School Closures A Challenge And Opportunity

May 24, 2018

This week the one and only school in the Northeastern Iowa town of Waterville will close its doors permanently. But while school district consolidation can certainly change a community, it doesn’t have to be the end of it. 

This building served as Waterville, Iowa's high school from 1922 - 1960. Today it's an elementary school. But at the end of this week the town will close its doors for good.
Credit Waterville weebly / https://waterville.weebly.com/history-of-waterville-school.html

The loss of a public school is a familiar experience for many Iowans, in rural and urban parts of the state. Especially for smaller towns, it can feel like the end of an era.

Iowa State University professor Kimberly Zarecor said consolidations are defining events in the lifecycles of many towns. Zarecor is leading a research team that's analyzing quality of life in Iowa's "shrinking communities".

"It's definitity a moment that people mark in their minds when they think about the life of the town, you know, 'before and after the school closed' or 'we joined the consolidated distritct'," Zarecor said.

But she said the closure of a school doesn't necessarily mean a town is dying. 

"It's definitely a moment that people mark in their minds when they think about the life of the town." - Kimberly Zarecor, ISU

“There’s no way to get around the fact that many communities in Iowa have fewer children, in rural areas. So it’s certainly not a sign that everything is exactly as it was. But people really do adapt,” Zarecor said.

Zarecor said her research shows some Iowans see benefits in school consolidation. 

“Yeah there are negatives to this but we have also heard people talk about the fact that by pooling the resources, it protects the quality of the school because you just need a certain number of kids to have certain programs. So in a lot of cases people feel like this is the smart decision," she said.

Zarecor said shrinking communities that maintain good quality of life are often engaged in their new school district and learn how to embrace changes. And she said many find ways to repurpose the old school buildings as apartment units, daycares, art galleries or community centers.

"I do think that it's hard for people in towns to see the empty buildings," Zarecor said of the communities working to reclaim their old schools, "but of course in the really small places, in the places that are really losing a lot of population, there might not be the possibility to do that."