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Losing students in southern Iowa: Can local schools reverse the troubling trend?

Mark Newman, Ottumwa Courier, Iowa –

OTTUMWA — The state as a whole may have lost students 14 years straight, but it may be the smaller and rural districts which have felt the loss the most.

For example, there has been a decrease in students in 11 out of 14 school districts in this area: Ottumwa, Cardinal, Centerville, Chariton, Eddyville-Blakesburg, Fairfield, Fremont, Harmony, Oskaloosa, Sigourney and Van Buren. Just three of 14 nearby districts, Albia, Davis County and Moravia, have a few more students.

Of Iowa’s 351 school districts, 218  reported an enrollment decrease this school year, but 129 districts actually grew larger. Des Moines, Iowa City and Waukee (near Des Moines) reported the largest one-year number increases.

A total of 473,213 students in kindergarten through 12th grade enrolled in public schools statewide, a decrease of 280 students from the 2010-11 school year.

In Ottumwa last year, there were 4,474 in grades K-12. Now, for the 2011-12 school year, there are 4,415 youngsters.

Or in financial terms, the district has $200,000 less to educate students.

“In this region of the state, that’s 1/8considered3/8 holding your own,” said Superintendent Davis Eidahl when he first saw Ottumwa’s numbers.

So in the weeks since then, has he determined what  “small” or “rural” schools should do to combat the loss of kids — and funds?

“Districts are being innovative in overcoming a decline, like sharing a program by partnering with a neighboring district, working with a community college and using the Internet more. We’re losing students, but educators 1/8are asking themselves]  how we continue to give the very best product to our community.”

It is becoming more common, especially in southeast Iowa, for districts to share a specialized employee, like one qualified to teach “pre-engineering,” or even an administrator, like a superintendent.

Asked how to stop the flow of population from towns like Ottumwa to larger areas like Des Moines and Iowa City, Eidahl said schools have only so much control.

“Families have to follow the jobs,” he said.

Dean Cook, superintendent of the Eddyville-Blakesburg school district, thinks more of those jobs should be coming here, to Wapello County. Eidahl agreed.

“I know Wapello County and surrounding counties are working with Indian Hills in bringing more jobs to the area,” he said. “We have great resources and people.”

“More jobs coming in helps a community,” said Cook, “but to attract those jobs, there are things business owners look for — like good schools.”

Employed people, he said, contribute to the local economy.

“But let’s try to keep our end of the 1/8bargain3/8 up, too. This year, we’re not laying anybody off, and that is it. Any cuts will have to be found somewhere else,” Cook said.

A business owner looking to relocate, he said, will check on things offered by the community, like schools, and districts should be willing to brag out loud about the programs they have that serve students better than other parts of the country.

“We need to continue to work on programs that will bring people to this part of the state,” he said. “For example, we keep telling kids they need to go get a four-year education, and I’m not sure that’s the case for every student. We need to get the skilled pipe fitters back here.”

In Davis County, something seems to be working, acknowledged Superintendent Kim Johnson. They’re up two years in a row, and they believe it’s just what Dean Cook was talking about.

“The things we’ve done in our school district that we’re getting from feedback from 1/8new3/8 parents is they know they can get, for the most part, outside of a few flukes, a safe learning environment and a quality education. It’s definitely the diversity of programs you provide. I agree with Dean, and that’s especially at the high school level.”

And yes, she said, there are students who would be great welders or professional pipe fitters. Vocational programs need to receive as much thought from a district as purely academic pursuits.

“You have to look at what the student needs,” she said.

Another draw is how a small school can educate its students.

“We have intervention services that are more individualized for all kids. We also invested in a literacy coach primarily for elementary. She spends half her day working with teachers in the classroom co-teaching and the other half with students individually or in small groups.”

That’s allowed students to improve most where they needed it most.

“Before I got here, they saw there were some needs, so they decided to make that change,” she said.

Now, said Cook, it’s time to tell the world what is available in rural Iowa’s “small” schools.

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