Niki Kelly: School consolidation should focus on fact, not emotion


It’s hard to separate the sentimentality tied to your high school years from a fact-based discussion about school consolidation. But it needs to be done.

I get it. I loved my Ohio high school and I have amazing memories of being a Wildcat. But I came from a small district and as an adult I know that, had we consolidated with the nearby town, all students would have been better prepared for the future.

It is this focus that the Indiana Chamber of Commerce is bringing to a push for lawmakers to consolidate school districts with fewer than 2,000 students.

It’s not a new idea — it goes back to at least 2017.

That’s when a Ball State University study found students in smaller districts fared worse on standardized tests and in Advanced Placement classes. The chamber is updating that study now, and will likely push the idea in the 2024 budget session.

And the problem is getting worse.

Kevin Brinegar, the outgoing chamber president and CEO, said he’s still awaiting final results, but new data shows the number of school districts with fewer than 2,000 students has increased by six: to 56% of all districts.

So why is the number 2,000 important?

“Students attending small school corporations (enrollment of less than 2,000 students) face resource constraints that impede secondary school performance, as measured by standardized test scores and pass rates. These constraints are likely to restrict post-secondary educational opportunities and outcomes,” the 2017 report said.

In other words, smaller school corporations simply offer less to their students, whether that’s in the number of foreign languages, advanced placement or STEM classes. It simply isn’t feasible to hire teachers for these more tailored courses with so few students taking them.

Consolidation can work.

To begin the 2018-19 school year, Rockville and Turkey Run High Schools combined to form a new 9-12 grade high school called Parke Heritage High School located at the former Rockville Junior-Senior High School location. The new 6-8 grade middle school formed is called Parke Heritage Middle School, and is located at the former Turkey Run Junior-Senior High School location.

“This consolidation brings many new opportunities to our students, both in the classroom and on the athletic field,” the district website says. “The NCP staff has strived to maintain the heritage of the former schools while moving forward in the best interest of our students. We are striving to celebrate the past while shaping the future.”

That 2017 study found that if small school corporations increased their size to around 2,000 students, they’d see an increase in the average student’s performance on the SAT of 20.5 points, a 14.9 percentage-point increase in share of students passing AP exams, an additional 4 percentage-point increase on end-of-course assessment pass rates in algebra and biology, and a 5 percentage point-increase in the 8th grade then-ISTEP pass rate.

I understand the attachment people have to a school and a mascot and how much it becomes a part of the community. But I hope more counties will examine whether one robust, thriving district is better for the community as a whole than two smaller, struggling districts that aren’t adequately preparing its students for the future.

We need students ready to fulfill jobs if the state is to grow — and that includes in the struggling rural parts of the state.

While some might fear a consolidation will lead to further decay or rural cities and towns, I believe it could lead to a renaissance.

Niki Kelly is editor-in-chief of, where this commentary first appeared. She has covered Indiana politics and the Indiana Statehouse since 1999 for publications including the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. Send comments to [email protected].

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