Edgar, Douglas county schools look to maximize their possibilities

Edgar, Douglas county schools look to maximize their possibilities

Young people from six school districts in Douglas and Edgar counties could find themselves attending the same cooperative high school within a few years.

School leaders from Shiloh, Kansas, Oakland, Chrisman and the two Paris school districts are considering a proposal to form a new high school that could have as many as 1,000 students.

Under a state law signed by Gov. Rod Blagojevich in June, Illinois will provide incentive money to pay for the costs of smaller school districts that form cooperative high schools.

An earlier law signed by Blagojevich in 2005 makes cooperatives eligible for state school contruction grants.

Under the cooperative model, individual districts continue to maintain local control and operate their own K-8 schools. Each district contributes money to pay for high school students, who would study together at a central location.

And all districts would share management responsibilties for the co-op high school.

Paris City School District 95 Superintendent Connie Sutton said a similar system already is used by many school districts for special education. Co-ops provided a central location to special ed, with each participating district sharing the costs.

Shiloh School Superintendent Jim Acklin said a co-op high school would provide rural high school students with more educational choices.

"At Shiloh, we cannot offer the broad-based currciulum that we could if we had 500 to 1,000 students," Acklin said. "We project the population of all the schools would be around 1,000 students. That sounds big to people used to high schools of 60 to 100 students."

For example, Acklin said a co-op high school would offer three times as many English classes than are offered at Shiloh.

A sample curriculum calls for offering eight foreign language classes, several classes with college credits at Lake Land College in Mattoon, 10 science and 12 social science courses, more than a dozen computer and business classes, nine assorted ag courses, nine music classes, 10 consumer science courses and 17 classes devoted to manufacturing, drafting, auto mechanics, construction skills and welding.

Acklin said his district doesn't have the resources to offer all that for 125 students.

"I'm excited about the co-op idea because it would allow us to provide a lot more advanced college placement classes," said Oakland Superintendent Ezra Smithson, whose high school has 115 students.

Smithson said the proposed co-op would offer more advanced placement classes as well.

"We can give our students a great opportunity academically," Smithson said. "In a small school, we might only have three or four young people sign up for a particular class.

"With a co-op, there will be more opportunities for interaction between students in the classroom."

Lorraine Bailey, superintendent of the rural Paris Community Unit 4 schools, said a co-op would provide resources to hire teachers best qualified to teach specialized disciplines like science.

"For smaller districts it is sometimes hard to find teachers for some classes like chemistry and physics," Bailey said. "You might only offer these classes every other year. A co-op will give us the opportunity to offer specialized classes every year."

Said Sutton: "Imagine the possibilities of offering upper level accellerated courses to classes with 20 to 30 students in them."

Acklin said additional course offerings will allow teens in Edgar and eastern Douglas County to be more competitive with high school graduates from other parts of the state for jobs and college placement.

"Our young people will be able to compete with the kids from the New Trier high schools and other suburban districts, where money is no object," he said.

Having a co-op could save money for taxpayers because all the participating school districts would pool resources for materials that each of them now pay for separately.

Acklin said a co-op high school also might reduce the amount of money spent overall for teacher salaries. Even with teachers taking over the specialized classes, he said the combined classloads and larger class sizes means schools won't necessarily have to hire new teachers to replace those who retire.

"The school districts are going to be able to cut back on teaching positions absorbed through attrition," Acklin said.

Said Sutton: "We have a lot of baby boomers among our teachers, and a lot of people will be retiring anyway within the next few years. People won't be losing jobs."

Acklin said the state has provided the school districts with a $7,500 grant to pay for a feasibility study for the proposed co-op high school. The districts have hired Larry Copes, a retired superintendent from LeRoy, to conduct the study, and it should be completed by June 30.

Then, next fall each of the school boards will decide whether to proceed with a ballot question to form the new high school.

Acklin said schools should know by then how much money the state would provide for constructing a new high school building.

"You have people in Oakland who aren't going to be crazy about sending their kids to Paris," Acklin said. "You have to look at a central location, not a place on the edge of the district."

Sutton said the proposed co-op has a good chance of getting state construction money because there are large numbers of families in Paris, Shiloh and Chrisman that are considered impoverished and qualify for free or reduced school lunches.

She is excited about the idea of building a new high school for Edgar and eastern Douglas counties.

"It's the difference between a state-of-the-art facility vs. buildings that are 100 years old," Sutton said. "The maintenance costs will be less for a new building than it is to maintain old boilers and remove asbestos from existing buildings."

If the school districts decide they want to pursue a co-op high school, a question would be placed on the ballot during the spring 2008 presidential primary election asking for approval of the co-op.

Bailey said the high school would not levy for taxes. All its money would come from the participating districts on a per-capita basis.

If voters approve the co-op high school, Acklin said the school probably wouldn't open before 2009 at the soonest.

"I think it would be an opportunity that would offer some advantages for the young people of our area," Bailey said.

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