County's single school districts thrive

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Margaret Plevak | April 20, 2014

GENEVA TOWNSHIP--Next fall at Woods School in the town of Geneva, a fiber optic line that provides high-speed Internet service will be installed in the same building where kindergarteners play on the original wood floors in a wing of the structure that dates back to 1886.

That juxtaposition of high tech and history make schools like Woods, the single K-8 school that makes up Geneva Joint 4 District, in a class by themselves.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, there are 10 single-school union high school districts in the state and 46 underlying elementary K-8 districts that are feeder districts to the high schools. Three of those districts send students to more than one union district, said Debra Bougie, DPI's communications specialist.
Some of the K-8 districts are single school districts and others have more than one school building. And  some rural districts serve all K-12 students in one building, though they may call themselves separate elementary and high schools, Bougie noted, adding there are no requirements in state law that regulate the size of schools or school districts.

Here in Walworth County, single-school districts for K-8 schools include Woods, Traver School in Linn Joint 4, Reek School in Linn Joint 6, Fontana Elementary School in Fontana Joint 8, and Sharon Community School in Sharon Joint 11. 

Ed Brzinski, Woods principal and Geneva J4 superintendent, pointed out eight of the 10 unionized high school districts are in southeastern Wisconsin. Many have histories that stretch back, like Woods, founded as a one-room wooden schoolhouse in 1858. The school celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2008, making it the oldest continuous K-8 school district in Wisconsin, Brzinski said. The northeast corner of the school still sports the cream city brick façade that was built in 1886. 

“In a sense, we are kind of a holdover from another time,” Brzinski said.
Even 50 years ago, the schools of single-school districts often served as everything from polling places to social gathering sites in small, rural communities. 

“There's no downtown here, and I know back in the day this was more of a community center because it was probably the nicest community building in the area,” said Craig Collins, of Traver School in Linn township, where he is the principal and Linn J4 administrator. “But people didn't drive wherever they wanted to go like they do now. We live in a very fluid society today.”

Traver, located on Linton Road. is surrounded by farm fields, not a busy urban neighborhood. “We don't have that visibility of people driving by every day who say, 'Hey, there's a school here.' I think we're a little harder to find,” Collins said. “But parents who want a small school or a K-8 school setting tend to find us as much as we find them.”

Rooted in their communities, single school districts have drawn generations of hometown students. Lillian Henderson, district administrator for Sharon J11 and principal of Sharon Community School can  list Sharon graduates still in the area: a  police officer, current and future school board members, a school office worker and a teacher. 

What has changed the playing field for some single-school districts is open enrollment, the state program that allows students to attend public school in a district outside of the one where they reside. The number of open-enrollment applications has grown from 5,926 in 1998, when the program started, to 42, 194 in February of 2014, according to the DPI website.  

“Even the issue of transportation doesn't deter a lot of people,” Collins said. “If you live somewhere in that state where the next school is 50 miles from here and you have to drive, well, that helps you make up your mind real quick. Whereas around here, look how many schools are within a 15-minute drive. That makes it easy for people to open enroll and get the education they want for their children.”

At Woods, Brizinski said the current student population is 208, historically as high as it has ever been. Though the district is small—roughly six square miles—he estimated about half of the open enrollments come from the city of Lake Geneva.

Thanks in part to open enrollment students, Sharon Community School has not only maintained its music program, including instrumental and choral classes, and its interscholastic sports, but added a family consumer science and world language programs, Henderson said.

Fontana Elementary School records show 93 open enrollment students this year—close to one-third of the total student body.  Principal Sara Norton, who is also district administrator for Fontana J8, expects that number may rise to half the student population in a matter of years.

“Our open enrollees are from all different socio-economic groups across the board, not just one group,” Norton said. “I don't think in that respect we're seen as 'back water.'”

Local K-8 single school districts offer classes even some bigger districts have eliminated. Fontana Elementary, for instance, has a band room and a music lab, complete with keyboards and a wall of guitars that students can learn to play. The school also gives older students time at an outdoor education camp in Lake Geneva to participate in hands-on environmental projects.

Such opportunities, however, need revenue streams to pay for them. It's a difficult proposition for schools limited by municipal tax levies and state aid.

