Small-town pride, values keep rural districts afloat

July 18, 2008 | 0 comments

February 8, 2001

THE STATE OF EDUCATION
Small-town pride, values keep rural districts afloat

By JENNIFER DUKES LEE
REGISTER STAFF WRITER

Diagonal, Ia. -The old brick schoolhouse stands like a sentinel on the Diagonal hillside, a symbol of endurance, stubbornness and town pride.

The death knell has sounded again here, as it has in many Iowa school districts for 50 years. The sound is drowned out, however, by school bells. The tiny Ringgold County town, with 119 students in its school, refuses to surrender despite talk that it should.

“They’re still talkin,’ and we’re still goin,’” says Diagonal Principal Larry Teply. “We’re ol’ country people, where you want to do things for yourself.”

Districts much larger gave up the fight long ago, yielding to financial pressures and concerns about maintaining educational quality. The number of public school districts in Iowa has fallen below 380 – down from 1,575 in 1960. The loss has significance far beyond education in small towns. It cuts to the soul.

“They’ve already seen the car dealership and the equipment dealership pull out, the loss of the department store or maybe the closing of a church,” says Paul Lasley, a rural sociologist from Iowa State University. “The school is left as the defining social institution.”

Towns without big industries or tourist attractions have long attached their identities to their schools. They boast of athletic successes on wooden billboards at town entrances. Though their own children graduated long ago, even the town’s elderly residents attend school-sponsored chili suppers, homecoming coronations and school plays.

Each year, more rural districts weigh the painful choice of closing a school or keeping it open with fewer students and fewer taxpayers to carry the burden. Like banks, insurance offices and grain elevators, school districts in Iowa have surrendered to an economy of scale – the business maxim that a merger can give customers more at a better price.

State education officials are pushing for more school mergers and “regional academies,” which they believe will help maintain Iowa’s place as a national education leader.

Iowa’s population is stagnant, especially in rural areas. The state’s yearly death rate is closing in on the birth rate. School enrollment in 70 percent of Iowa’s school districts is declining.

“This is where the rub will come: They’ll not be able to offer those kids the opportunities they need,” says Ted Stilwill, director of the Iowa Department of Education.

Fifteen years ago, 67 percent of Iowa’s schoolchildren were taught in districts of more than 1,000 students. Today, almost 72 percent are in the state’s largest schools.

The links between many Iowa towns and their schools already have been irreversibly broken. The hope of a rural renaissance that would bring new jobs and more people vanished long ago. The schools have long since been torn down, their bricks sold as souvenirs and the demolished buildings replaced by granite memorial plaques. Students in towns that lost their schools wake before dawn to catch buses that take them to schoolhouses in bigger towns, often miles away. They return home after sunset.

The folks in Diagonal, the fifth-smallest school district in Iowa, have seen it happen in districts around them. They are determined to fight for something they deeply cherish: their independence.

****

Rumors of an impending merger have circulated through Diagonal, population 300, since Larry Teply graduated from the school in 1973. Some locals say the threat loomed even before then.

Five years after graduating from Diagonal High, Teply returned to take a job as the school’s special-education teacher. He became principal in 1989.

The long-standing joke when Teply attended Diagonal High was that he and a classmate would someday run the school. “And I guess we did,” he says proudly.

His Diagonal classmate, Karleen Stephens, is the school superintendent.

Teply, like many Diagonal residents, returned home after only a few years. People come back for the comfort and security of a small town. They want their children raised and taught as they were, in a school building that looks pretty much the same as it did 50 years ago. Around that time, a wave of school consolidations hit Iowa. Many one-room country schoolhouses closed.

Another wave hit in the 1960s and 1970s, with changes in Iowa agriculture. Fewer farmers worked the land as farms grew or went bankrupt. Rural populations declined, and so did school enrollments. Iowans were left with a choice, says Lasley, the sociologist. “Do we raise taxes, incurring more cost with fewer people, or do we consolidate?”

Diagonal’s enrollment has declined from 160 students in 1995 to 119 this school year. While the district manages to postpone a merger, other schools are now under a third wave of consolidation. Districts that merged 20 or 30 years ago are beginning to consolidate again, this time with other merged districts.

“It’s very difficult to make a decision to close,” says Bob Hutchcroft, a middle school principal.

The name of his district, which will officially consolidate this year, reflects the latest round of mergers: Ackley Geneva Wellsburg Steamboat Rock, or AGWSR for short.

