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Progress

Reconfiguration of Newton schools aligns students for success

One year after reconfiguration, Newton Community School District board members and district officials say they are happy with the results.

Before the start of the 2016-17 school year board members voted to reconfigure the district’s buildings, converting four schools, Thomas Jefferson, Aurora Heights, Woodrow Wilson and Emerson Hough into K-4 elementary schools, and revamping Berg as a 5-8 middle school.

The move also included reopening Emerson Hough as a school as the building had been closed in 2010 in an attempt to cut costs across the district in the face of declining enrollment.

Sheri Benson, a retired NCSD board member who served on the board during the closure of Emerson Hough and throughout the reconfiguration process, said she’s glad to see the changes that have taken place. Benson said the decision to close Emerson Hough didn’t equal the cost savings the districts had been expecting.

“It seemed like the right decision at the time,” Benson said. “We were fiscally a mess.”
Board members had hoped closing the building would reduce costs, but Benson said retaining all of the staff from Emerson Hough and transferring them to different buildings didn’t translate into any cost savings for the district. Looking back, Benson said there’s a lot of things she’d change.

“What we discovered over time is that we really didn’t recover fiscally,” Benson said. “We retained all of the staff, and that’s the most expensive part of the school budget. We weren’t doing anything good for our community.”

Even though Emerson Hough was closed to students after 2010, the building was still in constant use. It remained open to house the school’s administration complex, the alternative high school Basics and Beyond, the AEA and the Newton preschool program.
Previously, district administrators had been housed in a former Maytag mansion located at 807 S. Sixth Ave. W. but in 2013 the board voted to sell the building, paving the way to relocating the administration facilities to the EJH Beard Administration Building. Located at 1302 First Ave. W., the location formerly housed Hy-Vee West.

“There was a great deal of discussion that required a lot of moving pieces,” Callaghan said. “Our first goal was to find a permanent home for West Academy (alternative high school) and the administration building.”

The closure of Emerson Hough Elementary shifted students across the district. Thomas Jefferson Elementary and Berg Elementary served students in grades K-3, with Woodrow Wilson Elementary and Aurora Heights Elementary serving students in grades 4-6. Students in seventh and eighth grades attended school at Berg Middle School. With both Thomas Jefferson and Berg serving the district’s youngest students they saw some of the highest enrollments in the district.

“The only school larger than these [Thomas Jefferson and Berg] was the high school,” Callaghan said.

Securing the former Hy-Vee store on the western side of Newton allowed the board to shift toward a plan that would reopen Emerson Hough as an elementary school, creating four elementary schools in the district, each designed to serve a specific neighborhood. The move also lessened concerns about overcrowding, reducing the student population at each elementary by 20 percent, leaving each elementary building with a student population of 275 students. It also opened a path to bond for the construction of a new middle school designed to replace the existing building.

“Going back to the neighborhood schools also allowed for the bond vote to occur,” Callaghan said.

A study commissioned by the district in spring of 2014 analyzed trends across the district and predicted that after years of decline, the district’s enrollment would start to rise. Planning for that rising enrollment would open up the conversation about the Berg campus, long in need of expensive renovations. Initially, the board considered remodeling the Berg campus, but the renovations required to make the facility compliant with the Americans with Disability Act would have added substantial costs to the facility while decreasing classroom size.

While Benson and others agree that reopening Emerson Hough to students was an important decision, the move was not without controversy. Board members Donna Cook and Robyn Friedman voted against the move, with Friedman’s husband Bryan starting a petition to create a magnet school at Emerson Hough. Benson said the majority of the board members didn’t support the idea of creating a charter school at Emerson Hough, many felt the idea had serious financial pitfalls for the district.

Benson said the struggle between board members carried out into the community, resulting in community forums and meetings as residents voiced their opinions on reconfiguration.
“There was a struggle on the board that carried out into the community,” Benson said. “We weren’t playing nice with each other.”

In March 2015, the board voted to go ahead with the reconfiguration plan, a move that was opposed by Cook and Friedman. The board voted again on the issue following a school board election, but the decision stood. A district-wide reconfiguration would take place before the 2016-17 school year, creating a network of four neighborhood elementary schools. Benson said she has no regrets about supporting the reconfiguration.

“Absolutely,” Benson said. “It was really messy undoing what we had done.”

One of the goals of the reorganization process was to create four neighborhood-based elementary schools and to keep enrollment numbers at each of the schools around 275 students. Callaghan said the move was designed to shrink class sizes and give teachers a better opportunity to interact one on one with students.

“This was all part of our demographic and facility study, the small class sizes provide a more intimate setting for students,” Callaghan said.

The creation of a neighborhood-based elementary building network, combined with a new middle school and high school represented a new vision forward for the district. After determining that remodeling the existing Berg Middle School campus would be too costly, board members and district officials set their sights on building a new middle school building. Funding the first new facility built in the district in more than 50 years would require a bringing a bond vote to the community. The district had faced challenges during previous bond issues and many in the district believed this bond issue would be an uphill challenge.

“I think there were doubters,” Callaghan said. “I’ve believed in our mission and our vision since I started here.”

Contact David Dolmage at 641-792-3121 ext. 6532 or ddolmage@newtondailynews.com

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