My Generation

Consolidation: No Easy Answers

It's tough on a town when their rural school comes up for a consolidation vote.

There are signs all over town: “Vote no.” “Just vote no.” “Vote NO on consolidation.”

Our small town is, obviously, about to vote on whether to consolidate with two other rural school districts, just to our north. The Committee of 10 has long since been formed, the research conducted, the information presented. Now the communities are hashing it out, presenting their sides and forming formidable offenses. Suffice to say, there’s some vocal opposition out there. Folks are, not surprisingly, taking this personally. In our situation, the proposal keeps an elementary school in each of the three towns, places the junior high in the northern-most town and the high school in the southern-most town. The proposed district would be close to 30 miles in length and the student body would be about a hundred students shy of our neighboring district in Macomb.

For a lot of us – my husband and I included – the question is about how well our schools can help us prepare our children for college. We’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on how well we were prepared (John graduated from here and I graduated from a very similarly-sized high school in Edwards County). And as I noted here, although I’d never heard of an AP class until I walked onto campus at the University of Illinois, I still managed to graduate with honors and score a job. So I think there’s more to a good school than advanced classes. Although those are still important. My college math experience would have been much smoother had I experienced calculus in high school.

About a year ago, I wrote a cover story on rural school consolidations (herehere and here). We talked with the State Board of Education, with principals from consolidated districts, with parents, and with farmers serving on school boards. And in a topic where hardly anyone can agree on hardly anything, everyone agrees on the main problem: no town wants to lose its identity. Indeed, the hardest thing to kill in this state is a mascot.

John Lock, our young friend from rural Avon, was a senior at the University of Illinois at the time, and he wrote a very nice piece for our cover. John, I should add, was in our high school youth group, has spent much time in our living room and is one of the more thoughtful young people we’ve met. And he’s part of one of our most favorite families. He once made a case during a practice for youth Sunday, that the term for ushering (passing the plate) should actually be ushing. “You don’t say farmering. You say farming.” I really think he was onto something there.

But I digress. John made the case in his cover piece that while he could’ve used some advanced classes, those kids who are high achievers are going to excel no matter what. They may have to work harder at it if they come from a small school. And like him, they may not be quite as used to the academic rigor (“dude, I actually have to study here”) as kids from larger high schools are. But if you learn to ask for help, you’re gonna make it.

Consolidation is a tough call for any community to make. In an age where an irresponsible state with an irresponsible budget can’t begin to promise anything, very few can even venture a guess as to what our potential school district budget may be. Can they keep bus rides to an hour? Can they guarantee AP classes? Do we need extra-curriculars like bowling? What will they do to prepare vocational students? There are a lot of questions and though a lot of people claim to have answers, very few are hard and fast. This consolidation business is a gamble, no matter which way the vote goes. Like John Lock, we may all need to ask for a little help.

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