After the last North Tippah School Board meeting, concerned parents voiced their opinions on a proposed plan that could possibly consolidate Chalybeate, Falkner and Walnut Elementary Schools. Parents were concerned that schools would be shut down; students would have too much travel time in-between schools; and students would have problems adjusting to different environments among other things. Although, North Tippah School District has not voted on restructuring schools at this time, they are currently looking into plans for saving money. According to a question and answer sheet released by the school district, the proposed plan could save the district $1 million per year.
To be honest, I first heard of the consolidation plan on Facebook the week before the last board meeting, and like most of the parents who where concerned, I thought this was an awful idea. I could not see the reasoning behind it. After all, wouldn’t it be more logical to consolidate Walnut and Falkner High Schools instead of the elementary schools? To me, high school consolidation would mean more subject areas, programs and extra curricular activities that our students so desperately need including band, art, chorus and STEM classes. A wider variety of sports and clubs could be offered and there would be more opportunities for students to take part in these programs. All of these things could lead to increased college, job and scholarship opportunities.
Of course at that time, I did not have all the facts. I just thought the school district was trying to consolidate just to consolidate.
At the time, I did not know that the school district had been over-budget $200,000 - $400,000 each year for the past several years and if they continued to be over-budget, and fell below 7 percent in the general fund, they could possibly be taken over by the state. I did not know that there were school buildings at each location that were in desperate need of repair or that textbooks were outdated and needed replacement. I did not know how the student-teacher ratio determined how many teachers were hired, that some elementary classrooms only had around 14 students, or that the biggest financial strain on the district was coming from K-8.
After reading the material and hearing the school board’s side, along with the parents’ concerns, I began to ponder the consolidation idea. Maybe it wasn’t a bad idea after all. Sometimes great things can come from change. Maybe most of the fears parents had about the consolidation were unwarranted. Surely the school district would not propose anything that would be detrimental to its students. Maybe the benefits to the students would be far greater than the inconvenience and initial disruption consolidation would cause.
Before you get out the pitchforks and drag me to the stake for burning, let me give you a little background on myself. I am not a complete outsider. I am a product of the North Tippah School District. I attended Walnut Elementary School and graduated from Walnut High School. I chose to send my son to Walnut Elementary School. I think I received a great education and I think my son did as well. We both had great teachers who took pride in educating their students and providing a safe, caring environment. I take pride in my Wildcat heritage and would not have wished to go to any other school. However, not having a child currently attending school in the North Tippah School District does give me a somewhat unique and objective point-of-view.
That point-of-view has changed from what it was two weeks ago.
The fact is, something has to be done to save money in the North Tippah School District. It is not losing money but its general fund has decreased significantly, from $2.81 million to $1.4 million over the past five years. They have been over-budget $200,000-$400,000 each year for the past few years. The district must keep a 7 percent fund balance to avoid being taken over by the state. On their current tract, they will fall below 7 percent in the next two to three years.
I have heard many parents state, as I did, “why not consolidate the high schools?”. Changes have to be at the K-8 grade level because that is where most of the over-budgeted money is applied. The high schools are working with bare minimum funding already.
The state requires there be no more than 27 students per teacher at elementary schools (35 per teacher in the high schools). This is a good thing. No one wants overcrowded classrooms, especially for younger students. Currently, Chalybeate has 28 first graders with two required teachers and 13/15 students per classroom; Falkner has 41 first graders with two teachers and 20/21 students per classroom; and Walnut has 33 first graders with two teachers and 15/18 students per classroom. In total, there are six first grade teachers at the three schools. North Tippah has 102 first graders in all, which averages to 3.77 classrooms of 27 students. The district has said they are committed to keeping classrooms at 24 students or less per teacher. With this ratio, there would be 4.25 classrooms of first graders. The proposed plan would eliminate one first grade teacher/classroom. If there could be a reduction in classrooms throughout each grade, there could be a significant savings for the district. Obviously no one wants to eliminate teachers but sometimes in business, and education is a business, cutbacks have to be made. North Tippah plans to keep as many teachers as possible by not replacing elementary teachers as they retire.
