Dan Bennett, superintendent of Little Miami Schools, would be the first to say creativity is more than just a good idea. To him, creativity has been the saving grace of his Ohio district. With a surplus of students and a lack of funding, Bennett and his team have consolidated students and supplemented courses by turning to unconventional means.
Little Miami is home to approximately 4,000 students. This year, the district’s facilities were reduced from seven to five, with another building being shut down at the end of this school year at the direction of the state.
“We’ve grown so fast,” said Bennett. “And we haven’t been able to pass levies locally to keep up with the expenses of that growth. As a result, we’ve had to get creative with the way we house our students and what we offer them. But in the midst of it all, we make it a priority to keep the focus on student achievement and maintaining strong partnerships with our teachers, administrators, and parents.”
The first building to be shut down at Little Miami was an elementary school housing 226 students. Luckily, the district had built two new facilities as a result of a 2006 bond issue and was able to relocate students there. But the buildings weren’t designed for elementary students, and this instance served as the first of the many times the district would switch up plans to accommodate facility closings.
Bennett has also been forced to cut staff. A total of 90 employees have been let go, with another 16 teachers leaving at the end of this year. “It’s been a journey,” said Bennett. “We’ve been enduring cuts since 2008, and we’ve been forced to do more with less. Next year, our class sizes are targeted at 35:1 one at the high school level, 30:1 at the middle school level, and 25:1 at our elementary level. It hasn’t been easy, which is why we continue to fight for more funding.”
The district was able to pass a bond issue in 2006 although it took four tries. Since then, the district’s requests for additional funding have failed. Little Miami’s request for money to fund its operational expenses has failed seven times since 2008 as well.
A $14 million levy is scheduled to appear on the May ballot for Little Miami. The district has been taken over by the state of Ohio and placed in fiscal emergency, and this levy would return the district to fiscal solvency by providing money for day-to-day operations. Bennett is hopeful and said the district is depending on a Support Little Miami School group to get the word out about the benefits of passing this levy.
But the district isn’t waiting for funding to find innovative ways to deal with cuts in teachers, programs, and facilities. Within the lower grade levels, traditional art and music classes as well as physical education classes have been cut, but Little Miami has replaced them with a core science special aimed at increasing technical reading and writing skills of students in grades K-5.
“This is a hands-on, creative program that’s really taken off,” said Bennett. “For example, we have a roller coaster project developed by students in our third and fourth grade classes, and they’re attracting attention from local businesses and engineers. Although this is different from art and music classes, it’s new, and it’s something that will benefit students and our community economically in the long run.”
The district has also lost its intervention and gifted programs. But Bennett said Little Miami is working on partnerships with local colleges to offer students online courses and give them a head start on acquiring credits as well as redesigning enrichment and gifted offerings in grades K-8.
“We’re working on grants to get that off the ground,” said Bennett. “The program will also incorporate community service. It’s been refreshing and exciting to watch how our students and teachers came together to find programs such as online courses to supplement what we’ve lost.”
In addition, Little Miami had to cut its radio and television program, which Bennett said was a hard loss. In its, place the district is looking at offering flexible online program opportunities for high school students. Bennett also chose to invest in programs that would close the reading gap among students.
“A couple years ago, one of our funding programs enabled us to invest in Fast Forward software,” Bennett said. “That’s been a great resource for us and helped close the reading gap across all grade levels. This program has taken the place of programs we’ve lost and is positively impacting our achievement levels as a whole across our elementary student populations.”
Little Miami began looking at Fast Forward software about five years ago. Bennett and his team traveled to Kentucky to observe the program in other schools and formulate a plan to implement it at Little Miami. “Our curriculum director brought the program to my attention,” he said. “We’ve seen some positive results so far and look forward to developing it over the next few years.”
During those years, Little Miami will face additional cuts and a growing need for funding to accommodate students. But Bennett chooses to remain optimistic and is proud of the work his district has done to give students the education they deserve.
“Even though there have been challenges, we’ve maintained quality education for our students,” said Bennett. “It’s been an important goal for us to protect what goes on in our classrooms. Little Miami still has an Excellent rating despite what’s happened because we know it’s our responsibility to provide our students with the best education possible.”
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