Tiny school district gets by with limited resources

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

NELSON, Ill. -- For some school districts, 37 students would be a class, or a couple of classes. For the Nelson School District, it's the total enrollment.

"Having a small enrollment has both benefits and concerns," said Superintendent Greg Lutyens. "If it's too small, you have a hard time justifying programs, but with small classes you can deal with any educational issue."

Lutyens is a 32-year veteran of the district. He began as the head teacher in 1970, when the school had 90 students. He became full-time superintendent in 1987.

When the school bell rings at 8:29 a.m., the district's two kindergarten pupils go with teacher Ellen Hann to their class in the basement.

"The largest class I ever had was eight," said Hann, who has taught at Nelson since 1986.

Hann said the small class allows them to do all the activities suggested in textbooks. They also have guest speakers from the University of Illinois Extension and other programs.

"They're getting quite the education," Hann said. "They're very, very prepared for first grade."

The small class size is best for the primary grades, said Sandi Cox, the first- and second-grade teacher and a 29-year veteran of the school.

Individual attention

"They receive a lot of individual attention," Cox said of her eight students. "We know exactly where each child is ... We really know exactly what their abilities are ... You really learn about each personality."

Robin Guenther's class is the largest -- 12 third- and fourth-graders -- while Tonia Ernst has eight fifth- and sixth-graders in her room.

Double and triple duty is nothing new to the staff at Nelson. Most of the teachers have two grades in one classroom. Physical education is built into the curriculum. A part-time physical education teacher comes to the school twice a week.

Even Lutyens wears several hats.

"There's no secretary," he said. "I'm the superintendent, principal, business manager, athletic director, curriculum director, transportation manager and secretary to the board."

Teaching at the school has some other downsides. With two grade levels per class, teachers sometimes spend twice the time a teacher with one grade would in preparing lesson plans.

And pay and benefits are low.

Teachers also do not have insurance coverage provided by the district.

"We're probably the only school in Illinois that doesn't have health care," said Helga Freedman, the seventh- and eighth-grade teacher.

The staff members do receive a $75 monthly stipend to cover insurance expenses, but it is not always enough, the teachers said.

No school library

Equipment for students is sometimes limited, as well. There is no library at the school, and science experiments can't be performed because of what Ernst called the "ancient" laboratory facilities. The school also doesn't have a computer laboratory.

"But I don't think we need a lab to teach a child," Freedman said.

Freedman's seven students share five computers in the classroom. The two kindergarten children have access to one computer apiece.

And when they move on to Rock Falls High School, the Nelson students don't seem to have suffered any ill effects.

"Our kids do just as well or better at the high school," said Freedman.

Jackie Cover agreed. A senior at Rock Island now, she graduated from Nelson with five students in her class.

"I liked it that it was small," she said.

"Everyone kind of knew everybody. You didn't have to be scared about not knowing anybody."

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