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Rebounding in a School District Through Reconfiguration of Grade Levels

Faced with declining enrollment and state funding, the Chardon Local Schools in Chardon, Ohio, needed a new plan to ensure its survival. During a roundtable presentation “School District Reconfiguration in Response to Declining Enrollment and Loss of Operating Revenue” at the AASA National Conference on Education on Friday, superintendent Michael Hanlon and assistant superintendent Edward Klein discussed how they used reconfiguration to cut costs in their district without cutting student programs.

“We were facing voter fatigue in terms of new tax issues because costs continued to increase,” Hanlon said. “We knew we had to respond to that by finding a way to operate the district more efficiently without affecting students, without affecting programing.”

The Chardon Local Schools reached its peak enrollment in 2004 with 3,300 students. Since then, the numbers have steadily declined with current enrollment at about 2,850 students.

The district reconfiguration plan involved closing two elementary school buildings — repurposing one into a preschool that includes a special-needs program — and reassigning grade levels for maximum efficiency. The changes have resulted in more than one million dollars of savings.

Originally, the Chardon Local Schools followed a traditional grade-level model: kindergarten to fifth grade for elementary schools, sixth through eighth grades for middle school and ninth through 12th for high school. Now, kindergarten to third grade students, attending elementary schools, focus on developing literacy skills; fourth to seventh grades at the middle school focus on content knowledge; and eighth to 12th grade courses help students identify their purpose and plans beyond high school.

Eighth graders take “Circuit to Success,” a course during which students choose four electives to help them determine career paths. The class is an extension of the Chardon Local Schools curriculum’s “four E’s:” employment, entrepreneurship, enlistment and enrollment.

According to Hanlon and Klein, the district’s plan was initially met with concerns by parents but was supported by the majority of voters without children who saw the efficiency benefits of reconfiguration.

“As you can imagine, changing traditional grade levels … took a lot of community building to help people understand the ‘why’ and the need for the change,” Hanlon said. “We were clearly changing the culture of our school district and what people had been used to for a long time in the community.”

After its operating levy went down to defeat in November 2017, reconfiguration plans started in January and the physical relocations took place in May. The new grade-level configuration launched last August. Additionally, while the reconfiguration cut operating costs, it was not enough, the superintendent said, and another operating levy had to be placed on the ballot for additional funds last May.

“When we failed the levy in November and did not have enough operating money, we were faced with either slashing programs or cutting about a million and a half from our budget or coming up with something different,” Hanlon said. “The general public that are paying their property tax bills have said it before. ‘You guys can’t keep doing the same old, same old and just asking us for money every three years. You need to find a way to do things more efficiently.’”

(Cindy Liu is a senior at Diamond Bar High School in Diamond Bar, Calif. and an intern with AASA’s Conference Daily Online.)

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