But what are the concerns?
Many parents believe that travel time in-between schools and distances from home are too great. North Tippah does plan to provide busses from school to school. For example, a first grade student rides the school bus or is dropped off by their parent at Walnut. That student would take a bus to Falkner from Walnut. Many parents of car riders say they do not want their child riding on busses because of bullying and what they might “learn” from older students. The first grader who was dropped off at Walnut would only be riding the bus to Falkner with other first through third graders. This eliminates a lot of the bullying and “learning bad things” from older students.
Parents argue that it would take them longer to reach the schools in the event of an emergency. Children would be farther away from home, but so are most parents. Most parents in rural areas work at least 20 minutes from home. When my son was in school at Walnut, I worked in Ripley. According to Google Maps there are 14.5 miles between the Southern Sentinel and Walnut Elementary School. If there was an emergency (and there were some), it would have taken me 20 minutes to get to the school. Had he been at Falkner it would have taken about 12 minutes; Chalybeate about 25 minutes. A parent working in Corinth, Collierville, New Albany and Booneville would have farther travel times. Yes, grandma or a stay-at-home parent might be able to get there a little faster if students were closer to home, but many parents don’t have that option. I didn’t. In most emergencies, excluding life or death situations, less than 10 minutes extra travel time is not that much.
Many parents are concerned that this proposed plan would lead to the elimination of one or more schools. However, this plan could actually help preserve schools. Many of the current elementary school buildings are in need of repair. A roof for a school building can cost around $700,000, or more. If Chalybeate needs a new floor, Walnut needs a new roof, and Falkner needs a new heating and air system, money would be freed up to help provide for those.
Other parents are concerned that children would get lost in the shuffle at a “bigger” school and that changing schools every three years would not provide a consistent environment for students. The schools wouldn’t actually be bigger. Classroom size would be slightly larger and grades would contain more students. However, more students in a grade provides an opportunity for more friendships. Every student does not have the same interests. A larger student pool would provide the student who likes to build robots, draw race cars, play the piano, or sing an opportunity to bond with more students who like to build robots, draw race cars, play the piano, or sing. A shy, quiet student, who is uncomfortable around other people until they get to know them, would be around the same children throughout K-8 grade. They would feel more comfortable, and it would be easier for them to make friends. Children are very adaptable, far more adaptable than adults.
I think the benefits of consolidating the three North Tippah Elementary Schools are great. Saving money would allow for updated textbooks. The children would be introduced to a wider variety of courses, sports, clubs and organizations at an early age. The artist or musically inclined student might excel in art or music class. Their pride in being an good artist or musician might lead them to do better in other subject areas. I remember being in fourth grade and being accepted into APEx (gifted) class at Walnut. It made me feel special. Before that, I did not realize I was smart. Knowing that only three students in my class qualified for this program, made me want to excel at everything I did. I made better grades and was given more opportunities in the APEx program, including being introduced to writing for the school paper. Other students could feel special too if they were to find an area in which they could excel.
You never know what class or organization might light a fire under a student and put them on the path to their future career. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a wider variety of opportunities for youngsters to find their niche? Some proposed courses that could be offered at a consolidated North Tippah Elementary Schools include music, art, computer, physical eduction, agriculture and FFA, chorus, foreign language, drama, and advanced placement classes. More sports could be offered for the younger children as well, such as bowling, track, volleyball and dance.
What about when these students get to high school? Wouldn’t it be bad to split them up? Probably, but elementary school consolidation could be the first step to a state-of-the-art consolidation North Tippah High School.
These are a few of my thoughts for now. I hope to address more in later issues. I truly believe this consolidation plan is not as bad as parents feel. North Tippah must restructure somehow. If the district can do this and offer more to its students, why not? Children can adapt easily and each student deserves an opportunity to excel in an area they are good at. It is time to give our students more that “reading, writing, and arithmetic.”