Schools exceed standards despite tiny enrollments, budgets

The Prairieview school district in northeast Champaign County and the Deland-Weldon school district in Piatt and DeWitt counties are two of the smallest school systems in the area.

Deland-Weldon has 180 students in grades K-8, and Prairieview is even smaller, with 138 pupils. Deland-Weldon is a unit school district, and Prairieview is a grade school district.

Neither district is wealthy, either. Prairieview recently asked voters to approve a merger with nearby Ogden because both districts' financial reserves are depleted, and earlier this year the Deland-Weldon school board talked about issuing $750,000 in working cash bonds just to pay the bills.

But small enrollments and tight checkbooks haven't stopped either school district from excelling on the state's standardized tests.

Prairieview finished first among 36 area public school districts in third-grade math, fifth-grade reading, eighth-grade reading and eighth-grade math; second in fifth-grade math and third in seventh-grade science in its ability to get students to meet or exceed state averages in the Illinois Standards Achievement Tests in 2005, according to reports from the Illinois State Board of Education.

Deland-Weldon's students finished first in fourth-grade science and fifth-grade math, third in seventh-grade science and eighth-grade reading and fourth in third-grade reading.

The tests help the state determine if schools meet the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires at least 40 percent of all students to meet state learning goals in specific subjects and to make adequate yearly progress in those subjects.

"It goes to show that you don't need a lot of money to produce quality education," Prairieview Superintendent Victor White said. "We may not have the money and fancy frills that the big, rich school districts have, but our riches are in talented and imaginative teachers, dedicated parents and hard-working students."

"Sometimes we need to look at the quality of education as much as its costs," Deland-Weldon Superintendent Gary Brashear said. "The root of all success is giving the kids the attention they need and working with the fundamentals."

Bigger challenges

Regional Superintendent of Schools Judy Pacey said even though Prairieview and Deland-Weldon have enjoyed academic success, it doesn't mean other school districts aren't working hard to provide a good education.

"All of our districts are working hard on school improvement and working with their students for continual improvement," Pacey said. "While a particular district's score may appear higher than others, we can be pleased that all of our districts are working on improving their scores and making progress. That is our goal."

Pacey said that challenges are greater for school districts with larger populations, larger class sizes, increased discipline problems and greater numbers of low-income families.

"Prairieview and Deland-Weldon are two small school districts that are doing well, but they are dealing with smaller class sizes and a more even socio-economic community," Pacey said. "While the teachers and families in these small communities know each other well, schools in larger communities might not have those opportunities."

Both White and Brashear said the state tests are important tools to measure learning success in public schools.

"That's how the state wants to compare one school district to the other," White said. "Schools can compare the numbers from year to year to judge how much progress students have made."

Prairieview third-grade teacher Candice Ochs credits the school's success to small class sizes (the average class has 15 students).

"I can give the kids a lot of one-on-one attention," Ochs said. "We're such a small community that my class is more of a family, and the kids are like brothers and sisters."

Brashear said classes in Deland-Weldon range between 16 and 20 students.

"Small numbers are the key," Deland-Weldon third-grade teacher Barb Barton said. "Here I can give more time and individual attention to each student. We consider it to be a big plus."

Home front

White said his school features intensive involvement from parents.

Barb Fleming of Royal said she sits down at the kitchen table with her 11-year-old daughters, Mickaela and Samantha, both students at Prairieview Elementary, to help them with homework five nights a week.

"The parents take a lot of pride in helping our children to learn," Fleming said.

"We only have the kids for seven or eight hours a day; the parents have them the rest of the time," White said.

White said the Prairieview teachers strive to challenge each boy and girl to excel.

White and Brashear said discipline isn't a problem in both school districts.

"Our students don't have guns and knives. We've had two fights in the last three years here at Deland-Weldon," Brashear said. "In some of the larger school districts, that's a good day."

"We don't have discipline issues because we have cooperation from most of the parents," White said. "On rare occasions when we have a problem, I can call the parents, and they'll take care of the situation."

He said the lack of discipline problems makes Prairieview a popular choice for teachers seeking jobs.

"Last year we had an opening for a fourth-grade teacher, and I had 86 applicants," White said. "I always have a great pool of applicants to choose from, and that, in turn, gives us betters schools."

Brashear said he had 300 applicants to fill a recent opening for a kindergarten teacher.

"When we recruit new staff, we look for people who want to work with children and who feel they can deliver education to our expectations," Brashear said.

Prairieview seventh-grade teacher Cheryl Eagles said her school succeeds because few families move in and out of the district.

"We don't have a real transient population like other schools," Eagles said. "It is very rare for anybody to move in or out of the district. That gives our students more stability."

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