FILE PHOTO: Chapman School

Debate over the closure of Chapman School, seen here, has resulted in the Northwest School board voting to close the school at the end of the 2019-2020 school year. (Independent/Barrett Stinson)

CHAPMAN — The news hit the community of Chapman hard Tuesday morning.

Along Ninth Street, the village’s main street, a sign next to the village’s fire station read, “Save Chapman School,” which was eerie the morning after the Northwest Public Schools Board of Education voted 4-2 to close the school.

In the village of Chapman — population 287 — the emotions from the previous night’s meeting remained. Prior to the start of the school day Tuesday, mothers of Chapman School students gathered in the school’s cafeteria for its annual Muffins with Mom event, while their children excitedly looked over books set up at the school’s book fair.

Amy Lynch, a parent of a Cedar Hollow seventh-grader who is a former Chapman student, said that when the board voted nearly three years ago to take grades 6-8 out of Chapman, it had a profound impact on her daughter. She said her daughter, who was an honor student at Chapman, has seen her grades plummet since she started attending Cedar Hollow.

Lynch doesn’t fault Cedar Hollow for this. She said the middle school teachers “are completely overwhelmed” and that it is hard for her daughter to get the one-on-one help she needs like she did at Chapman because of the vast number of students and the teachers who are involved in the wide number of extracurricular activities at Cedar Hollow.

Since her daughter is apparently unable to get the help she needs, Lynch said she has had accrued an extra expense of hiring a private tutor for her daughter to help improve her grades.

“For us, it was just easier to pay for a private tutor than it was for my daughter to try to figure out times that the teachers were going to be available,” she said.

Where will they go?

Ali Stefanini said her seventh-grade daughter was “very upset” following Monday night’s Northwest board meeting and that her experiences at Cedar Hollow have been similar to those of Lynch’s daughter. She said she is “kind of awkward sometimes” and has trouble forming the same type of friendships she had at Chapman.

Stefanini also worries about how the move from Chapman to Cedar Hollow will affect her six-year-old daughter who will be in first grade next year.

“They (Northwest administration) promised that the kids will go into their siblings’ school,” she said. “Cedar Hollow’s class size is already 22 first-graders per class. My daughter is 23rd in the class, so my question is, will we have 30 first-graders?”

Stefanini said her six-year-old daughter has not yet comprehended the fact her school will close at the end of the school year. However, at the Feb. 3 Northwest board meeting, she told the board that she would be sad if her school closed.

Kristina Vlcek, a Chapman parent and business owner, has frequently attended Northwest board meetings and said her daughters often asked her if the board discussed closing Chapman.

“I think they knew about it,” she said. “But, as far as breaking the news to them, it was just how they were talking about it again and how it was possible that it closes. However, we wanted to talk about what we are going to do, especially for my youngest who is very much a planner.”

Vlcek said she has one daughter who is a freshman at Northwest High School, one who is a sixth-grader at Palmer and another who is a second-grader at Chapman. She said with her daughter being a fifth-grader last year, switching schools “was terrifying for her.”

Vlcek said she and her husband, Jeremy, gave their daughter the opportunity to tour different schools and decide which one was best for her. She decided on Palmer.

“We ended up landing on Palmer because it is one of the closest schools to Chapman,” Vlcek said. “For her, that small town, caring family atmosphere is what she needed. She actually ended up knowing a couple kids because she had gone to preschool at St. Libory and a few of those kids went to Palmer. For a middle-school girl, that is a big deal.”

Breaking the news to students

After they ate their muffins and selected their books from the book fair, Chapman students filed into the school’s gym for morning announcements. On a typical morning, they will hear about things happening throughout the school day, but Tuesday morning was different as Principal Jeff Ellsworth announced the news of Chapman’s closing to the student body.

As he broke the news, each student let out a collective “Aww.”

“I don’t know where you guys will go next year,” Ellsworth said. “They (district administration) will have some things together for you here in the next few weeks to get some information out to your parents. We will go from there.”

Ellsworth encouraged any of the students who needed counseling to talk to one of the handful of counselors who were at the school Tuesday. He added he also would be available in PE (he also serves as the school’s PE teacher) to talk with students if needed.

