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Schools confront the fourth 'R': recession

Image: Elkhart school

Carissa Ray / msnbc.com

Elkhart Memorial High School

Hard times are tumultuous times for education, a lesson writ large in Elkhart schools now that a fourth "R" – recession – has been added to the curriculum.

Elkhart Community Schools Superintendent Mark Mow is at the helm of a district that is being buffeted by forces far beyond his control. Among other things, he's facing possible budget cuts, wrestling with fallout from the No Child Left Behind Act and trying to figure out how to erase a $1 million deficit in the district's transportation budget.

It's a collision between high expectations and economic reality that is being played out with countless variations across the nation.

In Elkhart's case, Mow is nervously following the action in Indianapolis, where state lawmakers are working to reconcile two widely differing versions of the budget passed by the Democratic-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate. Both bills would increase spending on education by about 2 percent, but the Senate version would hurt Elkhart and other school districts that are losing students by changing the per-student reimbursement formula.

"We've lost over 400 out of 13,500 kids, or roughly 3 percent," Mow said. "… The school funding formula has been that if you lost kids, it phased them out in terms of funding five years. But there's been some talk of making that take effect in full the first year. If it passes, that could have a significant financial impact for us."

At the same time, the district is confronted with a $1 million shortfall in the transportation budget that may force cuts in bus routes. (Click here to read an Elkhart Truth story about the deficit.)

The rising expectations part of the equation is a result of the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act, which in Indiana is manifested through the state Department of Education's Adequate Yearly Progress evaluations. Four of Elkhart County's seven public school districts – including Elkhart Community Schools – did not achieve the benchmarks required by the act and now could face consequences, such as forced reorganization of faculty, if they do not show sufficient improvement. In other words, Mow and his teachers are being asked to do more at the same time they are being given less. (Click here for a Truth story about what lays ahead for the districts.)

The solution, Mow said, is increased training for teachers.

"It has to be ongoing training and it has to be training that focuses on helping educators identify needs for individual kids," he said. "To the degree we begin to differentiate our instruction and become sophisticated in the use of student performance data to inform our future instruction ... then we begin to see some significant gains. We've engaged in a systematic strategic staff development plan over the past five or six years ... and we're beginning to see returns from that."

As if that challenge wasn't daunting enough, Mow said the financial malaise gripping the city is increasingly stressing his students.

"Our free and reduced lunch percentage continues to grow," Mow said. "We started the year at 62 percent and I think we're at 66 percent now. I wouldn't be surprised if that hit 70 percent next fall." (Click here to read a previous blog post about how individuals are stepping in to supplement the school lunch programs.)

There are a few bright spots on the learning landscape.

As msnbc.com's JoNel Aleccia reported Wednesday, the poor economy may be helping educators put a dent in Elkhart County's historically lofty high school dropout rate, as more students opt to stay in – or return to school.

And the district has an active cadre of volunteers involved in the CARES program (Communities Actively Relating to Elkhart Schools), which brings community mentors into schools to work with kids.

"We've had over 2,000 active volunteers over the years," said Mow. "The beauty of that program is it was not a school initiative. It started in one of our local churches and grew from there."

Such programs can make a huge difference down the road, according to Jay P. Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and endowed chair and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.

"Programs that get at kids at much earlier ages to improve their reading skills have a much bigger impact," he said.

The challenges faced by Elkhart's schools in the midst of a recession are hardly unique. Please share how the public schools in your hometown are dealing with the economic downturn and what your community is doing to help them through this difficult period by leaving a comment below.