The Agar-Blunt-Onida school board met in special session last Tuesday to receive input from Blunt community members with respect to the future of the Blunt Elementary.
ABO Elementary Principal Amber Mikkelsen opened the discussion with an informational power point. During her presentation, Mikkelsen laid out the results of the South Dakota Department of Education’s latest school report card, drawing comparisons between the elementary schools in Blunt, Onida, and Highmore. The Blunt elementary received a proficiency rating of 43, Onida a rating of 63, and Highmore a rating of 69.
Mikkelsen explained that after examining the report card, administrators attributed several factors to the low score Blunt had received:
• Increased expectations for new content standards
• Less direct instruction time
• An increase in higher needs students
• Kindergartners are not kindergarten ready
• Limited time and resources to provide for all needs under current school structure.
Mikkelsen concluded her presentation by saying that Blunt students could benefit from attending school in Onida and receiving the direct instruction time their peers in Onida receive. She also noted that being under one roof will provide more adults for students to connect with, as well as having the school counselor and administration available 100% of the time, important elements in the district becoming a ‘trauma-informed’ school.
Additionally, two members of the Blunt instructional staff will be leaving the district at the end of the school year, and administrators related the difficulty of hiring new staff, saying that for several years there have been very few applicants for district vacancies.
If the recommendation from the administration is implemented, the closure of the Blunt Elementary would result, and several of the more than three-dozen gathered community members weighed in.
Community members likewise laid out their concerns regarding closure of the Blunt Elementary:
• Quality of education
• Will still have a lot of special needs students
• Will lose kids to Pierre
• What it does to community
It was noted that moving the special needs students from one school to another just impacts the proficiency of a different school.
Several questioned why the administration isn’t already advertising the teacher vacancies. “You can’t just lay back and wait,” said one community member.
Why the large K-1 class, which has nine students in each grade, wasn’t split at the beginning of the school year was also questioned. Blunt staff members explained that keeping the class together was at the request of the teacher when the teacher was expecting to have only three first grade students.
A few asked why it was teachers coming up with solutions and not the administrators. “The teachers came up with a pretty good plan for providing math instruction to the first graders,” said Mikkelsen, adding that she feels the administrators all do a great job of responding to teachers’ needs and requests. “They want what’s best for students and gave up their planning time to do it. From an administrative standpoint, I appreciate what they did, but we need to be careful about continuing to make these demands on the teachers, even when they take it upon themselves because that is what is best for the kids, or risk burn out. There are not enough minutes in the day to meet the needs of the students.”
Some found the findings in the report card problematic because Blunt’s score, with its low student population, could be impacted by a single student.
As part of her presentation, Mikkelsen related that the teacher-student ratio in 1:5 in Blunt and 1:10 in Onida. For larger combined classes, the student population jumps from 14 to 25, and patrons questioned how teachers will be able to cope with the increase. Mikkelsen commented that the district intends to either split classes with 20 or more students or have a full-time classroom aide. Combined, the two elementary schools would have a teacher-student ratio of 1:7 or 8, should the current Blunt staff join the staff in Onida as the administration hopes.
One patron suggested that test scores in Blunt would improve if more teachers were hired and classes split into individual grades. “You’re always going to have variety of levels. Break them back up and offer more flexibility.”
Many objections to bussing the elementary students to Onida were voiced, and the transportation issues for already economically challenged families was brought up. “Over an hour of homework time is lost during the commute,” said one. “On top of the social shock of not knowing anybody, the bussed kids have to get up earlier and will be sleep deprived.” Another commented that “If education in Onida were better, the Blunt kids would already be on the bus.”
Of deep concern was the lost vitality of the community should the Blunt Elementary close. “If you close the school, you close the town. The bank is closing, next cut is the post office, and property values in Blunt will drop,” voiced one person present.
Board member Cheri Wittler commiserated with the emotional and economic side of the issue but asked, “Just the academic part of it, does that make sense? Or are we having disconnect?”
“It’s a change that would affect everyone - it could open some doors,” said Mikkelsen. “I do empathize. I don’t want to come off as uncaring. I absolutely do not want to shut down a small town, but my job is to do what’s best for students. We have to make tough decisions.”
Perhaps voicing the feeling of many of the community members gathered, one patron spoke up saying, “We’re Sully Buttes. We deserve teachers here as well as anywhere.”