When they closed high schools, county officials promised new advanced courses and more extracurricular activities for their students. They had less to offer elementary students whose schools faced the consolidation ax. New computer labs, in some cases. Fewer split-grade classrooms. Art, music, gym and special education teachers who worked exclusively in the schools. Full-time librarians. Full-time counselors. ?It enhances services, but you can?t say it enhances it like at a secondary school,? said Leonard Allen, an assistant superintendent in Kanawha County, where more than a dozen elementary schools have closed in the past three years. In the last decade, more than two-thirds of all school closings involved elementary schools.
Elementary schools are targeted for consolidation even more in the next eight years: Four of every five schools scheduled to close, 110 schools, serve elementary students. Young children lose more than they gain in most school consolidations, said Doris Williams, a researcher with the Rural School and Community Trust.
Long bus rides hurt elementary children the most, she said. They make them tired and steal valuable learning time. More than two-thirds of bus runs carrying elementary students are too long to meet state guidelines of 30 minutes each way, according to a Gazette-Mail analysis of bus logs in 35 rural West Virginia counties. Also, younger students need their parents to be involved in their education even more than older students, she said.
But low-income parents are less likely to stay involved in a consolidated school, Williams said. For example, they might be able to find a ride to their community school, but can?t make it to the consolidated school in the county seat. Consolidation supporters point to the drop in split-grade classes, from 220 to 116 in the last five years. (Split-grade classrooms include students from more than one grade level.) Also, the state employs 5 percent more librarians, 36 percent more nurses and 21 percent more counselors now than a decade ago ? many of those serving elementary students. Elementary principals have demanded counselors as more young students disrupt classes, report abuse and complain they?re stressed and anxious. Last year, Kanawha County principals listed an increase in counselors as their top priority, even more important than salary hikes. Williams applauds administrators for hiring more counselors. But she said those counselors could have traveled between smaller schools, instead of sending the children on long bus rides. ?Who gets to travel, the counselor or the kids? Who is it harder on?? she asked. To contact staff writers Scott Finn and Eric Eyre, use e-mail or call 357-4323.