CHESTER -- Chester County school leaders stepped gingerly into the potential minefield of school consolidation last week, raising the possibility of combining the county's three high schools into one.
Leaders say no school merging will happen during the next few years, if ever. But while grappling with declining enrollment now -- and the potential for explosive growth in coming years -- leaders say the discussion can't be ignored.
"This may be sooner than later in our long-range plans," school board chairwoman Denise Lawson said. "We are trying to be proactive ... so that we don't get stuck one day with, 'Oh, my gosh. This coming year, our enrollment -- we're not going to be able to handle them without increasing class size.'"
With the exception of growing districts, every school board has been forced to consider consolidation, said Debbie Elmore, spokeswoman for the state School Boards Association.
Districts, she said, can look at the issue from three perspectives: Academic benefits, fiscal efficiency or a combination of both.
"Not to mention the fact that this is a real emotional kind of an issue, too," she said. "Because people build loyalties to schools. Schools are kind of the center of the community."
Consolidation can improve academics because larger schools offer more specialized programs and classes, according to studies. But other research shows that smaller, personalized schools provide a better learning environment.
Mark Mitchell, a Winthrop University assistant professor of educational leadership, said high-school consolidations historically have been successful, in part because schools that merge can expand their offerings to both advanced students as well as those who need remedial classes.
But the academic impact won't be immediate. Mitchell said consolidated schools typically go through some transition years before seeing improvement.
Although larger schools can offer many programs, the latest research shows high schools are too impersonal, said Jane Clark Lindle, the Eugene T. Moore distinguished professor of educational leadership at Clemson University.
"The risk that you run when you take small, personalized schools and make them larger is that you lose the very thing that might keep (students) in school," she said. "So, the thing that you really need to look at is what are the dropout rates right now in those three schools."
Although Lewisville and Chester high schools have lower dropout rates than the state median, Great Falls' dropout rate was nearly double the state figure, according to the 2006 state report cards.
"Unless the new high school has some sort of design for smaller learning communities and a specific academic agenda for keeping kids in school, it isn't going to change much just by consolidating," Lindle said. "It might save the taxpayers some dollars, but even that, we've seen in the past, has not been necessarily the actual outcome of school consolidation."
Despite the argument that larger schools can offer more programs, Lindle said alternative technologies such as video conferences now allow small schools to offer specialized programs to the students who need them.
Jo Anne Anderson, executive director of the S.C. Education Oversight Committee, said everything she's read indicates a high school of 1,200 students is ideal.
The size means about 300 students per grade level, allows for more electives and advanced courses and provides students for those special courses, she said.
If all three Chester high schools had been merged last school year, the enrollment would have been 1,718.
The downside of consolidation, Anderson said, could be transporting students a long distance, and, depending on how large a school is, an impersonal atmosphere.
Chester school leaders maintain they're primarily concerned about offering the same educational options to all students throughout the county.
"Just because you go to a smaller school doesn't mean you deserve anything less," Lawson said. "They all deserve the same opportunities."
Lawson said she likes the layout of Dorman High School in Spartanburg. The school has the second-largest enrollment in the state, with more than 3,000 students.
The Dorman complex, she said, is like a small city, with features "that our kids deserve."
Chester leaders said they're discussing consolidation for several reasons. They're concerned about the possibility of tremendous growth from several proposed housing developments. Those proposals could bring more than 12,000 residents to the county over the next 10 to 20 years.
They also worry about how much money the district will receive in coming years under a new state law that replaces school operations property taxes on most homes with a 1-cent sales tax.
Financially, they expect to reduce utilities and maintenance costs if they consolidate schools.
But the district doesn't have the money to start building schools and won't be able to until 2016 without a bond referendum because of its debt.
Looking to Union
As Chester officials debate consolidation, they'll be looking at other districts that have taken similar measures, including neighbor Union County, which opens a consolidated high school this fall.
Before the consolidation, Union County had three high schools -- Union, Jonesville and Lockhart -- with populations of 1,000, 250 and 100, respectively.
The decision to consolidate was based on several factors, said Thomas White Jr., the former Union superintendent who currently holds the same post in Spartanburg School District 7 in the city of Spartanburg.
Union school leaders considered that students at larger schools have higher grade-point averages than their smaller school counterparts, not because of intellectual superiority, but because they had access to advanced classes.
Union officials also looked at the district's declining revenues and needs for facility improvement at the two smaller high schools. Union High School was in good condition and had space that wasn't being used, White said.
He estimates that bringing the two smaller schools to Union High saved the district $900,000 this year that could be used for other purposes. Still, the transition was painful.
"None of that will answer the issue of dealing with the emotional part of closing a school in a community," he said. "That's tough."
Although he concedes there are good arguments for smaller school settings, White believes Union made the right choice. The students blended well, he said, citing an example of athletics.
When players from the three schools started working out and practicing together earlier this year, "you couldn't have picked out which kid went to which school," he said. "The challenge is getting the community to come along."
Everyone agrees that the key for Chester County leaders will be maintaining community support.
"You have to work really hard to make sure none of your towns are neglected," said Mitchell, the Winthrop University assistant professor. "You spend a lot of time soliciting input from all the parties involved in the consolidation -- and that's really the secret to it."
District leadership is key, he said, and Chester County has good leadership.
'Just accept each other'
Chester County residents are faithful to their high schools. In Lewisville and Great Falls, community identity is partially tied to the sports rivalry that exists between the schools.
"Great Falls people are very heavily loyal to Great Falls," Superintendent Larry Heath said. "And Lewisville people are the same."
Kim Gray knows how deep the loyalty runs. He played football for Chester and served as an assistant coach there. He also was the head football coach at both Great Falls and Lewisville.
That rivalry, he said, exists more in the stands than it does on the football field.
"When the game is over, the athletes shake hands and hug each other because those guys know each other so well," he said. "I think sometimes the fans are the ones who go the wildest over those kind of rivalries."
Although there might be some problems initially, consolidation does save money in the long run, said Gray, who now coaches at Fairfield Central High School.
"At some schools, it works great and some schools it takes a few years to get it all straightened out," he said. "But the biggest thing is the communities have to be willing to work with each other and just accept each other."