School's Out

The closing of two rural elementary schools means more than just saying farewell -- it's a lesson in how our state funding system has failed yet again.

It’s time to go,” I tell my 10-year-old daughter, Ali. She is sitting in the Parkman Elementary School cafeteria, on a bench, flanked on either side by her twin best friends Amanda and Samantha.

“But I want to really look at my cafeteria and gym one last time,” she answers.

Amanda and Samantha giggle. Ali hasn’t gone to this school in a year. But they’ve gone here for four years — and watched six brothers and sisters go through before them.

“I want to remember it,” she says emphatically.

That’s why about 400 people have filtered through this cafeteria on this cool evening in June, looking at old pictures and yearbooks dating back to the early 1900s.

To remember …

Tonight, when the doors close, it’s not for summer vacation, but indefinitely.

Meanwhile, another community 12 miles north on state Route 528 is going through the exact same devastating loss. Huntsburg Elementary is shutting its doors forever on this day, too, after educating children since 1810.

These two rural communities in Geauga County are both about 40 miles east of downtown Cleveland. They belong to the Cardinal School District, which includes schools in Middlefield.

Parkman Elementary, a simple red-brick building, is located beside the town’s Congregational church. Huntsburg Elementary has an old cemetery on one side, the town picnic shelter on the other and a separate gym building in the back.

Both were built in the early 1970s, on the same spots where the rickety old schoolhouses once stood. School board president Dick Moss, who has been on the board since 1957, remembers that the board discussed doing away with Huntsburg and Parkman then, but instead both communities pulled together to get new, safer schools built.

Parkman received an Excellent rating from the state Department of Education during its final year. It had achieved that status in previous years as well.

In fact, that’s the first thing I remember from August 2004, when I went to Parkman Elementary to register Ali for school: The sign out front boasting proudly, “We did it! Ohio School of Excellence!”

To be honest, I had worried about what I would find in a small, rural school. Ali went there for one year, second grade, while I researched a book about the work being done at the DDC Clinic in Middlefield to diagnose and treat rare genetic diseases among the Amish.

Ali had spent kindergarten and first grade at a parochial school in University Heights. When we moved back last year, she went to the neighborhood public school in Cleveland Heights. That made three schools in four years.

My son, Joseph, was in middle school the year we lived in Parkman, and my youngest, Carolina, was in preschool. Their schools were both typical places. But Parkman Elementary immediately captured Ali’s spirit — and mine.

Ali made friends quickly at Parkman, where kids weren’t as cliquish or guarded about embracing a newcomer as they were in her other schools. Peer pressure — about who wears the “right” fashion labels or goes on the best vacation — wasn’t a part of her classroom life there, either. At the fall music concert, when her class stood proudly on the stage and belted out “’Tis the gift to be simple,” the first line from the old Shaker folk song, “Simple Gifts,” I knew it was truly a gift that we got to experience such a wholesome school community for the year.

I couldn’t attribute it solely to the community’s pastoral surroundings: its expansive farmland, bountiful maple trees and enchanting horses pulling buggies. The school had its own certain charm, rare today, except maybe on TV Land reruns.

Take the simple fact that I could walk in anytime I wanted. At both Ali’s schools in the Heights, parents have to be buzzed in through a locked door. I quizzed friends and found this is now true at many Cleveland-area schools. Many locks went up following the Columbine shooting in 1999.

More were added after Sept. 11.

Adding to Parkman’s allure was its intimate size. Most grade levels had just one classroom. Sometimes there were as few as 17 students per class.

Ali was in one of the larger classes, with 25. Kids came from tiny ranches, large farms and spectacular new homes built on spacious acreage because of the affordable land prices.

There was a definite family feel to her class, too, with the twins, Amanda and Samantha, and triplets from another family. (Siblings are always separated at Ali’s other schools.)

Five students in Ali’s class were Amish. Many Amish families came to the farewell picnic to reminisce, pointing to themselves in class pictures dating back to the ’40s. (The Amish don’t pose for photographs, but may make an exception for children, since they haven’t joined the church yet.)

Today, the Amish have about 60 schools of their own scattered throughout Geauga County, for first through eighth grades, when their formal education ends. A handful of Amish families still use the public schools, particularly in the lower grades, so the children can learn to speak English, their second language.

I had a lot to learn about the local culture when I arrived. During my first parent-teacher conference with Ali’s pregnant teacher, she asked me if it was OK if Ali was in the room when she announced why she wouldn’t finish out the school year. The Amish don’t discuss pregnancy with children. She respectfully asked every parent, regardless of background.

I served as room mother and immediately embraced the jovial atmosphere at school parties. I was shocked when mothers, fathers and younger siblings showed up at my first party with goodies galore: pizza, ice cream, cookies.

