Smaller classes the hard way

How does one achieve the much vaunted “do more with less”? Such is the onerous task of school districts in Jefferson County. As recently reported by The Commercial, all four Jefferson County public school districts are reporting declining enrollment for the fall 2013 semester compared with figures from last year.

On the plus side, all district superintendents appear to be in touch with the seriousness of the situation. If nothing else, the grim reality of concomitantly dwindling budgets is evident in their answers to reporters’ questions.

Of their responses, White Hall district superintendent Larry Smith’s is typical: “The loss of more than 20 students translates to a loss of $127,000 in district funding. Each student represents $6,393 in funding to the district.”

Yes, the loss of revenues for the districts means fewer teachers, larger classes and reductions in other offerings. More importantly, it represents a loss of talented young people for the community. Every high-performing student who leaves also diminishes our collective futures just a little.

A few kids here and there don’t seem like much reason for alarm. Then again, a slowly leaking pipe can still flood your house. Like that leaky pipe, years of population exodus from the county have begun to take their toll.

It’s easy to see the inverse effects in places like Conway and Jonesboro. Of course those communities got ahead of the economic and educational curves. For the most part, we permitted our leadership to simply dig their collective heels into outmoded growth paradigms. Rampant crime and poverty didn’t help.

Oddly enough, a faint new light of hope has begun to show around the city. Despite obstructionists who cling to the past, a new generation of leaders appears determined to chart a better course.

Crime rates are trending downward for the first time in years. A few neighborhoods are beginning to show improved stability. Even the Pine Bluff Animal Control Division boasts rising adoption rates.

Of all of these, positive changes have required that we adjust our thinking. We’ve had to accept that tradition and familiarity must be subordinated to innovation and change. Options once deemed unthinkable have been placed upon the table. We are the better for it.

So too should it be with school districts. Without dredging up talk of consolidation, our local districts should follow the example of embattled districts in other states. Waning enrollment in several neighboring Iowa school districts compelled administrators to start a program of resource sharing. With particular regard to transportation, extracurricular and after school programs, this might provide a mechanism for stability and growth.

The main opposition to this kind of innovation is well-ensconced provincialism. Hew and cries of “we’ll lose our district’s identity” are inevitable. This is of course code-speak for “we’ll lose our football team.” What district families and administrators should really be worried about is losing their math teachers.

While nobody likes the idea that our schools are shrinking, the death of public education in Jefferson County is not inevitable. All agree that our school districts face considerable challenges — both from within and outside. Acknowledging those challenges and divorcing ourselves from traditional remedies are the first steps along a path toward stability and redemption.