Monday, May 11, 2009

Back to the Bone

Time to squeeze in bit of blogging before the chaos of Graduation Weekend sets in. Sunday my daughter will graduate from high school; then comes the fun part of learning to be an adult. This hasn't really sunk into her yet, as with many kids; even ones who seem ready to go, like my wife's daughter two years ago, get blindsided. Adding to the fun, my nephew graduates from Viborg Saturday, which means serious driving for the family.

Speaking of driving, recently my wife and I stayed at my Dad's house in Centerville so we could be in Sioux Falls for an early doctor's appointment brought about once again by the lack of facilities in Pierre for anything but basic patch-up medicine....sorry about that, but by the end of the month we will have made three health-related trips to Sioux Falls. Every time I see a TV ad for the local hospital I want to throw something.

My Dad had recently compiled pictures of his Iroquois High School 50th class reunion, and I noticed that there were only 11 graduates in his class, yet there wasn't a question of viability. Compare this to today when schools of that size are facing the choice of consolidating or just folding. What has changed?

One difference came up indirectly that same evening. We were talking about my uncle's health trouble, and Dad mentioned that my uncle started school two years late because he wasn't considered ready. My wife noted that her severely handicapped uncle never attended school because the local school wouldn't let him in. Today that wouldn't happen. Each of them would have been admitted under a special Individualized Education Program. It's the right thing to do, but it's not cheap, especially when severe mental or physical handicaps are involved. It's not just the unusual cases. Standards are higher and scrutiny tighter than they were then, and making sure everything is in order involves more cost. Schools are required to offer more programs; again a good thing, but at more cost.

I also think there has been a bubble factor. When Dad was in school, the facilities and resources were were barely big enough. Then the student population grew considerably for a number of years, peaking sometime in the 1970s with much larger classes, and the school had to expand to handle it. Then down it went again,very quickly. My class in 1980 had 30 kids, and I recall that when I was a freshman, the senior class was the largest, with each class smaller than the one preceding it. My brother's class three years later had 20 kids; It looks like that's about what they'll have this year, but some lower grades have single-digits.

Meanwhile increased requirements mean costs haven't gone down with population, so adjusting for those fluctuations has been difficult. You can eventually decrease staff, but buildings and other resources that were needed in the 1970s couldn't just be swept away, and this maintenance added (and often still adds) to the burden. Advances in technology can help with efficiency, but that costs money, and the resources it replaces must still be managed.

Unfortunately cutting to minimum requirements seems to be the trend. I see that the Winner school district has sliced a large number of elective offerings, and others will follow suit if they haven't already done it. The 1950s may be coming back to some schools at 21st-century prices. There's no way that will end well, but there's also no alternative for them.

We may be forced to bring back something else from the past. My wife's family moved from their rural home when she was young to avoid sending the kids away to live with someone else during the school year, and my Mom stayed with a family in town when she went to high school. That may be returning, especially with open enrollment allowing parents to send their kids to other schools. My wife has commented about "gypsy" students, who bounce from district to district for various reasons. This isn't good either, but good options are becoming increasingly rare.