A Northern Illinois High School Is Being 'Deactivated'
Farm fields abound around Indian Creek High School. But step into a classroom, and you're a far cry from the rural stereotype.
The kids are looking down at laptops, glancing back up to check the flat-screen monitors mounted to the walls displaying the Quizlet program they're using to study.
The only thing that isn't updated is the bell. "It's actually a real bell," jokes Principal Sarah Montgomery. "It's not digital."
Despite their tech upgrades and modern setups, enrollment is steadily slipping like virtually everywhere else in rural Illinois. They’re down 90 high school students from 10 years ago, now hovering around 200.
But next year, they'll be getting more than 50 new students.
They're coming from nearby Paw Paw where voters decided to deactivate the town's high school in the face of those same enrollment troubles and state funding challenges.
Paw Paw will now be one of just eight "deactivated" school districts in Illinois. It's a town of just over 800 people, and the measure passed by around 60 votes.
"The whole process has been difficult and it's been heart-wrenching for everyone involved," said Stan Adcock, superintendent of Paw Paw schools.
Michelle Heninger is a principal consultant at the Illinois State Board of Education. She oversees school district consolidation.
"What we've seen, the districts that have deactivated in the past, have leaned more toward smaller districts. So they're usually a smaller district that maybe has only one facility," she said.
Adcock says the deactivation process has taken around a year for the two districts.
"The board has been looking at doing something for longer than that because we've known for a long time we need to be able to offer our students more than we can offer them at Paw Paw," he said.
He says their board has been considering many options including deactivation or consolidating with one of the other local schools.
“Right now we're offering students the basic education, but we aren't able to get into the things we'd like to as far as the extras."
Their partnership with Indian Creek started small, with those extras. First it was for sports, then they started talking about educational partnerships. Some Paw Paw students started coming over to take foreign language classes. It eventually led to the deactivation plans.
Indian Creek Principal Sarah Montgomery says the idea is growing on their students.
"I think our kids are excited," she said. "You know, at first they were a little apprehensive when they saw the talks were starting. But then with the co-op of the sports, they know the students. We had homecoming together this year and the kids really had a lot of fun."
Since election day, the plans have marched on. Indian Creek's guidance counselor has started driving the 15 miles to Paw Paw to meet with their new students.
The agreement is allowing one teacher to come over. And Paw Paw says they're doing everything they can to keep the teachers left behind on hand in any way they can.
Starting next fall, the deactivation will pay dividends for both sides. Paw Paw students get access to more classes and resources. Indian Creek gets more students to help them expand.
"I think the first thing we'll notice going into next year is we'll be able to offer back again, Spanish 4."
Back at Paw Paw, they're going to have to figure out what to do with the empty space where the high school classes used to be. They're thinking about possibly hosting educational events or some sort of alternative schools.
Aside from that, they're going to focus on the K-8 students they still have. They're also hoping to modernize and introduce more STEM classes and technology. They're also adamant that they don't want to lose the whole district.
But because of the population and demographic shifts in rural Illinois, Paw Paw superintendent Stan Adcock wouldn’t be surprised if deactivation became more and more the norm.
"Definitely, because we're seeing all the rural districts with enrollment decline, even districts that are larger and that are close to us have declining enrollments as well," he said. "So I think it's going to become a trend, unfortunately, due to state funding, and enrollment and there are just a lot of issues. But I see this basically as something that will happen a lot more."
The deactivation is only a two-year agreement. But that doesn't necessarily mean the high school will come back. Even though it's possible, a deactivated district has never been reactivated in Illinois.