In an email to parents, Ellsworth encouraged them to help their children by “being positive, being encouraging about the future and just being a good listener for them.”

Rhonda Husmann, office secretary at Chapman School, said it will likely take a few days for the closing to sink in for students.

“With most of them being so young, they do not get the perception of time,” she said. “To them, it is like the school is closing tomorrow. Their biggest thing is what is going to happen to them. I worry about our families with them needing to have jobs because we are a high-poverty school. It is not going to be convenient for them. It (other schools) is not like here where we take care of everybody.”

Husmann said with Chapman being a high-poverty school, many families may not be able to afford driving their children 20 miles to and from school every day. She said she also worries about her job with the district as a result of the closing.

“There is no plan for us, either,” she said. “I have been with the district, officially, for 16 years as a paraeducator or a secretary. But I was here subbing and as a volunteer coach before that. I have grandkids who are in the district, too. I worry about them and where this board is taking the district.”

Husmann said the thing she is going to miss the most about Chapman School is its students.

“The kids here want to come to school,” she said. “They come back from Christmas vacation and they are wanting to be back here. They want to be here.”

Community concerned

Outside the walls of Chapman School, community members said they have concerns about how Chapman will move forward once the school closes in May.

Tami Garbers, who owns Tami’s Daycare near Chapman, said 75% of her daycare kids come from the school, so its closing will have a “huge impact” on her business. She said she will lose four daycare kids and may possibly lose seven more in light of the Chapman closing.

Garbers said since she technically lives in the Central City Public Schools district, her house will be a pick-up and drop-off location, which will help Chapman parents interested in transferring their children to Central City. She said she told her daycare parents that she would go to nearby Lockwood School to pick up and drop off students attending another Northwest feeder school, but that she may have to charge parents more to do so.

Garbers said the Chapman community will lose its ability to socialize at school activities such as the trunk or treating event, bingo for books, family game night, the summer reading program, muffins with mom and donuts with dad no longer taking place.

She added the Chapman closing will make it harder for the community to attract young families and will lead to her having less kids in her daycare facility.

“The school is a huge loss for the Chapman community,” Garbers said. “There will not be a lot of people wanting to move here because the school is closed. The value of houses will go down.”

What will happen to the building?

Kristina Vlcek said her biggest concern is what will happen to the Chapman School building. She said the Chapman community does not want to see it sit vacant, but that the village may not have the funds to maintain the building.

“The most concerning thing about this whole thing is that there is no plan. Now what? There is a lot of gray area,” Jeremy Vlcek said. “I think it would be awesome as a retirement center. It would be cool to get a grant and turn the gymnasium into a town gym or a place for youth to hang out. It is an awesome building.”

Brian Depew, executive director for the Center for Rural Affairs, an organization based in Lyons focused on issues affecting rural communities, said his organization is a “big fan” of innovative approaches that keep as many buildings open in rural communities as possible. He said there are approaches such as co-ops and/or sharing teachers between schools or districts that can help keep these buildings open while gaining costs savings and/or extracurricular participation.

“On the cost savings, every situation is different, but there is a lot of research that shows that costs savings from consolidation often don’t materialize,” Depew said. “That is always one of the things we push back on because we know that in a lot of instances the costs savings, for one reason or another, don’t materialize.”

Depew said that there has been a trend for the last 40 or 50 years toward consolidating rural schools due to inefficiencies and/or costs. But within the last 10 years, bigger cities and charter schools have moved toward smaller classes.

“All of a sudden, they discovered the class sizes of 15 to 20. That is what we used to have here in these small rural schools before we consolidated them,” Depew said. “There is now a broad appreciation with an education on the virtue of small class sizes because of the individual attention that students get.”

Kristina Vlcek said Chapman residents were brought closer together as they fought to keep their school open. Now, she said, it must fight for the town and build it back up.

“I would really like to turn this into something positive,” Kristina Vlcek said. “Our town has taken notice of all of this. They enacted some ordinances to get the town cleaned up and we built several new houses. So the interest in Chapman is there. We have a great location in Chapman in that we are right on Highway 30 between Central City and Grand Island. I think it has so much great potential.”

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