Norton said Fontana Elementary has been fortunate. “Our entire state aid is $12,000, versus our neighbors who are pulling in a million dollars in state aid,” she said “Just have that stable property base for taxes allows the budget here to stay stable.”

But a sluggish economy that still hasn't totally rebounded after a 2008 downturn has wreaked havoc on small communities. A foundry where some parents of Sharon Community School students worked closed over two years ago, Henderson said. Since then, the free and reduced lunch count of students soared to 62 percent.

Sharon J11 received slightly over $2 million in state aid payments for the 2012-2013 school years, and Henderson conceded state aid makes up a major part of the budget.

The school operates its own food service program and operates its own school buses.
Sharon Community School also runs a licensed childcare center, taking children 6 weeks old and up from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. year round that's drawn both parents of students and teachers. Additionally, the school offers space for a Head Start program.

In 2010, resident taxpayers approved a $5.8 million referendum to replace the school's heating system and roofs as well as upgrade its technology and security systems.

“The fact that the people in the community dug even deeper into their pockets—because we have a higher mill rate than most in the area—is gratifying,” Henderson said. “These were things that absolutely had to happen, but we wouldn't have been able to do that through the general fund.”

At Woods School, where space is at such a premium a storage closet is being turned into a reading classroom, a $5.5 million referendum for renovations was voted down in 2013, 208 votes to 70.

“It just means I have to do a better job of listening and explaining because we're still going to have to renovate,” Brzinski said. “Part of our job is getting the message out to people who don't have children here now. We want to make sure that we're ready for the next 10 years because education is different now than it was in 1950 or 1970. We have to keep maintaining our technology, but we are being economically responsible for the community. I pay taxes here, too, and I want to be able to afford living here 10 to 15 years from now.”

Brzinski said as an administrator, he's taken time to seek out opportunities to save money. Through a combination of e-rate applications that provide discounts for schools, a Time-Warner service agreement and state subsidies like Teach Wisconsin, he will bump the school's bandwidth up from 10 to 100 megabytes next year, saving the district roughly $60,000 over the next five years.

A former principal of Central-Denison Elementary School in Lake Geneva, Reek School Principal Samantha Polek, who is also Linn J6 district administrator, has found smaller schools mean smaller budgets spent frugally but creatively.

“I remember working with teachers with their orders and requisition for supplies and things, trying to get them down to $1,000. Here, every teacher is allowed $200, but they're used to it,” she said. “That's just one great divide I saw with my own eyes—how much people in other places are accustomed to having and yet when you walk into the classrooms here, they're well-furnished. We have a Smartboard in every classroom. We have a one-to-one iPads.”

Polek looks at digital technology in terms of cost-effective savings. A social studies teacher at Reek uses online educational sites, not textbooks,  in his course. IPads reduce printing, ink and paper supplies. “We're using the iPad minis, but they're still almost just under $500 a device. We consider them an investment. It puts learning in the kids' hands. They're excited,” Polek said.

Pooling resources has also helped in everything from purchasing paper and textbook contracts to writing grants. In 2012, six school districts around Geneva Lake, including Geneva J4, Linn J4 and Linn J6, formed a health insurance consortium. Brzinski said Woods staff has seen no increase in the overall cost of the health insurance for the third year.  

For specialists like physical or occupational therapists, some schools contract with the county for services. Others share part-time teachers or support staff, be it a business manager or curriculum director.

At Sharon Community School, the Big Foot Recreation Department sponsors some extra-curricular programs at the school.

“We're fortunate because for many of our families, if you're a working person you can't pick up your child at three 'o'clock and drive them to the high school for a program,” Henderson said. “The cost of gas is prohibitive, and it's not like there's public transportation here, so it's a little daunting for some people.

Sometimes, it's a matter of juggling. In the three years since Brzinski has been at Woods, the school's   4- and 5-year-old kindergarten programs went from half-day to a full-day 5-K and a full-day, three-day-a-week 4-K.

“We did that through increasing the enrollment numbers and canceling the half-day bus route,” he said. “It took us three years to break even, but in order to do that, you have to think three years out.”

Administrators say they also share each other's experience and expertise in dealing with issues and the job itself.

