SOUTH WHITLEY — In a long-anticipated meeting, school planning consultants Mike Pettibone, of Look into the Future Education LLC, and Steve Yager, of Yager Educational Service LLC, recommended a number of options to the Whitko School Board gleaned from their numerous years in schooling and the input of hundreds of community members.

The pair ultimately suggests reconfiguring the school district to have a single building for grades 7-12, and said that Larwill, where Whitko Middle School currently stands, has many benefits.

“The community has consistently said that the Larwill location invites transfers from Whitley and Noble counties,” Yager said. “Demographically, it’s centered for the district.”

While many in the community think that being on the U.S. 30 corridor could benefit the community, Pettibone and Yager say it would only be useful for Larwill.

“We’re not sure U.S. 30 would be a positive to the South Whitley campus,” Yager said.

Yager and Pettibone identified a number of underlying issues with the school system and highlighted potential ways to improve. The two, however, insist that their presentation was what they gathered rather than their own ideas.

“What we bring you is not what Mike and Steve think,” Pettibone said. “It’s what you think.”

Among the issues highlighted were misalignments in curriculum, low morale and the perception of the middle school.

Troubles with elementary, middle schools

A major concern of Pettibone’s was the curriculum differences between South Whitley and Pierceton elementaries.

“There needs to be a common curriculum and common effort between the two elementary schools,” he said. “I’m going to give Mr. [Steve] Clason and the principals some kudos here because they said in the last couple years there has been an effort to get that accomplished. Up until then, we had two completely different school buildings not necessarily with the same reading programs.”

This disconnection causes issues when students reach the middle school, with students at different reading levels and different ways of understanding.

Issues with the middle school go far beyond just curriculum inconsistencies, the consultants said.

“We talked to elementary people and middle school people and high school people and repeatedly we heard: ‘when our kids approached middle school age, we considered moving our kids into a different district,” Yager said. “Why? It’s punitive. The perception in the community is that it’s a punitive place.”

Part of the history behind this less-than-positive perception comes from a now-defunct demerit system.

“The concept is still back there in the cobwebs,” Pettibone said.

Internal issues

Along with curriculum and perception difficulties, the system has issues with employee morale and retention.

“This district has had plans for reorganization with no follow-through, and that’s a problem,” Pettibone said. “That has caused low morale not just in the schools, but in the community.”

Another issue is compensation for faculty and staff.

“We need to recognize and reward folks,” Pettibone said. “Compensation needs to be addressed to compete with neighboring districts. I’ve heard from this group, ‘we’re not asking to be the highest paid employees, but we’re saying we need to be paid fairly.’”

The feeling of low morale and under-market wages has led to low retention for teachers in the district, which is “a big deal,” according to Pettibone.

“We were talking to staff members with five, six, seven years of experience that were trying to raise a family making $36,000 to $37,000,” he said. “They go up the road and they get an immediate raise. There has to be some way to improve the compensation.”

Contributing to the fiscal difficulties of the corporation are the difficulty of maintaining four buildings, declining enrollment due to fewer young people and aging populations leading to fewer young families. According to Pettibone, this stems from a combination of high student debt and lack of quality housing options in rural towns.

“The last new housing addition in [North] Manchester was in the ’70s,” he said. “Our rural communities are not growing, and I don’t think we can recruit ourselves out of that reality.”

Moving to the future

Pettibone and Yager suggested that Whitko expand its extracurricular opportunities for students not just in high school, but at the elementary schools as well. They suggested finding ways to partner with institutions like Vincennes and Ivy Tech to expand dual credit offerings, and emphasized the desire for more special opportunities in the elementary schools.

“Whether you’re aware of it or not, we have no licensed teachers teaching art, music or PE at the elementary schools,” Pettibone said. “We have heard, ‘Mike, we have to get back to the situation where we’re improving the quality of our specials.’”

These are important because academic and extra-curricular opportunities are effective recruiting tools.

“We’ve heard many times that out-of-district moved their children into a district because of fine arts, practical arts and extracurriculars,” Yager said.

Pettibone offered a metaphor as a retort.

“Our football, band and choir are not the living room of your school – those are the fundamentals of reading, writing and thinking – but too often they are the front porch, and we have to accept that,” he said.

Most of all, the pair recommended the district come up with a financial plan and move forward with it.

“This isn’t something that you can go out and say, ‘Yes, we want to do this,” Pettibone said. “There has to be a financial plan. With student enrollment, it’s hard, maybe impossible to support four buildings.”

Such a timeline should include, according to Pettibone, a preliminary timeline and estimated costs with retrofitting one of the buildings to a 7-12 grade facility.

One suggestion was to conduct a study on whichever building, the high school or middle school, does not become 7-12 grade to repurpose it for another usage, such as vocational center, Boys and Girls Club, a Fine Arts Center or a pre-school.

Ultimately, the presenters emphasized the need for rational, logic-based decision-making.

The board took the recommendations of the community and the consultants under consideration, and will discuss it at a work session Dec. 5, where the public may listen but may not give input. A public hearing and discussion will take place at their regularly scheduled meeting 6:30 p.m. Dec. 18 at Whitko Middle School.

In other School Board news

• The eighth-grade football team and high school marching band were recognized for their accomplished seasons, with the football team going undefeated and the band advancing to ISSMA State Finals for the first time.

• Superintendent Steve Clason gave a presentation about Graduation Pathways, a new program being considered by the Indiana State School Board. The program would, if taking effect, drop Whitko’s 90 percent graduation rate to 64 percent, Clason said. For more information, see “Whitko takes stance against Indiana SBOE” at inwhitleycounty.com.

• The board honored the retirement of Joe Begley, who has served Whitko for 38 years as a teacher, parent and school board member.

“I’d like to thank the Whitko community and wish the board luck in making the best decision to move forward,” Begley said.

• Board member Jorell Tucker was appointed to the newly established South Whitley Redevelopment Commission as the school board representative. Tucker’s position does not have voting power, but gives the school and its jurisdiction a voice in the commission.