When USD 410 Superintendent Steve Noble began research for his doctoral dissertation, he planned it as a historical look at the effects consolidation had on a community, but circumstances shifted much of his research to the present.
Noble’s dissertation, “School Consolidation: A Qualitative Case Study of its Effects on a Sending Community,” examined how forced consolidation affected a community. Noble gave the communities involved pseudonyms in his research.
In 1965, “Spring Valley” was forced to consolidate schools with “Burr Ridge” amid statewide school consolidation. Spring Valley was able to keep its elementary and middle schools, but its high school students went to Burr Ridge.
When a plan to build a school halfway between the communities was approved by Spring Valley voters but rejected by Burr Ridge, Spring Valley petitioned the state to leave Burr Ridge and join schools with “Brookfield.” Spring Valley was again able to keep its elementary and middle school, which remain open today.
For his research, Noble observed board of education meetings, analyzed historical documents, and interviewed three groups of people: Spring Valley residents who were in school while the town still had its high school, parents of current students, and current students.
The adults still feel like outsiders with Brookfield, he said. Students were mostly happy with the arrangements, but some felt that they were passed over in sports and activities.
While Noble was researching, state aid to the Brookfield school district was reduced, and the district considered closing the school in Spring Valley. That idea raised a lot of emotion among the older generations of Spring Valley.
The dissatisfaction with Brookfield reached a point where people discussed leaving the district and finding yet another community to partner with.
Theory and findings
Noble analyzed Spring Valley’s history and current situation through the prism of social capital theory, particularly Robert Putnam’s theory of bridging and bonding.
Bridging occurs when a family, church, community, or other groups cooperates and makes connections with other communities. Bonding is when such a group figuratively “circles the wagons,” reinforcing bonds within the group but shutting out outsiders. Both behaviors are appropriate under the right circumstances and often simultaneously, Noble said.
“In isolation, we can’t be effective,” he said.
Technology Excellence in Education Network and Marion County Special Education Cooperative are examples of USD 410 effectively bridging with other districts, Noble said.
When Spring Valley consolidated with Burr Ridge, they made bridging connections and compromises. But when Burr Ridge rejected the school halfway between the communities, people in Spring Valley felt there had been a breach of trust. Spring Valley gave up its high school, Friday night football and basketball games, and other activities, but they felt Burr Ridge wasn’t willing to make concessions.
That perceived breach of trust caused Spring Valley residents to bond among themselves. They chose to consolidate with Brookfield because they knew their town wasn’t big enough to support its own high school, but they were more cautious.
Discussion of closing Spring Valley’s school renewed fear and mistrust of Brookfield, he said.
In any consolidated school district, it is critical that school leaders understand the history of “sending” communities — towns that send their children to school elsewhere — and involve those communities in the schools, Noble said.
In USD 410 that means the school needs to intentionally involve people from Durham and Lehigh, he said. To that end, the district reserves seats on the board of education for board members from outside Hillsboro. Leaders also try to involve Lehigh and Durham residents on committees.
When school consolidation or closing is under way, it is even more important for leaders to make the change bearable for the community, he said.
“The ideal outcome for a sending community in a consolidated district is maintaining bonding social capital while enhancing bridging social capital with the receiving community,” Noble wrote in his dissertation.
In layman’s terms, that means a community should work to keep its own identity while also making connections with its partners in a consolidated district.
Noble prefers local control of consolidation, because forced consolidation hurts education. It is possible for a school to be too small, but he doesn’t think any district in Marion County is at that point.
Noble doesn’t think the state legislature would directly force school closures, but reduced funding could leave districts without many options.
Too often when people talk about consolidation, they assume their community will be the one that keeps its school. So when conversation turns to consolidation, Noble asks the same question: “If consolidation must occur, are you willing to send your kids somewhere else?”