Illinois' small school districts share to give their students as much as possible
Jennifer Wold starts her day teaching exploratory and intro to agriculture at the Leland School District -- a small, rural district in LaSalle County. She teaches both middle and high school.
Then, after a few classes, she gets in her car and drives six miles east to teach more high school ag and advise the FFA club at the Somonauk School District
Wold is a shared teacher. She wears both a Leland and Somonauk lanyard to prove it.
“It's interesting," she said, "because it's seven minutes apart, but it's a completely different dynamic."
Shared teacher setups like this aren’t very common. But Leland and Somonauk already work together, so it made sense. They share sports teams and a food vendor. In fact, Leland and Somonauk almost completely consolidated last year.
The districts also share classes like agriculture. So, when Wold comes to Somonauk, so do some of her Leland High School students. In fact, students from a third school district, Sandwich, also come to Somonauk for ag. It allows those districts to offer their students classes — like plant science, food science and ag mechanics — that they otherwise couldn’t.
Class sharing happens more frequently at smaller, often rural, schools.
Tim McConnell is the principal at Erie High School -- a northern Illinois school about 20 minutes from the Mississippi River. They’ve had a sports co-op with nearby Prophetstown High School since the late ‘90s. But, five years ago, they expanded the co-op to include everything: sports, activities and academics.
McConnell says the decision made sense for both sides, especially considering one factor.
“Our school enrollments, both in Prophetstown and in Erie, are steadily declining," he said. "So, when I came in here 22 years ago as the principal, we were at 250 and now we're down to 180."
The districts build their schedules together, so that if an Erie student wants to take a class that their school doesn’t offer, they can take it at Prophetstown — and vice versa.
They both offer dual credit opportunities students at either district can take. McConnell says as enrollment at districts like Erie shrink and it becomes more difficult to hire certain teaching positions, arrangements like this are going to become even more common.
“This type of education is going to only have to expand or students are going to be left without,” said McConnell. “So, people need to get on board with it and not be afraid of it. It's easy to do if you have the passion to get it done.”
Brian Dukes is the superintendent of the Earlville School District in LaSalle County. He says collaboration is one of the most valuable tools in education. He’ll borrow good ideas from anywhere.
Earlville works with other districts on curriculum and various school programs. They also share school support staff with neighboring districts. For example, they had a hard time filling their school psychologist position. So, now they share a psychologist with two other districts.
The district shares a school resource officer and a special education coordinator too. Dukes says it allows them to maintain high quality services and save some money.
“I think it's very likely," said Dukes, "that there's going to come a time in the next two or three years that we're going to have to share teachers with other districts."
Back in Somonauk, Jennifer Wold agrees that sharing teachers can be a great opportunity for certain school districts. But, in her own experience, there are some drawbacks.
“Last year," she said, "I had to work [during] spring break, because Leland and Somonauk’s spring breaks didn’t match up. And because I'm the only shared employee, it's almost like sometimes that gets forgotten."
This year, she will at least have a spring break. Well, maybe not a whole spring break, because of FFA.
“I got it this year!" said Wold. "I'm gonna run a contest, but that's my fault."
And sometimes she feels torn between districts, like she’s not 100% a part of either. She has to miss staff meetings moving between schools, but thankfully has co-teachers in both spots that keep her in the loop.
And she feels that, even though it’s not a perfect system, it increases her ability to create unique and meaningful education experiences for her agriculture students –- at all her schools.