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Struggling schools can’t lose sight of the big picture

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There has been a lot of talk lately about the creation of a regional high school to help struggling, small school districts stay solvent and make sure kids living in these communities can get a decent public education.

Conversations about a regional high school should be had. Some small schools are teetering on the brink of insolvency, and kids are not getting the quality education they once got. Every option to reverse this situation should be thoroughly vetted.

Three schools in particular — Heuvelton, Hermon-DeKalb, and Morristown — are talking about setting up a regional high school at Heuvelton. While I think the option should be studied, I also think they shouldn’t put too many eggs in that basket until they are absolutely, positively sure the state Legislature will actually pass a law allowing regional high schools to be created.

Seeing as there is currently no legal framework to create such a thing and it seems to take forever for state lawmakers to act on anything, schools like Morristown could be bankrupt long before any legislation gets passed. Our rural schools have been waiting for years for the state to reform the way aid is doled out to rural, high-needs districts, and are still waiting. Yet these schools seem confident that the state will soon come to their rescue by setting up a way for them to create a regional high school.

That’s like Charlie Brown convincing himself that Lucy isn’t going to pull away the football at the last minute.

School officials need to take a serious look at a short-term solution rather than waste time hoping the state acts to allow them to set up the situation they have identified as most ideal. The perfect cannot be the enemy of the good.

While these districts wait for something that might never come, children will miss out on a good education. They simply won’t get the same education their peers in other districts will. They will be at a serious disadvantage when they go to college or join the workforce.

I also wonder why Heuvelton has been identified as the ideal location for a regional high school. Don’t get me wrong. Heuvelton Central School is a fine institution that produces well educated students. It is also still in a pretty good financial position. I have a hard time believing, however, that Heuvelton at its current size can accommodate students from two other high schools, which probably amounts to about 60 extra students in each class.

What kind of construction project will the district have to undertake to accommodate those extra students, how much will it cost taxpayers, and how long will it take? Capital projects of what I suspect in this case would be significant magnitude can take a couple of years. Morristown Superintendent David Glover has said more than once that his district is one year away from educational insolvency.

I can’t understand why Morristown does not consider the opportunities joining forces with Ogdensburg could afford its students. Ogdensburg already has space to accommodate extra students. Ogdensburg has a stellar reputation for producing well educated, community-minded graduates. Ogdensburg offers a more diverse selection of course material, sports and extracurricular activities and advanced-placement classes. Heuvelton and other small schools have already merged some athletic programs with Ogdensburg.

Yet Ogdensburg is viewed by smaller school districts as an educational bogeyman. We can’t send our kids there because they will fall in with a bad element that will turn them into drug-addicted drains on society. Rural schools need to stick with other rural schools. Small schools could preserve their own identities by keeping their elementary schools and sending grades 7 through 12 to a regional high school.

Those arguments are hogwash. Making sure our kids get the education they need to succeed is more important than a sense of community identity. Which school a child graduates from doesn’t matter if they are poorly educated.

There are more academic opportunities at Ogdensburg Free Academy. To ignore that fact is a disservice to the youth these districts are trying to educate.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am an OFA graduate. Being educated in Ogdensburg got me into a good school with a scholarship that paid for most of my college education. It helped prepare me for the real world.

I also live in Morristown and wonder what my money actually pays for every time my school tax bill comes. I know that even though Morristown is doing the best it can with limited resources, those kids are not getting the same quality of education I got in Ogdensburg.

For Heaven’s sake, the Morristown school board debated earlier this year whether the district could afford to make a Spanish teacher full time so they could teach upper-level Spanish courses to juniors and seniors. If that is not indicative of a school district floundering desperately to maintain quality education standards, I don’t know what is. My Ogdensburg education made me fluent in Spanish by the time I graduated high school.

Rural school districts are caught between a rock and a hard place. But they need to accept they can’t make everyone happy and focus on their core mission: to make sure their students get every opportunity available to have a place among the best and the brightest so they can adequately prepare for the real world. For school districts to settle for less because they want to preserve a sense of identity is an injustice to students who just want a shot at success.

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