Reasons vary for Ireland Elementary's growth

Heather Rousseau/The Herald
Students in Nikki Roberts’ fifth-grade class read their books during silent reading time at Ireland Elementary School last Friday. The Greater Jasper School Corporation’s open enrollment policy has led to a growth in enrollment at the Ireland school in recent years.

By CLAIRE MOORMAN
Herald Staff Writer

JASPER — All three Greater Jasper elementary schools are a great place for local children, administrators say.

Yet over the past few years, the corporation’s National Blue Ribbon winner, Ireland Elementary School, has seen steady growth in enrollment compared to the other two schools despite the fact the expectations at all three schools are equal.

A new committee formed last month to study student population trends at the elementary buildings and determine the impact of the corporation’s open enrollment policy. The corporation’s long-standing policy — which states that when children first begin elementary school, parents have a choice of which school to send them to, regardless of their address — has created an uneven distribution of students.

According to the Indiana Department of Education, Ireland had 557 students in preschool through fifth grade during the 2012-13 school year compared to only 521 in 2011-12 and 478 in 2010-11.

Principal Ray Mehling said that growth has necessitated some rearranging of space in the school in the past couple of years.

“We’ve had to move some of our specials to different areas so we could create more classroom space. Music is on the stage. We had to create another classroom for fifth grade,” he said. “Everybody’s been great about it. It’s worked out well.”

Meanwhile, Tenth Street School’s student population dropped from 466 in 2011-12 to 422 last school year. Fifth Street School’s enrollment decreased from 424 in 2011-12 to 385 last school year.

The principals explained there are several factors — including housing development trends, student diversity, perception of academic success and the configuration of Fifth and Tenth street — which likely contribute to the shift away from the city schools and to Ireland Elementary.

New housing has been popping up west of Jasper at a high rate, which means many young families are moving closer to Ireland.

“You see so many more additions headed in that direction,” Mehling said. “That’s where the farmland is.”

Fifth Street School Principal Leah Jessee said one of the biggest obstacles the Jasper schools face is that the grade levels are broken up between two buildings.

“Because we’re not a K-5 school, there are families who have five kids, four kids in the family and they don’t want to split their kids between buildings,” she said. “That’s a huge issue.”

Fifth Street School is considered a feeder building for Tenth Street — the two schools’ state accountability grades are always the same and Jessee views her school as setting up the “foundation for Tenth Street.” The current configuration was created in 1992., with Fifth Street taking preschool through second grade and Tenth Street third grade through fifth grade.

The principals agree that another factor that could color the public’s perception of the schools are accountability grades, which are determined in part by student scores on Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress. For 2013, Ireland received an A grade while Fifth and Tenth street received C’s. However, Tenth Street Principal Kent Taylor explained, those grades don’t tell the whole story. His school was only four passing ISTEP grades away from a B.

“To get to know a school you need to go a little deeper than that,” he said.

Fifth and Tenth Street also have a more diverse student population and handle more students with language learning needs. Last school year, Tenth Street School was home to 106 Hispanic students, 57 of whom were part of the English as a New Language program. Fifth Street had 93 Hispanic students, also with 57 in ENL. By comparison, Ireland Elementary had only two English language learners last year.

Indiana makes few modifications for ENL students taking the ISTEP tests, and Jessee and Taylor explained that their learning needs can become greater as they progress through school.

“It takes almost seven years for children who have to learn a second language to really close that gap,” Jessee said. “So I think sometimes as they progress, second grade maybe third grade, sometimes we see some of the gap.”

There are still many parents who don’t see the lower ISTEP scores and accountability grades as indicative of lower standards. Alissa Brosmer has one child in first grade at Fifth Street and another in third grade at Tenth Street and said she “couldn’t be happier” with her choice to send her children to the city schools

“It is a very positive learning environment from the moment they come in in the morning,” Brosmer said. “The kids are learning to be very well-behaved there.”

She said as the Fifth Street parent-teacher organization president, she can see firsthand the work the staff and administrators do to improve the public image of the schools, and she expects more parents living within the Jasper city limits will begin taking notice of those efforts soon. Even with different challenges, the three principals keep curriculum and learning at all of the schools as similar as possible. That is accomplished through frequent meetings of both the administrators and the teachers.

Ireland third-grade teacher Shannon Bauer said she and the three other third-grade teachers at her school meet about once a month with the five third-grade teachers at Tenth Street. The group goes over detailed checklists of education standards to make sure both teams are covering all required materials. Those standards are tested with the same mini-assessments at both schools, Bauer said.

“If you would walk into Tenth Street and transfer to Ireland the next week, it’s not going to change,” Bauer said. “We really stay on the same page.”

The two teams also map out strategies for remediation and keep in touch about class projects. Teachers from both schools can feel secure about expressing their thoughts and introducing new ideas.

“The best thing that we have in our team is we are willing to change,” Bauer said. “That goes for the whole third grade in the corporation.”

The accomplishment of any one school belongs, in a way, to the entire Greater Jasper elementary team. Ireland received a Blue Ribbon award in 2009 and was most recently named an Indiana Four Star School in 2013.

“When something good happens to Ray (Mehling) and we’re working together as a team, then that means we’re making some good decisions as a team,” Taylor said. “We all sit down, we all brainstorm, we all try to figure out what path makes the most sense. We can look at each other and learn from each other.”

The enrollment committee, headed by Jasper Middle School Principal David Hubster, will study these issues and more before bringing a recommendation to the school board, likely in the fall.

Contact Claire Moorman at cmoorman@dcherald.com.




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