ORIGINALLY WRITTEN BY DON RATZLAFF
As we enter a new decade, what kind of grade would you give our schools? How are we doing?
There?s the public-relations grade and there?s the in-your-heart grade. Our public thinks highly of us, and I think our teachers have a good rapport with most of our kids. We?re pleased about that, and our community expects us to do well.
But when you really know the school, you know there are places where we could be a lot better. So while you might give yourself a B+ or an A- and feel good about it, you?re reminded there are some places where we need to improve.
What are some of those areas? What challenges face USD 410?
One is trying to lessen the gap between our highest-performing children and those who struggle in school?and to make sure that we do that by keeping our expectations high for the higher-performing students and then bring the others up.
Another challenge is to keep looking for ways to do things differently. For example, if kindergarten and first-grade teachers can predict which students are likely to struggle in high school, then the issue is what can we do about it between first grade and high school.
Another challenge is providing a wide variety of experiences for children in rural communities. Our kids don?t have very many exposures to the rest of the world?in an occupational sense, but also in regard to racial diversity, cultural diversity, religious diversity.
Most people in Hillsboro are white and Protestant. So, how do you give children some of these other experiences, while at the same time keeping those neat things we like about rural communities and schools, those things that attract people to our community?
In regard to careers, we?ve talked about wanting to do more mentoring, where students can go out and have different work experiences. It?s pretty hard, for instance, to find an architect in Hillsboro. We don?t have one.
So if a student wants to go into architecture, what kind of experiences can we find for that child?
We can?t talk about challenges without touching on the very practical matter of finances. How does the future look in that regard?
Money is always a challenge, but we can figure that one out. We?re particularly fortunate that our communities financially support our schools.
I know the tax burden is heavy for some people. We don?t hear many complaints, though. I hear people occasionally wondering if we?re justifying some of the things we spend money on?and they ought to question those things.
But I don?t worry nearly as much about the finances because I think people will be supportive of what we?re trying to do.
School financing is also contingent on enrollment. How do the numbers look for the coming decade?
Unless there?s a lot of in-migration, we?ll probably lose about 20 students a year for the next two or three years, and then it ought to level out. That?s based on looking at our high school classes of 70 and then bringing in classes of 50 kids.
It?s a big unknown what kind of in-migration we?re going to have. I?ve been surprised that Hillsboro seems to have grown, but the school-age population has still shrunk. You hear around the state, though, that there?s been a drop in the birth rate. Of the little over 300 school districts in Kansas, more than 200 have declined in enrollment.
Does the probability of an enrollment decline concern you?
We?ll just have to pay attention to it. We were able to cut some (operating budget) money this year, and I think people would be hard-pressed to see where that cut had a negative impact on learning.
I think we can do some more of those things and still protect the learning environment and the things that are important to people.
It seems with the recent development of an after-school program in Marion County that we continue to look to our schools to do more than teach. Where do you see that trend heading?
I think communities need to continue to expand services for children, and that the school needs to be a partner but not a prime player in that.
One part of that after-school grant is to find community mentors for kids. If we can help to facilitate that, and match children with responsible adults, that?s the kind of thing we ought to be doing. We shouldn?t be saying, ?Well, if your child is going to have a meaningful experience, it has to be with a school employee.?
To me, schools ought to take care of children from the time they walk in the door to the time they leave. The rest of it is a community issue.
What do you see as the strengths of USD 410? What are we doing well?
Hopefully, we do well at reflecting what our community wants. We listen to what the community tells us, then try to do the things we hear about. That?s comfortable here because our community wants quality schools.
We have a strong staff. Not every teacher is an A+ teacher, but we have a lot of good ones here. I think we have a lot better staff now than what we?ve had in the past, and it continues to get better. Our teachers continue to want to try different things. They?re willing to take some risks.
Facilities is a visible strength. That?s a credit to the long-time vision in our community that has supported our schools.
This may sound self-serving, but I really think we have a good school board. We have a school board that understands a proper role for itself. They see as their high priorities to set policies and supervise administrators. Then they tell the administrators, ?You guys do a good job, and we?ll support you and hold you accountable.? I like to work in that kind of environment.
What kind of educational trends are you following that you think will have an impact on USD 410 in the coming decade?
There?s a real trend on the technology side for changing the way classrooms function. It?s possible now that all the rote, remedial kinds of learning can be done with the help of computers.
Some people say that may replace the teacher someday. I see it as releasing the teacher to do the things that are important?to work on higher-level thinking schools, to work on reasoning, to work on application.
I also see a trend, reflected in the people who want to home-school, that many parents want to be more involved in their child?s education, They want their child?s education to be more tailor-made to the needs and interests of their child.
How, in a small community, do we give parents more choices? I don?t have all the answers for that, but I think we need to be aware of that and work at it.
It used to be we told a home-school parent, ?You need to send your child to our school or we?re not going to help you.? Well, we?ve changed the way we look at that. If our purpose is to serve children, then we ought to be asking those parents who home-school, ?What can we do to help you do better??
How might changing technology affect what we teach in school and how we teach it?
We want to continue to emphasize that technology is a tool. It isn?t an end in itself.
How does a person sift through all of the information we have and make decisions about what?s valid and what?s not, what?s reliable and what?s not? We have to learn to be selective.
Technology can also be a tool to improve the way we work. When we teach a child a specific piece of software, we know there?s going to be a new version of that out there someday soon, and it?s going to be different. Probably what we need to teach kids is that all of us need to be continual learners. Learning doesn?t stop when you walk out the door.
On the state level, we hear talk about another round of school consolidation. Where do you see that issue heading and what might it mean for USD 410?
I like to look at that issue as change, and sometimes change is painful. If you look back to the 1960s, when we talked about unification, a lot of people thought it was the wrong thing to do. Well, we don?t question much now that there?s no need for 12 schools in Marion County, that five is enough.
Perhaps we don?t need five school districts in Marion County. The process of deciding that will be painful. But it?s all part of the change process.
You always want to position yourself so you can best serve the people. But I would guess we could probably have one school district in Marion County and kids and teachers wouldn?t see much difference.
Now, there?s a big difference between having one school district in Marion County and having one high school in Marion County.
So, do you think something will happen in the next 10 years in the area of consolidation?
Probably. It doesn?t make sense to have a high school of 20 kids, and we have some 20-student high schools in Kansas. But the solution to that is not very easy, especially in western Kansas, where some schools are miles apart. And every situation is different.
For us to consolidate again, it?s going to take the same thing it took in the 1960s?the state is going to have tell us to do it. I don?t think Marion County is ready to get together on its own and say ?Let?s consolidate.?
We can help the situation by continuing to cooperate with each other, like with Marion County Special Ed, TEEN, and some of the other things we?ve done together to help use our resources more efficiently. We?ve got to move from being primarily competitors to being collaborators.
Any other key issues that you see before us in the coming decade?
We need to work on healthy communities. We need to work on being vigilant to keep our community healthy?and not just physically. The school has to be a part of that process, but it?s a community issue.
So where should the initiative come for that kind of challenge.
It would be better if it came from outside the school. I envision it coming from individuals within the community?people who are involved beyond their ?official capacity? in the community. To me, that?s what makes it a solid commitment.
We don?t have to have a professional educator be the only advocate for children. The retiree can be an advocate for children, the businessman downtown, the physician, the homemaker. They?re all advocates for a healthy community, healthy kids and healthy adults.