Change on the Horizon; Southland Elementary starts first day of classes, Nov. 6 vote approaches

Published 8:41 am Friday, September 7, 2018

ROSE CREEK— School was back in session for Southland Elementary students and staff Thursday morning.

Inside a first grade classroom, teachers Michelle Hemann and Carrie Sorgatz, were having their students perform several exercises like jumping up and down, as well as doing a lesson that involved learning what actions fall under respect, responsibility and so forth while reviewing rules.

“‘You said ‘you liked that he raised his hand,’” Hemann addressed a student. “‘Now where does that go under?’”

Email newsletter signup

Meanwhile, kindergarten students sat around in a circle inside the gymnasium and fifth graders were preparing their iPads to join their Google classroom to incorporate technology into their courses.

Third grade teacher Paulette Arens, who worked at the elementary school for 10 years, expressed joy in seeing her students again. This year would be the last one before she retires after more than two decades in education. However, she plans to continue being a substitute teacher for the district afterward.

“The kids are super excited to be back at school and they always have a smile on their face,” she said. “They’re happy to be back at school. The nice thing is that this door is never closing, and I’ll miss my colleagues, but I’ll run into them. So, I’m excited for a whole new chapter. I joyfully look forward to retirement.”

Principal Brian Schoen talks about some of the realities around the schools current situation of moving to Adams.

The beginning of the school day was going smoothly and was more “relaxed,” according to Principal Brian Schoen. Students were able to meet their teachers along with parents two days beforehand in one-on-one conferences, Before, there would be an open-house in the evening.  Schoen said that with this new approach, there was more time for families to get familiar with a child’s teacher, for staff to learn more about the student, and gain a better understanding of where classrooms and lockers were located.

With 164 students coming in for their first day of school, Southland Elementary was ready for another year.

“It was very positive overall,” Schoen explained. “Staff was busy greeting students, and I got to see them and give high-fives. They’re so glad to see their teachers, and they’re so excited for the new year.”

Yet, students and teachers were aware that their school would continue in a different town. The Southland Elementary School building will close, though when will be left up to voters in November.

“Students aren’t worried about it, they know they’ll be going over to Adams and continue,” Arens said. “Personally, I’m excited for the fact. It’s a wise choice. My personal opinion as a teacher is that the district is moving forward and doing what’s right for the community and do what they see fit. I certainly understand both sides.”

Changing times and a vote

Amid the hustle and bustle of students and teachers going over lessons in class and paraprofessionals helping students getting to where they needed to be, it seemed business as usual at the elementary school.

Two months from now, on Nov. 6, a bond referendum will be placed in front of voters with two questions. The first is pertaining to a $15.8 million renovation that would help accommodate Southland Elementary students once the building closes and help them transition into the middle and high school building in Adams, according to a previous story. This would address security upgrades and HVAC systems.

Southland Elementary students walk down the hallway on the first day of school Thursday morning in Rose Creek.

A second question, contingent on whether the first question passes, would involve a $2.4 million new additional gymnasium that would provide more space for physical education that could accommodate more students coming from the elementary school and alleviate possible spacing issues down the road with an influx of students in Adams.

Whether the referendum passes or fails will determine the timeline of when Southland Elementary would close. A failed referendum would shut down the school at the end of the school year and would have to make due with basic renovations to the middle and high school media center for tight learning spaces.

However, if the referendum passes, then Southland Elementary would extend its operations into the next school year, as construction and renovations would be made to create additional classrooms and necessary preparations to receive the elementary school students.

Declining student enrollment and declining state funds contributed to the district making the decision to shut down Southland Elementary School and consolidating campuses together into one centralized building. Two informational sessions for the public will be held on Sept. 26 at 6 p.m. and Nov. 1 at 7 p.m., both at the Southland Middle and High School in Adams.

Before Schoen’s five years as principal, there were more than 700 students in the Southland School District in 2008. Back in 2014, there were a little under 500 students enrolled in Southland, according to Schoen.

Southland Schools has been adapting to the changing times. With more families not having as many children, Schoen shared that the biggest contributor to the declining enrollment was not because of families leaving Rose Creek. It was because more families are not having as many children, and there were smaller family farms that were operating around the area.

Southland Elemetary kindergarten students gather around phy ed teacher Greg Schulte Thursday morning in the school’s gym.

“The average number of children families have had that I’ve seen were about 2.3 kids per household,” he said. “There were three in my family, and four is a rarity. It was the American Dream almost, where you’d have big families but many aren’t able to afford that many children and make that choice. It’s just the sign of the times, and it means less enrollment. It’s an issue that many rural districts continue to face.”

When Arens had first started teaching at Southland High School in 1991 as a special education teacher, she saw a shift from big families in agricultural-centered communities to smaller ones with less children.

“There were large farm families when I first started,” Arens said. “Not many people have five kids anymore, and most families stop at two as their choice. Family farms are still here of course, but sometimes you don’t have children to continue to farm, or they branch out and try something different.”

What kept Arens in Southland was the community that showed its support for their students and teachers, and will continue to seek information about the issue moving forward.

She now serves as a third grade teacher at the elementary school,

“Working in this district, it’s an extremely tight community,” she said. “They are very caring for all others in the community and are so hardworking. We have great students here from loving families. This community has been excellent, and the move will be welcomed. I’m excited for the change, it’s a change for the district. I’m excited moving forward for them. Making a choice that I think they want to keep their district viable.”

Despite Southland Elementary closing in the future, teachers and students continued about their day. There weren’t overwhelming feelings of sadness or tension regarding the situation. With the community survey results that were presented that indicated positive support from the district’s taxpayers about the referendum, it’ll come down to the vote in November.

“Students are aware, they understand what’s going on,” Schoen said. “In two months, we’ll know.”