Thursday, November 18, 2004

Economic Development and Schools

There has been a lot of talk about economic development lately. Politicians are promising jobs for our county and state. I don’t know how much any one politician can do for the economy. I believe it takes more than good infrastructure and low taxes to attract employers to any community.

Employers look for excellent schools when they choose a new location. They look at cold hard statistics. They want high graduation rates and SAT scores that are above national average. While Dearborn County schools certainly have pockets of excellence, our high schools are performing too close to average to make Dearborn County attractive to many employers.

Currently our three county school corporations serve over eighty-seven hundred children. Lawrenceburg serves nearly 1500 students, South Dearborn High School serves over 3000 students and East Central High School serves over 4200 students. Unfortunately, Dearborn County’s best graduation rate in 2003 was less than 92% and this is below state average.

Over the last two decades much research has been done on how school size relates to academic achievement and social outcomes. Smaller schools often enjoy higher graduation rates, higher attendance rates, higher academic achievement, and fewer behavior problems. The researchers have found small is not enough, but small is essential. The ideal size for an elementary school is 300-400 students. High schools of 400-800 students are best for secondary students. Additionally, recent trends favor grade configurations of 6-8 and 5-8 for middle schools.

Lawrenceburg High School is the only appropriately sized secondary school in the county. But the elementary school feeding into Lawrenceburg has been too large. Recently, that school has been split into a primary and an elementary school. While this is an improvement, it is still too easy for students to fall through the cracks when there are over 100 students in each grade level of the school.

The only appropriately sized elementary schools in our county are Manchester, Moores Hill and Dillsboro. Aurora, North Dearborn, Sunman and Bright are all too large. Some have argued that it isn’t the size of the school that matters, it’s the number of students in the classroom. Unfortunately, there are far too many classes with 25 students and more in this county. Elementary class size should be 15-16 without an aide and with an aide class size shouldn’t exceed 20. Secondary teachers should not be assigned more than 100 students. And teachers should be planning in teams.

Administrators often claim they can not hire more teachers because prime time only applies to grades k-3. Prime time grants are intended to keep student teacher ratios between 15 and 18 students. No state law prohibits schools from attaining these ratios in higher grades. There simply are not grants to help schools with the expense.

Schools set their priorities when they set their budgets. The Department of Local Government Finance approves the budgets and the tax rates, but local boards have the option to determine whether their priorities are facilities or student services. Once the corporations have acquired debt for building projects, tax rates must be set to pay that debt off. This is true even if they choose to use lease rental agreements to finance these projects.

Currently, Sunman Dearborn and South Dearborn have huge building projects planned. Together they will spend over 80 million dollars on building additions and renovations. Most of this money will be spent on their secondary campuses. Both districts will have improved facilities, but it is unrealistic to expect any academic or social improvement.

South Dearborn High School serves three communities with elementary schools that are ten miles or further from the main campus. East Central High School serves two communities with elementary schools that are more than eleven miles from their main campus. Dearborn County high school students are served by a Vocational School that is over twenty miles from the schools.

Dearborn County’s 2850 high school students would be better served with five, rather than three high schools. And ample opportunity for vocational education should be available in each of these schools. Additionally, an equal number of 5-8 or 6-8 grade configured middle schools would be better for our students than the current and planned two grade configured intermediate and middle schools/junior high schools. These smaller schools do not require three or four principals. A principal and appropriate guidance councilors are needed in each building. A high school and its sister middle school should share an activity director. Janitorial costs can be reduced if current staffs are split and assigned to new schools and students are hired at minimum wage to complete the staff.

South Dearborn’s elementary attendance boundaries can be gradually realigned to achieve four appropriately sized elementary schools. Sunman Dearborn really ought to be building two new elementary schools in appropriate locations and it would be beneficial for S-D to work with Lawrenceburg Schools to draw more appropriate attendance areas.

There has been talk about creating one Dearborn County School District. While school and community leaders should be looking at how the schools can work together for the good of Dearborn County, further school consolidation will create more problems than it can ever solve. The three districts should be looking closely at appropriately changing attendance boundaries and sharing vocational programs. Further collaboration in the adoption of calendars, graduation standards, grading scales, teacher improvement plans and special education services would be beneficial.

At a recent athletic event a mother from Batesville commented “Indiana schools have buildingitis. I’ve lived enough places to know children can get a good education in old buildings.”

Last spring a local board member stated with regards to the hiring of an architect, “you can always erase a line, but you can’t erase a building.” I pray our school boards soon begin erasing some lines.

Bricks and Mortar are necessary, but they aren’t enough. Small neighborhood schools, low student teacher ratios, team planning, high standards, teaching to mastery, promotion of healthy habits, character education, quality arts and activity programs, inclusion rather than selection, and a commitment to help every child succeed regardless of their home environment are all essential elements of excellent schools. Excellent schools will bring economic prosperity to our community.

Karen Loveland

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