Letter from the Editor

Monday, December 30, 2002

Elementary: Why one is enough

Being a local school board member isn't always an easy job. It may take years, even a generation, sometimes, to determine if the decisions they made were wise ones.

They don't get a paycheck, but if they did, it wouldn't be enough to justify the weight of some of the calls they have to make.

Schaller-Crestland's board faces a potential decision on consolidation that could end a high school presence in their town. Others, faced with declining enrollment and increasing costs, will have to make tough calls on sharing or budget-cutting.

Storm Lake's board faces a watershed that we've seen coming for years. As the time comes to replace the aging elementary schools, should it build one large school for all the children, or over time, four smaller ones within the current neighborhood schools system.

The more I speak to educators, the more I feel that a single, central elementary will be the way to go.

It won't be easy, of course. Our tradition in Storm Lake is the neighborhood school, where there's a building within safe walking distance for a vast majority of the kids who live in town. Children have thrived in smaller school environments where teachers know everyone, and parents get involved in building advisory groups, and the whole neighborhood's identity is built around that school building.

Times, however, have long since changed.

When we build - and it is when, not if - we must build looking ahead to a future long after we're all gone, not build based on what we can see in our historical rear-view mirror.

One elementary is the most efficient choice. We are currently duplicating services and materials and gyms and libraries and lunchrooms and staffing and playgrounds four times over. We can simplify busing routes and cut costs of four aging mechanical systems, giving us more budget dollars for the classroom.

One elementary is the most fair choice. Let every student be touched by the best teachers. And no more worries or shuffling of families over what the state thinks is the proper racial balance for a particular building.

One elementary is progressive. It would better prepare students for the style of education they will see at middle and high school. It would be easier for outfitting and accessing technology which has become so important.

One elementary would allow us to make innovative uses of some of the existing school buildings. An early childhood center is an obvious possibility, perhaps one as a site for the alternative high school. One could imagine a building breathing new possibilities into the AEA, or Community Education/recreation.

Most importantly, one elementary offers the best education we can hope to give. It will allow all kinds of team teaching, sharing of expertise, teacher training and development, and specialized staffing that is so hard to do across a four-building system.

That has to be the bottom line in our decision-making process. It is a watershed moment nearing for the community, and as much as we will need to look at economics and efficiencies and architecture, the deciding factor must be how well our plan will serve our children, and the children to come.

It won't be simple or inexpensive to make a change from a neighborhood schools philosophy to a single elementary, but we do already have the land near the middle school, where the kids can share in the outdoor sports and science facilities.

It may be the greatest investment Storm Lake ever makes. We can dredge a lake, renovate city hall and all the rest of our recent good deeds, but what good would it do if we weren't educating tomorrow's leaders?

Assuming we time the project to begin as the middle school construction is paid off in the near future, it would be possible to smoothly continue paying at near current levels and hardly feel the burden of creating a marvelous, innovative new single elementary campus at all.

We sure might feel the results, though - a concrete embodiment of the "no child left behind" philosophy of modern education. The very best we can do for every child.

And best of all, what we would be building wouldn't be so much about brick and mortar. We all know that a teacher educates, not a building.

This project, done with insight and imagination, can be all about building not a school building, but building an education. Building not just with concrete block, but fitting together our best teachers, staff, resources, materials, technology, curriculums and ideas into something much bigger than an architect can draw up for us. This is where we want to put our money and our motivation.

It's what is best for the children; all of the children.