Rural Iowa schools look to innovate as enrollment declines

ANDREW — Tristan Sikkema starts his day at Andrew Elementary School.

As a physical education teacher, the Andrew native plays games with the students to get them physically active.

At about 10:30 a.m., Sikkema packs up and drives southeast down Iron Bridge Road — the road on which he grew up.

About 20 minutes later, he arrives at Easton Valley Junior/Senior High School in Preston.

There, he walks not into the gymnasium but the computer lab.

Sikkema is the school’s computer science teacher.

Every day, Sikkema switches back and forth between these two teaching positions for two school districts. Although he is not a fan of the drive, he appreciates the diversity of his workday.

“It’s a good breakup in the middle of the day,” Sikkema told the Telegraph Herald. “I get to teach two subjects that I enjoy.”

The arrangement allows him to provide a necessary service for both school districts.

Chris Fee is the superintendent of both the Andrew and Easton Valley community school districts.

He said Sikkema is the lone teacher among the two districts with the credentials to provide computer science training for students. Instead of hiring someone else to teach computer science, the two school districts took a more efficient route.

“We’re able to save money by having him work these half-days,” Fee said. “It allows us to bring that necessary programming without adding to our costs.”

Easton Valley and Andrew are among the school districts that, as they face declining enrollment and, as a result, falling state funding, continue to work to find creative ways to continue delivering programming for their students.

Easton Valley’s enrollment fell from 495 students in 2013 to 450 in 2018 — a 9 percent drop. Over that same time frame, Andrew School District’s enrollment fell from 162 students to 136, a decline of 16 percent.

The two districts have shared a superintendent since July 2014. Fee is in his third year serving in that role.

Officials with both districts created the arrangement to reduce costs for both entities – both because the salary is split but also because of state-offered incentives for sharing the position — but it doesn’t stop with the superintendent. The districts also currently share a human relations director, a business manager and a transportation director. State incentives are offered for those roles as well.

Fee said the need to continue to find ways to increase efficiency has not subsided in the past five years.

“We’ve been seeing a continuing downward trend,” he said. “The question that is always on our mind is how do we keep operating efficiently despite the declining enrollment.”

The decline in student numbers has prompted some school districts to consolidate.

In the 2000-2001 school year, there were 374 school districts in Iowa, according to the Iowa Department of Education. The total now stands at 330.

The reduction includes Preston and East Central school districts, which consolidated and were renamed Easton Valley in 2012.

While most local school officials said school district consolidation is treated as a last resort, many already are working toward cooperative arrangements with other districts as a means to ensure their respective survival.

For many of these school districts, declining enrollment is largely out of their control, as it is mostly the result of generally declining populations in rural communities.

For instance, West Delaware County Community School District, with schools in Manchester, has experienced a 6 percent drop in enrollment since 2013.

Not surprisingly, the communities from which the district draws students also have decreasing populations. For example, the population of the largest — Manchester — dropped by 3.2 percent from April 2010 to July 2017, according to the latest figures available from the U.S. Census Bureau. Delaware County’s population has dropped 3.4 percent in that same time frame.

West Delaware Superintendent Kristen Rickey said the district historically served the students of families of surrounding farms, but the decline in family size and the growing size of farms has had a significant impact.

“For the past eight years, we have had declining enrollment,” Rickey said. “Farms are becoming larger and larger, and that’s having an impact on us.”

Fee said partnerships are widespread among rural school districts today, and it signifies a considerable shift in the ways that these districts had historically behaved toward each other.

“There was a time when school districts were always competing with each other, competing for students, but it’s really flipped,” Fee said. “Now, these school districts have realized that they all need to work together if they want to survive.”

Fee said Easton Valley and Andrew school districts are working with other districts in Jackson County to construct a separate building that would be used to provide specialized classes for students. It would be used for more technical courses, including advanced manufacturing and automotive classes.

Although he anticipated the project is two or three years away from coming to fruition, Fee said he believes it will be the start of a much larger cooperative effort among school districts in the area

“These kinds of partnerships are really benefiting rural school districts,” he said. “I think there is a lot to be gained.”