’s a column from Jim Nowlan, whose points included: “School district performance strongly correlates with household income, and not with (district) spending”; “Many families locate to avoid the problems with city schools”; “School superintendents and their boards must up their game”; and “Parents with ambitions for their young are not likely to locate in small towns when the schools are below average.” Again, I have a copy of that article in my files if anyone is interested.
While I understand local communities are afraid to lose their high schools and thus part of their identities, I don’t understand the fear of loss of local control when that control so obviously isn’t working well. Here then is my common sense though out of the box thoughts.
Let’s set up a magnet school system of sorts utilizing the four county high school buildings in existence for specialty courses for the morning portion of the day. One school would be the center for the students with advanced academic abilities in math, science, social studies, and English. I have reservations about dual credit classes, but if they fit anywhere in a high school, it would be in one with enough seniors capable of doing college work. (It’s a question of simple math–HHS had over 800 students when I came here in1968, so it wasn’t hard to find 20 students capable of calculus. Now that HHS has barely more than 400, it would be rare to have 10 of them capable of doing calculus as 17-18 year olds–and to insert those not capable, either by ability or inclination, weakens what the teacher can expect from the few who need and can do it. (Don’t mumble about individualizing instruction within classrooms unless you’ve done it successfully, and bring proof you have been effective.)
Another site could use the morning hours for an emphasize on vocational classes–ag., welding, electrical, technical pursuits. Perhaps the Co-op program, with parameters that prevent students from working for their parents–one of the weaknesses of the old days–could be revived. That way one site could have the equipment that’s so expensive to provide.
A third site could house the arts classes, including art as it’s taught today but also with photography and individual vocal and musical offerings for those with similar interests. (Similar interests are important–my writing improved the most in my senior year of high school when I competed for grades with the pretty girls (one sat in front of me, the other behind me) in Mrs. Montgomery’s class. They were both proud of their grades, so I decided to impress them. Had I been in a class of typical grades-aren’t-important friends, I would have adopted that attitude instead.
Perhaps the fourth site could be for the aspiring C.E.O./business types of the combined schools. Today they have to rise extra early to participate, and I’d bet they and the business people with whom they meet always feel hurried.
In the afternoon the students could return to their home districts–to eat, to take P.E., to practice for their school’s operetta or drama; to take the classes they missed by studying elsewhere in the morning. Each school could still have its own prom, homecoming, and athletic teams; if daddy was a Topper, lad or lass could be one too. Transportation? What we do now is archaic. When I was in high school, I rode the bus 95 percent of the time, as did most of the students who didn’t live in town. (Marion Center was and is a small town; maybe six of the 121 people in my senior class lived there.) The yellow buses that served the joint school district (seven small township high schools consolidated into one) were a necessity. As I’ve written before, it was 17 miles one way from my house to the school house door; our family didn’t own the dependable transportation that trip demanded, so bussing was the answer.
That changed locally when the student parking lot at HHS expanded to across the creek; sophomores now drive themselves to school. Busses are necessary for elementary and junior high kids who aren’t old enough to drive, but high school kids on busses have become rare. Thus, if the magnet schools mentioned above are limited to junior and senior levels, the kids would drive themselves.
Are there precedents? CEO students have been responsible for their early-morning transportation since the inception of the program, and athletes practicing at the sports complex (soccer and baseball) either drive or ride with a friend to practices and home games. Occasionally basketball players drive (to Coffeen–that gym is a blessing, as was the one in Witt when it was viable). To save money, since programs were charged with paying for their own bus trips to away games, players are expected to find their own ways to game sites close to Hillsboro.
If the four towns agreed to the magnet school theory, the taxes saved would be in administrative costs. Benefits to students who would attend classes in the morning with peers from across the county who share common interests (often because they also have academic abilities that are similar) should be high. I know details would need to be worked out, but the benefits seem obvious–each attendance center has its own identity and a chance for local control that could be more effective. I do know what we have now is not working; it is time for a change.
The first chance to begin that change is at the ballot box on April 6. To quote from the steering committee’s Letter to the Editor last July: “... support candidates who support a larger, more efficient district with more curriculum choices for students of all abilities.”
We need board members who don’t see board seats as positions of power from which they can grind an ax (work to have a particular coach fired, for example) or as a guarantee their child or grandchild will receive special treatment on the playing field or in the classroom. We also don’t need board members (on any board or council) whose primary aim is to hold the line on taxes.
What we do need are those with the ability to see beyond district borders to form a better system. We need those who can compromise and not dictate, who can think on their feet and present ideas, who see all of Montgomery County as their immediate family.