Here is a real-world example of rural folks trying to make a success of education. I don't see charters (or vouchers) having any measurable impact here.
Richard ============================= TINY SCHOOLS, BIG ROLE: Michigan micro-districts put up a fight to survive BY PEGGY WALSH-SARNECKI FREE PRESS EDUCATION WRITER
December 27, 2006
When the Port Hope High School Blue Stars take to the basketball court, the bleachers are filled with about 300 fans. And on the Fourth of July, practically all of Port Hope's 1,000 residents show up at the school for the annual Independence Day celebration.
It doesn't sound like a lot, but the high school's enrollment is only 65 students.
But Port Hope, like many other tiny school districts, is in trouble: It doesn't have the tens of thousands of students seen in large districts, and the loss of a single student or two -- and the state money that goes with them -- can mean a financial burden and pressure to consolidate with another district.
That, in turn, means more than losing just a school.
A throwback to an era when there were thousands of tiny school districts across the state, Port Hope Community Schools consists of one schoolhouse to accommodate 100 students in a town stretching about a half-dozen blocks along Lake Huron, near the top of Michigan's Thumb.
You can see the lake's crystal blue waters from just about anywhere in town -- where the tallest building is the grain elevator. And everyone pretty much agrees, the school is much more than a place where kids learn: It is the heart and the identity of the town.
"It's the community center. It's the place for the spaghetti dinners, the soup and sandwich suppers," said Mike Gust, who graduated from Port Hope High in 1978. Today, his two children, Shawn, 18, and Kayla, 13, attend the school.
Micro-districts are often unable to offer the same advantages to students that larger districts do, such as wide-ranging extracurricular activities or sports, or advanced placement courses. And test results -- like the annual MEAP scores -- can have a limited meaning when you're talking about no more than a handful of students or less.
But small districts still embody many of the elements most education experts say are critical for student achievement: parent participation, a strong sense of community and individual attention.
Supporters also say they help prop up the town.
"There's a lot of little towns around the county that, without their schools, have pretty much boarded up the community," Gust said. "There's no reason to come to the community."
Shrinking district, shrinking funds
Port Hope has lost about 50 students in the past six years, and, along with them, one-third of its state funding. Young families, in particular, are leaving because of jobs disappearing in an area once known for its farming and tourism, and a tight Michigan economy.
The school -- which houses the high school, middle school and elementary school in a single building -- has six full-time teachers, but only one of those teaches the 21 students in grades kindergarten through fifth.
One upside to that, said student Kayla Gust, is fewer students means fewer cliques. Everyone is invited to the parties and nobody is ignored at school.
"You basically know everyone and you all get along," she said. "You have your friends, but you talk to everyone."
Small classes and friendly students can't stem the loss of people from the town, however. And it costs money to run a school district, even a small one.
"It's a great place to live. But there's just not a lot of jobs in the area, so people have a real tough time earning money here and raising a family," said Superintendent Scott Belt.
Belt has reluctantly been job hunting. Next year, the superintendent's position will be a part-time job, a decision he agreed with. There just isn't enough money -- or kids -- to warrant a full-time job.
Port Hope, however, is fighting back. The district has received almost $1 million in grants over the last few years, and used the money to purchase technology for distance learning for Spanish, accounting, psychology, physics and chemistry. Students can also take English, math and chemistry online from St. Clair County Community College.
With more offerings, the hope is that people will find a way to stay.
Meanwhile, Port Hope is trying to save more money by contracting through the Huron Intermediate School District for busing and administrative work.
Port Hope -- along with Mackinac Island, Beaver Island and Burt Township Schools-- is one of the few tiny districts to offer kindergarten through high school. The rest of the state's smallest districts are primary school districts, with classes from kindergarten through elementary or middle school. After leaving that district, students transfer to another for high school.
According to the state, the smallest districts in 2005-06 were Bois Blanc Pines schools in Mackinac Township, with three students, and Grant Township District No. 2, in the Keweenaw Peninsula, with two students.
Of course, if a single family moves in or departs it can change things drastically. Diane Trudgeon, the teacher in Grant Township, said Tuesday she has four students this year and a fifth who's away.
"Every year one or two more of them disappear. The people who have the passion to keep them going leave the community," said Tom White, executive director of the association of Michigan School Business Officials. "They're kind of melting into the surrounding school districts."
Those involved in these tiny school districts say they are a tradition worth saving, even if overhead costs are high for so few students.
Torri Ferris, who teaches the 12 students enrolled in Sigel No. 6 School District in Huron County this year, just southwest of Port Hope, is among them -- even though she did not envision being a one-room schoolmarm while majoring in education at Saginaw Valley State University.
"The teaching is non-stop, one class right after another," Ferris said, as her students rehearsed songs for the Christmas performance in the background. "There's a lot of classes to get in."
But she's enjoying every minute of her experience.
"It's the relationship between students. They take care of each other," Ferris said. "They go to school with each other for nine years. Their brothers and sisters are here."
All this togetherness can have a downside, too.
"I sometimes think because they go to school with their brothers and sisters, they don't get a chance to hang out with other people," Ferris said. "I can tell when they get into an argument at home, they can't leave it when they come to school."
The district will celebrate its centennial next year, and people in the area have a long memory for its history.
"People are always telling me stories," Ferris said.
Surviving by consolidating
Sigel No. 6 is one of seven one-room school districts in the Thumb that are surviving at least in part by consolidating what they can. The districts share music, art, special education and two Title I teachers. Middle-schoolers compete in sports through Harbor Beach Schools, and they are working on a similar arrangement with Bad Axe Schools for those students who will go on to high school there.
Yet, going to the next step and consolidating these small districts into larger ones may not be the answer, White said. For starters, White doubts consolidation would save much money.
"In the overall scheme of things, I would say the answer is no. There's not enough of them and there's not enough money involved for there to be a significant savings," White said.
Simply evaluating cost data is misleading because these district's costs can vary wildly with enrollment.
"You look at Bois Blanc and one year their cost is $50,000 per pupil, but then someone moves in and the next year their cost is $10,000," White said.
Even suggesting consolidation comes with a political price, said White.
"The politics of trying to consolidate these districts, trying to divide those districts up into surrounding districts are beyond any legislator that wants to stay in office," White said. "People are passionate about this."
That's certainly true at the 125-year-old Hager School District No. 6 near Benton Harbor. Hager's students go to Eau Claire High School, about 20 miles away, when they finish eighth grade. There are about 70 students in grades K-8, divided among four classrooms with five teachers and two aides.
"Some families have been here for generations," said Teresa McCain, a parent and school board president. When something needs to be done, they just call the parents, she said.
McCain wouldn't put her 12-year-old daughter, Anna, in any other school.
"You have a small environment, we have more one-on-one with our teachers," McCain said. "They give out their phone numbers, we can call them at home anytime, they're always available to us."
"We seem to be doing fine," McCain said. "It always works out."