 “The dual role is the most difficult thing about being a single school district,” Norton said. “If you think about it everything that is done in Madison or Milwaukee public school districts, we also have to do: the reporting, the data collection. The big may have three or four assistant superintendents or someone in their human resources department to handle if, but in a small district like this, there are a very limited number of people who can pick up those tasks, but they still have to be done.”

“The roles are very intertwined, and I think that's probably my biggest challenge, said Polek. “(At Central-Denison) we had so many great resources. Now it's a K-8 school and it's just me, a secretary and a part-time business manager.”
“One moment I may be sitting in with a kindergartener reading a book, and the next minute I may be figuring out a well issue,” Brzinski said. “It's challenging, but I feel like I really make a big difference. I feel like I get to affect a lot of people here.”

Tami Martin said it was the small class sizes and the reputation for a quality education that attracted her to Reek when she was looking for a school for her sons David, 13, and Jeff, 12.  But she discovered something more. 

“When we first chose Reek back when David was entering first grade, the fact when I walked in the doors I felt like it was a community. It felt like family,” Martin said in an email. “The middle-school teachers knew my 3-year-old by name. The teachers rotated teaching assignments when different needs arose so they knew your kid before they were technically their homeroom student.

“I once watched the math teacher shovel the sidewalks. Every staff member just pitches in and does what is needed to get the job done. I wanted my kids in a place where the whole school community was involved in educating my children.”

Martin, who is a teacher at East view Elementary and Central Denison schools in Lake Geneva, said she's more than just a name and face at Reek.

“I am valued as a parent and my questions and concerns are taken seriously. I am not sure if I feel like I have more input or just that my kids and myself are valued,” she said. “I know all the teachers and staff whether or not my kids are in their class, and because I know the entire staff, I do feel more connected and more in touch.”

That feeling is shared at other single-school districts. “There's no anonymity here. People get to know you very well,” said Brzinski, a former Lake Geneva schools teacher for 21 years.

“What we find is that once students are done here, their level of adult interaction is so much greater than students who sometimes go through larger school systems, just because they know how to talk and interact very well,” he said. Their interpersonal skills are very high. They're much more caring about their classmates and adults.”

Norton said the structure of a small K-8 school single-school district can be insulating and isolating, especially for middle school students.

“Our kids right now have the same teacher for three years. If you have the same math teacher for three years, the benefit is that math teacher knows where those kids are, gets to know where that learning curve is every school year,” she said. “The drawback is our kids get one teacher. They don't get the different ways of teaching. They don't get novelty, which is what middle school brains thrive on.”

But Henderson pointed to research showing bigger cities, such as New York, turning back to a K-8 setting, saying that blend of ages may benefit older students.

“Middle school is kind of a rocky period and it's nice that many times the same person who taught you in kindergarten might wag her finger at you when you're a very bold eighth grader walking down the hall,” Henderson said. 

“There is a leadership potential for middle school children in K-8. They are always role models for the little ones and they know that. The little ones think the older kids are like gods and goddesses,” Polek said. “We talk about that a lot. 'Oh, my goodness, you're running in the halls? What if the first graders see you do that? They'll think it's acceptable.'”

Single-school district administrators do say that their small size helps them move forward without the usual red tape of a larger district. Norton said last year her teachers were quickly able to set up intervention classes for students who weren't meeting academic benchmarks. And a parent-teacher group was not only able to raise funds for new playground in five months, but even helped put up the equipment.  

From a local church providing breakfasts and lunches over spring break for students of low-income families to an area company donating iPads for classrooms, community support for single-school districts is common. 

Part of that is a deep-rooted affinity for the schoolds.Brzinski said it's not unusual to get alumni returning to Woods asking for a tour.

“I had one person stop by who lived down the road and was selling his farm,” he remembered. “He brought in some baseball bases, saying students had used them for the baseball games played in the 1940s.  He was on one of the teams and wondered if we wanted them back. So we put them in the school trophy cases, the original bases from over 60 years ago.” 

Henderson, who said her school's annual picnic even draws parents whose kids have long graduated, recalled a Sharon Community School graduate who'd moved to Iowa, but came back for a school reunion last summer.

“She told us in Iowa, they did way with some smaller, local schools and she felt that was the death knell for the little town she lived in. Once they lost their school, they lost their identity,” Henderson said. “When our sign here says, 'We're the heart of the community,' we take it pretty seriously.”

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