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Small town is on verge of losing its school        

In the 1960s, School Board members offered their own homes as collateral for a loan to save the schools. Now the district has lost accreditation and will disband if enough parents choose to send their children elsewhere.

PHOTO By Amanda Whitlock Sixth-grader Brock Kirchner, 11, works a crossword puzzle Wednesday before lunch at a summer school session at Wyaconda Elementary School, in northeast Missouri.

By Matthew Franck

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

6/4/2006

For generations, the proud farm families of Wyaconda have rescued their tiny public school district as surely as they have fought drought and storm.

When the district faced financial collapse in the 1960s, School Board members offered their own homes as collateral for a loan. The northeast Missouri town rallied again 20 years later, passing one of the highest tax rates in the state.

The reward has been the survival of Missouri's third-smallest school district, and the satisfaction of not having to bus 38 elementary and middle school students to the next town.

But Wyaconda faces a new kind of threat, one that even the most stalwart of the town's 311 residents say could spell the end of the district. And this time, the town disagrees over whether it's worth saving.

Last month, the state Board of Education stripped the Wyaconda district of its accreditation because of academic failure, a sanction so severe it has only been imposed twice before, and never against a rural school district.

The district faces the possibility of extinction if parents decide not to return their children to class in August. Under the terms of the state's action, parents are allowed to transfer their children to a neighboring school district at Wyaconda's expense. The tuition could exceed $6,000 a child.

That option is splitting the town, pitting parents who are fed up with the school against loyalists who fear for the school's survival.

"I think they're giving up on the school and the community, " said Ronni Killday, a parent who is sticking with the school.

Killday connects the plight of Wyaconda's school to the struggles of the town, which has lost dozens of residents amid the decline of family farming.

Others speak of the struggles of nearly all rural schools, which are finding that poverty and the academic failure it produces can plague even the smallest schools.

No excuses

On the surface, Wyaconda fits the charming profile of a tiny, rural school. The district is so small that its school bus has more seats than students.

The children meet in a tidy, utilitarian building. Most of the five classrooms hold two grade levels, from kindergarten to the eighth grade. Fewer than eight pupils are in each room.

But Wyaconda's intimate setting hasn't translated into success -- at least by the state's yardstick.

For most of the past five years, not a single student in the third, fourth or eighth grade has passed the state's standardized tests. State officials say the district has failed to take steps to improve, while appearing to disregard the severity of the situation.

"We've got 30 kids out there who are getting the short end of the stick, " said Peter Herschend, president of the state school board.

Tina Townsend, Wyaconda's board president and an alumna of the school, says the state is misreading the district, disregarding its successes in favor of a handful of test scores.

"We have graduated very productive citizens, " she said.

Wyaconda Superintendent Linda Hutchinson, who has been there just a year, questions how the state can rate a small school by a few sets of test scores. With as few as a single student in some grades, she said, the difference between failure and success could be whether one student skipped breakfast before taking an exam.

Hutchinson and the school's teachers say preparing for the state exam is complicated by the fact that they are teaching two grade levels at once.

But those kinds of excuses don't fly with state officials, who use smallness as an argument against the district.

"In a district with a few kids, it's easier to show improvement, " said Becky Kemna, who oversees state accreditation. "With their pupil-teacher ratio you would almost expect them to succeed."

A town in decline

Kansas City and Wellston, two districts with complex urban problems, are the only other districts to lose accreditation under the state's current system for certifying school performance.

But that's not to say that rural schools have sailed through the state's review. Five of the eight provisionally accredited districts in the state are in rural areas. LikeWyaconda, two of those districts have fewer than 100 students.

Rural educators in the state say the struggle of some small-town schools boils down to the same factors facing all schools.

"The students at big and small districts are really very similar, " said Danny Johnson, the new superintendent of the tiny Spickard School District in northern Missouri, which is provisionally accredited. "A lot of them are coming from broken and impoverished families."

Students from low-income families are more likely to struggle academically.

Wyaconda has suffered three decades of decline, transforming the student population.

Large farm families used to supply nearly all the students. Today, just one of the 38 pupils is the child of a farmer. Other parents fill odd jobs in town, or travel more than 40 miles to work in towns like Kirksville, Mo., or Keokuk, Iowa.

Since 1990, 20 percent of residents have moved out. As late as the 1980s, the district served more than 200 students in elementary and high school. But the high school closed three years ago, after years of losing students.

Now, many in town figure the loss of accreditation will force consolidation with a nearby district.

"It's like Wal-Mart and the small businessman, " said Becky Colvin, the school custodian and a teacher's aide of 22 years. "They're going to gobble us up one way or another."

The old-timers say there's no question how the town would have responded to this crisis years ago. It would have stuck with the school, as surely as it did each time it faced annihilation.

But Steve Kirchner, a former school board member with grandchildren in the school, isn't holding hope that Wyaconda will once again salvage its school.

"I don't think so, " he said. "This time, I don't think so."

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Wyaconda School District by the numbers

Zero - Number of students who passed the state's third grade math and fourth grade language arts exams in the past two years.

5 - Number of teachers.

17 - Miles town students travel to attend Clark County High School in Kahoka.

38 - Total enrollment, kindergarten through eighth grade.

95 - Percent of students who qualify for free- and reduced-price lunches, a measure of poverty.

185 - Miles from St. Louis.

250 - Approximate enrollment in the 1970s.

310 - Population of the town.

$10,030 - Annual per-pupil spending.

$23,000 - Average teacher salary.

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