Schools often scrimp or cut programs in vain attempts to keep a building open, Hutchcroft says.

“But what you’re really doing is maintaining that building for the community. . . . To me, you’re saying the community is more important than the education.”

Test scores are solid in Diagonal but still trail the average in the state’s largest districts. Diagonal has averaged 20.7 on the ACT exam over the past five years. The students scored an average of 24.5 in 1996, compared with 19.2 a year ago. ACT officials note that the numbers can vary significantly because of the small classes at Diagonal. The largest districts in the state scored an average of 22.2 last year.

Teply says his school can provide hard evidence that bigger isn’t always better. A large majority of Diagonal graduates attend college after graduation. The school offers athletics, drama and music programs. Every classroom has Internet access.

“You don’t have to be huge to be successful,” Teply says. When people ask him when the school will merge, he cheerfully replies: “The Year 3000!”

Teply knows, however, that his optimism is no match for raw numbers. The school so far has been able to fill teaching jobs, “but with retirements coming up, we’re going to have some trouble in the future,” Teply says.

Deaths have outnumbered births in Ringgold County since 1983. Enrollment in the district is expected to fall to 100 in the next few years. The principal can count the fifth-grade class on one hand: Jeff, Ryan, Chelsie, Rodney, Kaylin.

****

Every weekday morning, the high school’s 44 students hop on buses to travel to Mount Ayr, the county seat 12 miles away. Since 1991, Diagonal High School students have taken advanced courses at Mount Ayr High School, which receives $64,638 this year to teach Diagonal students.

The Diagonal students return to their own school by noon to take core subjects.

The high school and middle school in Diagonal share 11 teachers; four of them work part time. The small staff means teachers and administrators carry extra loads. The principal also serves as the school’s technology coordinator and athletic director. When bus drivers call in sick, he occasionally fills in.

Teachers pay for things out of their own pocketbooks because they know the school’s budget is stretched thin.

Frank Gunsolley, who owns Diagonal Building Products uptown, sells the wood and hardware used to make prom decorations and sets for the school play. The teachers “know the school can’t pay for it, so they charge the stuff to themselves,” says Gunsolley, a 1965 Diagonal High graduate.

The community helps carry the load. When the ball field needed improvements, local residents donated the labor. When the students wanted a new concession stand, the townspeople came through again.

Although they live in one of Iowa’s poorest regions, voters consistently approve levies that translate into higher property-tax bills. “It goes back to the pride of being able to maintain that K-12 district,” says Shelly Bentley, the school’s special-education teacher. “There’s a lot of identity attached to being the Diagonal Community School.”

Bentley, a 1980 Diagonal graduate, says the school operates under the assumption that it will stay open forever. Sitting in her empty classroom, she contemplates how long it can realistically last. Her outward confidence and Diagonal-style stubbornness are broken by tears.

“Me, who never cries at anything,” Bentley says. “I mean, when you think about that last graduation, that last prom or that last ball game or whatever in a Diagonal Maroons uniform, that will be very sad.”

She pauses to let another tear fall. “It will be a very hard day.”

****

Diagonal students avoid words like “merge” and “consolidate.”

“I don’t like to talk about it. It’s something I don’t ever want to happen,” says junior Abby Stephens, the superintendent’s daughter.

Her class, with 16 students, is Diagonal’s largest. The high school’s 44 students manage to keep sports, music and drama programs afloat. More than half the high school participated in the fall production of “Our Town.” Diagonal residents filled the gym to watch.

About half of the high school participates in band, and all but three of the 25 middle school students play in their own band. No one is cut from a team, and many students sign up for nearly every activity available.

The size of their school, though, deprives them of many of the clubs, athletic programs and courses found even in Iowa’s medium-sized schools.

Are the sacrifices worth it? The students emphatically reply yes.

They say they get what they need during their mornings at Mount Ayr, where students take Spanish, chemistry, physics and trigonometry. Each day, they say, they’re eager to step back on the bus to return to their own school.

Here, along the same hardwood hallways their parents and grandparents walked, they feel at home. They doubt their own children will know that same feeling. Many say they will seek jobs out of Diagonal, a place short on high-paying jobs and housing.

Even if the students do stay, a merger could force their children to attend classes in another town.

Charles Andrews, a junior, says he’ll feel sad when that happens -but he won’t feel defeated. “We’ve beaten the odds. We have something to be proud of.”

For he knows they are survivors.

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