By Daniel Downs
As mentioned in part one, Xenia school administrators want to rebuild four elementary schools and convert Central Middle School into another. The rationale for reducing the number of elementary schools from seven to five is based on the state’s contradictory 350 minimum enrollment rule. The state will fund neither school renovations nor new buildings with projected enrollments under 350 students. For Xenia, super-sizing our schools mean almost all 1,100 middle school students will travel by bus to what is now the high school. It also means no more neighborhood schools for families now attending Spring Hill, Simon Kenton, or Cox.
I find two additional problems with both Ohio’s 350 rule and Xenia’s rebuilding plans. The first is with the Ohio Revised Code regulating school buildings. Ohio law requires the “[s]upport and facilitation of smaller classes and the trend toward smaller schools” while also requiring projected or actual school enrollment to be 350 or more. The Ohio School Facilities Commission may also waive this rule when “topography, sparsity of population, and other factors make larger schools impracticable.” Here is an apparent contradiction in Ohio law that needs changed to reflect acknowledged best practice criteria, which also related to the other problem.
Urban school districts have tried super-sized schools. Both student behavior and academic performance declined significantly enough to cause many urban districts to return to smaller neighborhood schools. These are facts revealed in a study titled Reducing the Negative Effects of Large Schools. A national study called Smaller, Safer, Saner Successful Schools found schools with less than 350 students have better learning environments in which academic achievement is higher, dropouts are less, behavioral problems are fewer, and teacher satisfaction is greater than for larger schools. However, an older study by Kathleen Cotton titled School Size, School Climate, and Student Performance sets the maximum at 300-400 for elementary schools and 400-800 for secondary schools. As mentioned in Ohio law, the best schools are small schools.
Under Xenia’s rebuilding plan, enrollment at all combined elementary schools, except Tecumseh, will likely be over 400 students. The combined middle school enrollment will be over 1,100 and the high school currently has over 1,400 students. The above research presented case studies of successful large schools that were reorganized into smaller schools or units. Many were restructured similar to the magnet school concept but the various specialty schools were all located in the same building. By creating smaller schools under-one-roof, teacher and student interaction increased resulting in greater satisfaction and higher achievement.
Still some question whether super-sizing Xenia schools will adversely affect teacher performance and student learning. Fairborn City Schools latest test results suggest that students in larger elementary school settings can perform relatively well—comparable to some of Xenia primary schools. Yet, a comparison of all Xenia elementary schools shows that the top performing schools have enrollments under 300. In three of the four top performing schools, 54 to 62 percent of students come from economically disadvantaged homes. The percent of students from low-income homes at the fourth and the highest performing school is about 24 percent. This school also has the fourth highest percentage of minority students. Two of the other higher performing schools had the highest percentage of minorities in the school district. All of which points to smaller schools as the primary factor for more students achieving a proficiency score or higher on state achievement tests. The four highest performing schools also produced a higher percentage of students achieving accelerated and advanced scores locally and two of these schools exceeded state averages as well.
One attendee at the Xenia Community School District Forum brought up another issue that Xenia residents should consider. By 2011, Wright Patterson AFB will have gained 1,100 new military personnel who are being transferred mostly from the Brooks City Base located near San Antonio, Texas. They will be looking for new homes. Families with children will be looking for communities with the best schools and good neighborhoods. Xenia will have a hard time attracting them without bringing our schools up-to-date. As noted above, the best schools are small schools. According the study titled School Facility Conditions and Student Academic Achievement, the best schools also include safe, well lighted, and temperature-controlled learning environments with the presence of windows.
During the building tour, Robert Smith said state maintenance leaders rate Xenia maintenance staff and schools very high. Nevertheless, schools like Cox need building upgrades and repairs. One of the pictures on the School District website shows standing water near the building. Current environmental safety law, also known as Jared’s Law, mandates the elimination of the causes of any standing water near school buildings, flooding, or any other water damage. The law also mandates that plumbing and electrical systems be in good operating condition. As mentioned in part one, Cox requires considerable plumbing and well as well as electrical system renovation. One of the boilers is inoperable, some of the piping needs replaced, and bathroom facilities needs renovated. The electrical system is inadequate to handle computers and air conditioning and its circuit breakers are obsolete. In other words, Cox needs increased electrical service as well as new service panels and breakers. How much the repairs would actually cost was unknown.
Therefore, I think it would be beneficial to Xenia taxpayers to see an actual building-by-building detailed cost estimate of needed repairs and renovations renovations to compare with estimate costs of the current rebuilding plans.
Originally published on April 28 in the Xenia Daily Gazette