At Ali’s current public school, whether because of inflexible work schedules or indifference, it’s tough to get parents to show up for much. A few core parents are there for everything, but overall, parental involvement is sadly negligible. At her parochial school, parents were viewed as a distraction. They weren’t allowed at school “parties” — which were usually made up of only a single cookie and Dixie cup of juice.

The year I lived in Parkman, I watched from the sidelines as two Cardinal school levies failed.

The economy is tough in rural Ohio. No one wants more taxes. The schools made deep spending cuts: laying off staff, stopping high-school busing and adding a $400 pay-to-play sports fee. But it wasn’t enough.

Passing the levy would have helped, but what I didn’t realize is that the Ohio Supreme Court has ruled four times that the way the state funds its public schools — primarily through property taxes — is unconstitutional. The legislature has done little or nothing to cooperate with the Supreme Court and make the system more equitable.

In the Cardinal School District, with its low housing values, it takes 7.8 houses to support just one child at a cost-per-pupil rate of $9,000, former board treasurer Dianne Kellogg tells me.

Even more critical, Kellogg says, is that the state is phasing out its tangible personal property tax for businesses. Since Cardinal is a rural yet industrial school district, 27 percent of its revenue came from that tax. The change means a loss of millions in the next decade.

For now, there are no plans to sell either closed school building, says Moss. The Geauga County Head Start program will use Huntsburg. Parkman will sit empty.

At the farewell picnic, parents and staff tried to squeeze out tight smiles and hold back tears, putting a positive spin on the closings. Under one roof, teachers can collaborate, they said. The art, gym and music teachers will no longer have to drive between the elementary schools, so they’ll have more time to expand the curriculum.

But some were blunt about what all the kids of Parkman and Huntsburg will lose with the closing of their schools.

“I see what my daughter’s going to miss and I get angry. Very angry,” says Virginia Bell, vice president of Parkman’s Parent Teacher Organization, of her 2-year-old daughter, Justine.

In Middlefield, class size will jump to about 32 kids per room and about five classes per grade level. Burgeoning development in the area might increase class size even more in coming years.

Bus rides will change for many, too. Ali’s friends Amanda and Samantha, who start fourth grade this month, will board the bus at 6:25 a.m., instead of 8:30. Fourth and fifth grades have been switched to the same schedule as the middle school, starting at 7:25 a.m.

But the most profound loss is a single school building at the center of a tight-knit community — something I missed when I returned to University Heights. Middlefield is a small town by Cleveland standards, but to many Parkman and Huntsburg parents, it feels more like a diluted big city with a more transient population and a different set of values.

Craig Howley, a researcher at Ohio University who studies academic achievement in rural schools, says students in areas such as Parkman and Huntsburg have high achievement levels — regardless of the family’s socio-economic background — because of the closeness of the communities.

Clevelanders might wonder if rural schools attract good teachers. Actually, these towns value their teachers because many are from the area — and they take the time to get to know the families personally.

“Concern about highly qualified teachers is based on a suburban labor market where you have people coming in from all over the place with all sorts of experiences and credentials,” Howley says. “But in rural places, generally — it’s almost law — folks who teach there are themselves local people. They understand the community.”

Debbie Gallagher was one such teacher. She started as a student in first grade at Huntsburg in 1957. Her mother, aunts and sons also went to Huntsburg. After graduating from Kent State University, she returned to the school to teach second and third grade for 30 years, retiring in 2003.

“I taught generations,” she says, wiping a tear from her cheek. Her friend Sue Tucker, a retired librarian at Huntsburg and the mother-in-law of Parkman’s last principal, Rich Zigarovich, puts her arm around her.

Gallagher represents a generation of teachers in Parkman and Huntsburg who truly knew families — inside and outside of the classroom.

That respect went both ways. The year we lived in Parkman, a teacher and her son were seriously hurt in a car accident over winter break. The first day back, Ali came home and said everyone in the school had prayed for them.

“But I didn’t think you were allowed to pray in a public school,” she added.

When I pressed, she told me the principal didn’t say a prayer, he merely suggested a moment of silent prayer.

God bless him, I thought. I don’t advocate forced prayer in school, but in this situation, that moment reflected a community that pulled together for the healing of a teacher and her son. I loved that such a school still existed.

Now, it’s gone. Huntsburg, too. And without a change at the state level, the future of the whole Cardinal School District — and many others in Northeast Ohio and throughout the state — may also hang in the balance.

In November, Cardinal Schools will have a 9.7-mill replacement levy on the ballot. It covers current costs, but doesn’t allow for inflation or growth.

“If we don’t replace that, there’s no way we could even exist as a school district,” Kellogg says.

At the end of the picnic, John Stanley — a 1935 Parkman graduate when the school went through 12th grade — turned the key to lock the school forever. It felt eerily like the moment when the casket of a loved one gets lowered into the ground. So final. You wonder if you’ll really be able to remember everything about the person, especially how he or she laughed.

So much laughter rang out in the hallways of Parkman and Huntsburg schools.
Years from now, will anyone remember it?

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