District 231 administrators discuss potential transition to attendance center model

Rochelle School District 231 Superintendent Jason Harper speaks with local families during a public meeting at Lincoln School on Thursday. Harper discussed possibly closing May School and moving the district to an attendance center model that would group students together by grade level, a change from the district's current neighborhood school model. (Photo by Russell Hodges)

Proposal from Superintendent Harper would include closure of May School

ROCHELLE — Families in Rochelle School District 231 had an opportunity to listen and voice concerns at a public meeting Thursday evening regarding Superintendent Jason Harper’s recent proposal to shift the district from a neighborhood school model to an attendance center model.

The transition to an attendance center model would result in May School closing and District 231 moving forward with three schools (Lincoln, Central and Tilton) for the 2021-22 school year and beyond. Preschoolers, kindergarteners and first-graders would attend Lincoln School, while second and third-graders would attend Central School and fourth and fifth-graders would attend Tilton School. Rochelle Middle School would see no changed with the transition.

“We have a problem the district is facing and that challenge is that May School is projecting to be only half full next year,” Harper said. “That means there would only be six full classrooms… Our enrollments across the district have continued to sharply decline over the last two decades. We’ve seen about a 12 percent decline over the last 10 years and a 21 percent decline over the last 20-to-25 years… We averaged about 190 kids at each grade level over the last 25 years until about 2013. We have 140 kindergarteners this year and we’re projecting 120 next year.”

Harper said lower district enrollment and more families choosing to enter students into the district’s Dual Language program, which is run through Central and Lincoln Schools, are the two biggest contributors to May School’s lower enrollment projections. 65.3 percent of district kindergarteners participated in the Dual Language program this year as opposed to 34.3 percent last year, while 67 percent are projected to participate in the program next year.

As a result of increased Dual Language program participation, 29 percent of second-graders, 41 percent of first-graders and 53 percent of kindergarteners are not attending their neighborhood school, which is determined by district boundaries in proximity to the school. Harper said a transition to an attendance center model would not change the Dual Language program.

“I think there are educational outcomes that will be improved,” Harper said. “It would also allow our district to allocate our resources and our specialists based on grade level and need as opposed to a standard approach in each building. There’s also a financial impact including savings in the first year and beyond… There are two impending factors that will impact our financial state. Those include the minimum wage increasing to $15 an hour and the state mandating that teachers have a $40,000 base pay minimum. This is a way for us to proactively save and avoid any potential for more cuts and increased class sizes in the future.”

Harper initially proposed the transition during the monthly District 231 Board of Education meeting on Tuesday. Harper said the district would save around $200,000 next year and around $300,000 the following year onward if the board decides to close May School and transition to the attendance center model. Harper said he plans to update the board with feedback from teachers, parents and community members during next month’s meeting on Tuesday, March 9.

“What we’re looking to do is improve this recommendation for the board,” Harper said. “We know it isn’t perfect and we know there are downsides. We’ve heard great ideas from parents, teachers and people who are familiar with how the model works in other communities.”

Harper said a transition to the attendance center model would allow the district to assign one teacher per grade level for remote learners if the district remains under COVID-19 mitigations, which would then allow for full-day, in-person learning next year. District 231 has operated under a hybrid learning model this year, with students who opted in attending school during the day and learning remotely during the afternoon. Harper said roughly 25 percent of students opted out for full remote learning, while between 1-2 percent of students have left the district.

In addition to the Spanish public meeting that followed the English public meeting Thursday evening, Harper said teacher and staff meetings at all four elementary schools have taken place this week. Harper said a vote on the transition to an attendance center model will take place during the board meeting on Tuesday, April 12 at 7 p.m. at Lincoln School. If approved, Harper said the district will begin implementing the transition from May through August.

A slideshow from Harper’s board presentation on Tuesday can be viewed on the Rochelle Elementary District 231 Facebook page. Additionally, YouTube links to the English and Spanish presentations Thursday evening, as well as links to the full Tuesday presentation and a short video explanation of the attendance center model, can be viewed from the Facebook page.

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