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Collinsville school board asked to keep Jefferson Elementary open amid enrollment woes

A brick school building.
Joshua Carter
Belleville News-Democrat
Jefferson Elementary School last month in Collinsville. In April, Collinsville Unit School District #10 announced it’s considering closing the school due to declining enrollment and would hold three hearings to receive public input.

Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.

Monday evening, about 25 parents, students and teachers attended the first of three public hearings Collinsville District 10’s Board of Education is holding on its proposal to close an elementary school at the end of the year.

Their overall message: rather than consider closing Jefferson Elementary — a beloved, tight-knit neighborhood school that many can see from their homes — consider keeping it open.

“Jefferson is a really good school, and what you have here is an opportunity to preserve something that the Collinsville Unit 10 School District can be proud of,” said Mitchell Altom, a father to three boys who attend Jefferson.

In April, the district announced that it’s considering closing the school due to declining enrollment and would hold three hearings to receive public input. Under the proposal, the 70 to 80 students that would have enrolled at Jefferson next year would be reassigned to Summit and Twin Echo elementary schools.

“The timing is really wrong here,” Altom added, referencing the ballot initiative voters passed in the March election, allowing the district to transfer funds it will get from retiring bonds to another part of its budget. The money will generate about $2.3 million annually for critical facility improvements.

Jefferson Elementary was slated to receive safety and security updates as well as new paint and LED lights.

When Christy Reid, a parent and first grade teacher at Jefferson, saw the school was included in the referendum, she said she “breathed a sigh of relief,” thinking it was an indication the school wouldn’t close as some had previously rumored.

She said through tears that the thought of her son not finishing school at Jefferson is tearing her apart.

“It’s hard enough to think of not teaching there, but when I think of these kids, it’s the worst part of it,” Reid said.

Many of the parents who spoke at the hearing said their kids would be split from friends.

Reid added that when the kids walk out of school on the last day May 17, they won’t know yet if they’re coming back next year since the board’s third and final hearing isn’t until May 21.

“If we were bound to close, I just wish we had more notice so that we could all work through this together and give our kids a chance to realize that it was going to be our last time together,” she said.

“The lack of transparency on being blindsided four weeks before the end of the school year is so disappointing,” said Heather Freeman, a parent and former teacher in Collinsville 10.

She emphasized that the teachers at all the schools are phenomenal and spoke to the resilience and adaptability of the teachers at Jefferson.

“I guarantee you that if you gave Jefferson the resources that are possible and are feasible, those teachers aren’t going to complain. They will make it work,” Freeman said. “This can be made to work.”

“We want to work with you,” she later added. “Let us be a part of this. Please.”

Factors in closure proposal

Prior to the public input, Superintendent Mark B. Skertich and Assistant Superintendent Bradley Hyre gave a presentation on the factors that led to the proposed closure of Jefferson Elementary.

The primary factor was declining enrollment in the district’s Kindergarten-through-fourth grade student population, especially at the two smallest elementary schools: Jefferson and Summit.

The kindergarten enrollment next year at the two schools may be less than 24 students total, Skertich said, with overall enrollment being less than 80 at each school.

The district expects the enrollment trends to continue based on low birth rates and lack of housing turnover in the community, he said.

While Jefferson and Summit have been effective neighborhood schools for generations, low enrollment at both requires looking closely at their future viability, Skertich said.

“This conversation is not something any of us enjoy having, but it is a reality of where we are right now,” he said.

In assessing the future viability of Jefferson and Summit, he said the district has also considered facility needs and access at both schools.

Summit is one level, doesn’t require significant renovations for ADA accessibility, and has a multi-purpose gym and cafeteria as well as room for expansion and additional parking.

Jefferson, however, has multiple floors with no ADA accessibility and would need to add an elevator, adequate gym space and updated restrooms, all of which would cost over $1 million, Skertich said.

Bus transportation to Summit also is more feasible compared to Jefferson, he added.

Another factor in the proposal was the availability of services for special education students and English language learners. Summit has services for special education students and Jefferson doesn’t, and English language learners at Jefferson are more than likely relocated to Kreitner or Webster depending on their needs, Skertich said.

There are currently 23 students within Jefferson’s boundaries that attend the district’s other elementary schools in order to receive educational support services they can’t get at Jefferson, Hyre said. Additionally, five students are displaced from Jefferson because their siblings have to go to another school for services and the district wants to keep those families together.

The final factor Skertich discussed was minimizing the impact of any closure on students, families and staff by placing students in similar-sized schools nearby and ensuring staff maintain their employment in similar roles.

Under the proposal, Jefferson students would be reassigned to Summit and Twin Echo elementary schools using St. Louis Road as the boundary.

Students living north of the road, which is 53.4% of Jefferson students, would be assigned to Summit, Hyre said. The other 46.6% of Jefferson students who live south of the road would be assigned to Twin Echo.

Skertich concluded by saying that the conversation about closing one of the district’s eight elementary schools is challenging, and while the enrollment decline has been occurring for years, the outlook worsened this spring.

“We did not see the numbers go up as we would have anticipated as the year built,” he said.

Kelly Smits is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Kelly Smits is the education and environment reporter at the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.