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A rural Illinois high school was deactivated. A study asks those students if they're satisfied at their new school.

Paw Paw School
Peter Medlin
Paw Paw School

It’s rare for a school to deactivate. In Illinois, it’s only happened twice in the past decade. One of those cases was Paw Paw High School in rural Lee County. In 2018 -- by a narrow vote -- the community decided to shutter the high school. They moved their students to nearby Indian Creek High School, but still offer Kindergarten through 8th grade.

Earlier this year, the Paw Paw School Board hired Northern Illinois Universityto conduct a study asking dozens of students and parents about how happy they’ve been with the transition to a new school over the past few years.

The argument in favor of deactivation at the time was that the schools were already sharing a lot of resources from sports teams to Spanish classes. Enrollment was shrinking in both districts. But the formal deactivation would allow Paw Paw high school students access to even more classes and extracurriculars at Indian Creek, while their home district could focus their attention on the K-8 students they still had.

Paw Paw Superintendent Jennifer Warrenfeltz says that the survey results show that students do have more academic opportunities post-deactivation. She says the study found high school students take more classes now.

“Within that we have a higher participation in our CTE (career & technical education) courses for our high school students. We have more students taking early college credit classes like dual credit & AP classes," she said. "Two years ago, there were only nine enrollments in those classes and this year we had 23.”

This was the second study they’ve conducted since 2019. This was the last chance they had to ask students to compare their experiences, since the 2022 Indian Creek graduating class was the final that included students who attended Paw Paw High School.

“About 90% of the students responded positively to things like peers and good friends. About 75% of our students seemed like they were very supportive of Indian Creek. 66% said they feel real comfortable and safe there," she said. "Two years ago, it was like 50%.”

Warrenfeltz says it makes sense given they’ve simply been at Indian Creek longer now. But, she says it wasn’t just students who were largely content. Two-thirds of parents surveyed said that the new school environment is positive.

But how has life changed for the district’s Kindergarten through 8th grade students? Paw Paw leaders at the time said they wanted to modernize. That meant introducing more STEM classes and updating technology.

Warrenfeltz says they aren’t currently offering any STEM or STEAM courses, but they are now 1-1, providing Chromebooks to every student. She says they’ve also been able to add more of the arts to their curriculum.

“We have a full-time music teacher. So, we are able to do like we have an elementary band, like a fourth and fifth grade band. We have an art teacher that's here two days a week,” said Warrenfeltz.

She says their small, rural district hasn’t had an art teacher in at least three years. Academically, she says they’ve hired more interventionists and just rolled out a brand-new math and social-emotional learning curricula.

Warrenfeltz says they don’t have great data yet on if academic outcomes have improved because the pandemic makes it challenging to draw conclusions from the past few years, but she feels like they’re headed in the right direction.

“We are moving right ahead and I think that is one of the most exciting things that I get to be a part of,” she said.

One of the biggest questions from the deactivation was really simple: what are they going to do with the extra space in the building? She says it’s actually been nice to have during the pandemic where they could spread out students more and improve air quality.

Warrenfeltz says they also moved their junior high students down to where the high school was and have community partnerships with the early childhood program Head Start and the local Boys & Girls Club.

“They have a before and after school program that we give them, we donate space to them in our building where they're able to have a program before school, for our families who need child care before school starts and then after school as well," said the superintendent.

State law stipulates that schools can only deactivate for two years at a time, so Paw Paw & Indian Creek are starting to renegotiate a contract for the next two school years.

The communities know each other well and Warrenfeltz says she’s in regular communication with their administrators. She was glad to see the survey results come back so encouraging. And even though closing the high school was hard, she says giving students more opportunities to succeed is worth it.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.