According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, there are 10 single-school union high school districts in the state and 46 underlying elementary K-8 districts that are feeder districts to the high schools, said Debra Bougie, DPI’s communications specialist.
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Some of the K-8 districts are single-school districts and others have more than one school building. And some rural districts serve all K-12 students in one building, though they may call themselves separate elementary and high schools, Bougie noted, adding there are no requirements in state law that regulate the size of schools or school districts.
In Walworth County, single-school districts for K-8 schools include Woods, Traver School in Linn Joint 4, Reek Elementary School in Linn Joint 6, Fontana Elementary School in Fontana Joint 8 and Sharon Community School in Sharon Joint 11.
Ed Brzinski, Woods principal and Geneva J4 superintendent, pointed out eight of the 10 unionized high school districts in the state are in southeastern Wisconsin. Many have histories that stretch back, like Woods, founded as a one-room wooden schoolhouse in 1858. The school celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2008, making it the oldest continuous K-8 school district in Wisconsin, Brzinski said. The northeast corner of the building sports the cream city brick facade that was built in 1886.
“In a sense, we are kind of a holdover from another time,” Brzinski said.
Fifty years ago, the schools of single-school districts often served as everything from polling places to social gathering sites in small, rural communities.
“There’s no downtown here, and I know back in the day this was more of a community center because it was probably the nicest community building in the area,” said Craig Collins, of Traver School in Linn Township, where he is the principal and Linn J4 administrator. “But people didn’t drive wherever they wanted to go like they do now. We live in a very fluid society today.”
Rooted in their communities, the districts have drawn generations of hometown students. Lillian Henderson, district administrator for Sharon J11 and principal of Sharon Community School, can list Sharon graduates still in the area: a police officer, school board members, a school office worker and a teacher.
What has changed the playing field for some single-school districts is open enrollment, a state program that lets students attend schools outside the district in which they live. The number of open enrollment applications has grown from 5,926 in 1998, when the program began, to 42,194 in February 2014, according to the DPI website.
Fontana Elementary School has 93 open enrollment students this year -- close to one-third of the total student body. Principal Sara Norton, who also is district administrator for Fontana J8, expects that number could rise to half the student population in a matter of years.
Some local K-8 single-school districts offer classes even some bigger districts have eliminated. Fontana, for instance, has a band room and a music lab, complete with keyboards and a wall of guitars that students can learn to play. The school also gives older students time at an outdoor education camp in Lake Geneva to participate in hands-on environmental projects.
Special classes, however, require revenue that can exceed funding from municipal tax levies and state aid.
A sluggish economy has wreaked havoc on some communities. A foundry where some parents of Sharon Community School students worked closed more than two years ago, Henderson said. Since then, the free and reduced lunch count soared to 62 percent.
Sharon J11 received slightly more than $2 million in state aid payments for the 2012-’13 school year, and Henderson conceded state aid makes up a major part of the budget.
The school operates its own food service program and school buses. It also runs a licensed child care center year-round that draws both parents of students and teachers. Additionally, the school offers space for a Head Start program.
In 2010, resident taxpayers approved a $5.8 million referendum to replace the school’s heating system and roofs as well as upgrade its technology and security systems.
“The fact that the people in the community dug even deeper into their pockets -- because we have a higher mill rate than most in the area -- is gratifying,” Henderson said. “These were things that absolutely had to happen, but we wouldn’t have been able to do that through the general fund.”
At Woods School, however, where space is at such a premium a storage closet is being turned into a reading classroom, a $5.5 million referendum for renovations was voted down in 2013, 208 votes to 70.
Brzinski said he seeks out opportunities to save money. Through a combination of e-rate applications that provide discounts for schools, a Time-Warner service agreement and state subsidies like Teach Wisconsin, he will bump the school’s bandwidth up from 10 megabytes to 100 megabytes next year, saving the district about $60,000 over the next five years.
A former principal of Central Denison Elementary School in Lake Geneva, Reek School Principal Samantha Polek, who also is Linn J6 district administrator, said smaller schools mean smaller budgets spent frugally but creatively.
“I remember working with teachers with their orders and requisition for supplies and things, trying to get them down to $1,000. Here, every teacher is allowed $200, but they’re used to it,” Polek said. “That’s just one great divide I saw with my own eyes -- how much people in other places are accustomed to having and yet when you walk into the classrooms here, they’re well-furnished. We have a Smartboard in every classroom. We have one-to-one iPads.”
At Reek, a social studies teacher uses online educational sites, not textbooks, in his course. IPads reduce printing, ink and paper supplies.
“We’re using the iPad minis, but they’re still almost just under $500 a device,” Polek said. “We consider them an investment.”
Pooling resources has helped the schools in everything from purchasing paper and textbook contracts to writing grants. In 2012, six school districts around Geneva Lake, including Geneva J4, Linn J4 and Linn J6, formed a health insurance consortium.
For specialists like physical or occupational therapists, some schools contract with the county for services. Others share part-time teachers or support staff, be it a business manager or curriculum director.
Administrators say they also share each other’s experience and expertise in dealing with issues.
“The dual role is the most difficult thing about being a single school district,” Norton said. “If you think about it, everything that is done in Madison or Milwaukee public school districts, we also have to do: the reporting, the data collection. The bigger districts may have three or four assistant superintendents or someone in their human resources department to handle it, but in a small district like this, there are a very limited number of people who can pick up those tasks, but they still have to be done.”
Tami Martin said it was the small class sizes and the reputation for a quality education that attracted her to Reek when she was looking for a school for her sons, David, 13, and Jeff, 12.
“When we first chose Reek back when David was entering first grade ... I walked in the doors (and) I felt like it was a community. It felt like family,” Martin said in an email. “I once watched the math teacher shovel the sidewalks. Every staff member just pitches in and does what is needed to get the job done.”
Martin, who is a teacher at Eastview Elementary and Central Denison schools in Lake Geneva, said she’s more than just a name and face at Reek.
“I am valued as a parent and my questions and concerns are taken seriously. I am not sure if I feel like I have more input or just that my kids and myself are valued,” she said. “ ... because I know the entire staff, I do feel more connected and more in touch.”
That feeling is shared at other single-school districts.
“There’s no anonymity here. People get to know you very well,” said Brzinski, a former Lake Geneva schools teacher for 21 years.
“What we find is that once students are done here, their level of adult interaction is so much greater than students who sometimes go through larger school systems, just because they know how to talk and interact very well,” he said. “Their interpersonal skills are very high. They’re much more caring about their classmates and adults.”
Norton said the structure of a small K-8 single-school district can be insulating, especially for middle school students.
“If you have the same math teacher for three years, the benefit is that math teacher knows where those kids are, gets to know where that learning curve is every school year,” she said. “The drawback is our kids get one teacher. They don’t get the different ways of teaching.”
But Henderson pointed to research showing bigger cities, such as New York, turning back to a K-8 setting.
“Middle school is kind of a rocky period and it’s nice that many times the same person who taught you in kindergarten might wag her finger at you when you’re a very bold eighth-grader walking down the hall,” Henderson said.
The smaller size of single-school districts helps them move forward without the usual red tape of a larger district. Norton said last year her teachers were quickly able to set up intervention classes for students who weren’t meeting academic benchmarks.
Henderson said Sharon Community School’s annual picnic even draws parents whose kids have long graduated.
“When our sign here says, ‘We’re the heart of the community,’ we take it pretty seriously.”