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Small town schools have big city problems: study

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Kayla Bunge
Mike Heine
December 1, 2007

A recent study puts several Walworth County school districts were near the bottom in graduation rates and test scores among 50 southeastern Wisconsin school districts.


The study by the Public Policy Forum compared 50 school districts in Walworth, Milwaukee, Kenosha, Racine, Ozaukee, Washington and Waukesha counties, lumping elementary feeder schools in with their high school districts.


Four Walworth County school districts were in the bottom 10 in graduation rates, and three were in the bottom six in average reading and math scores, according to the study.


“Typically, we find Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha (city schools) have the worst performance and have the lowest attendance rates and low graduation rates,” said Anneliese Dickman, research director for the Forum. “We’ve always focused on those cities. This year, we noticed smaller cities are starting to have the same kind of performance issues.”


The Public Policy Forum is a non-partisan, non-profit think tank based in Milwaukee.


Districts that faired worse in Walworth County tended to have more minority and low-income students.


Delavan-Darien, Lake Geneva-Genoa City and Whitewater all were among the top 10 for poverty as measured by students receiving free or reduced-price lunches. The three also had the highest percentages of minority students, Delavan-Darien being the highest with 39.5 percent, fourth-most in the region.


Diversity “brings challenges, but it can also bring some good things,” such as exposing students to different lifestyles, said Wendy Overturf, Delavan-Darien School District administrator.


There is a relationship between poverty and test scores, “but it’s not a blaming thing,” she said. “We don’t want to blame anything—the achievement gap—on the people. It’s the circumstances around them.”


“Sometimes the culture that they’re in just doesn’t foster a culture of engaged learning,” said Steve Carlson, Delavan-Darien School Board president.


Students and parents in poverty may be focused more on meeting life’s basic needs than success in school, Overturf said.


Schools might translate tests to Spanish, but minority students who aren’t proficient in English might not understand the subject when taught in English, she said.


The study’s numbers might be alarming, but every school has good students and good teachers, said Leslie Steinhaus, Whitewater Unified School District administrator.


Studies that show apparent deficiencies should not be a reason for a parent to panic or worry about their child’s education.


“They are just numbers. They only tell part of the story,” Steinhaus said. “For us, we’d hope parents come visit us. Call the principal. Call the schools. Find out more about the schools and what makes it a good school. There are factors that influence a student’s achievement, but that’s only a part and parcel of the story.”


For educators, seeing progress in a student’s learning is the most important thing, Steinhaus said.


“Where they are and where they grow is more of a concern,” she said. “Students of poverty or not, our goal is just to move them closer (to proficient or advanced levels) and make sure that every year they experience some growth.”



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