By Doug Ingels
Schools across Wisconsin scrambled to do more with less state aid this year. But, for the Kohler School District, that was business as usual.
The Village of Kohler has a population of 2,120 and is located on the east side of the state, about an hour north of Milwaukee and an hour south of Green Bay.
Known as home of Kohler Company, a worldwide manufacturing company, Kohler is regarded as a traditionally white community with one of Wisconsin’s highest average income per household.
Unfortunately, state school aid formulas consider Kohler a “wealthy” community, which hurts it financially.
“We’ve always had less because we don’t get much state funding because of our small population and the affluence of our community,” said Paula Anderson, a human resource specialist for the district. “We don’t get any free or reduced lunches, very little Title I dollars. So, even with the budgets cuts, we’ve always had to do more with less.”
Despite that, Kohler has set up its students for academic success.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, Kohler students scored between 10 to 15 percent higher than the statewide average on the fourth, eighth and tenth grade achievement tests in 2009, the latest data available.
That same year, Kohler’s average ACT score was 24.8, nearly two points higher than the schools in its athletic conference. While that 24.8 was impressive, it was less than the 27.0 average score of the previous year.
But, high expectations lead to even higher expectations: Kohler has had to find new outlets to equip its classrooms and give resources to its teachers.
The first way is through an organization called the Kohler School Friends, which is the parent-teacher organization of the Kohler School District. The group includes every parent and teacher in the district, but has a core group of 20 who focus on specific needs and committees, according to President Vickie Friske.
The unique aspect of the Kohler School Friends is that they directly support the teaching faculty in the district with a $150 stipend each year to spend on their respective classrooms.
Teachers submit items to a wish list for curriculum-enhancing materials, along with a list of field trips they would like to make.
These items are reviewed by the Kohler School Friends committee and accepted or denied, based on the funding guidelines. They must add to the curriculum and be re-usable for several years.
Items approved for the 2011-12 school year include math, reading and science resources for elementary classrooms and document cameras in two high school classrooms.
The wish lists, stipends and costs of field trip transportation make up 74 percent of the group’s funding goal—cash raised through two major fundraisers. But even Kohler School Friends is beginning to feel financial constraints.
“Requests for financial support by Kohler School Friends PTO have increased every year, and teachers come to us more often for things that do not fit our funding guidelines because their classroom budgets are continually shrinking,” said Friske. “This puts the Kohler School Friends PTO committee members in a difficult and sometimes uncomfortable situation—we want to help the teachers in any way we can and always want the best for our students. But we have rules in place and have to deny these requests.”
When the money just isn’t available from outside sources, some teachers take it into their own hands.
Lori Neurohr, a fourth grade teacher at Kohler, said she spends money out of her own pocket when the situation calls for it. (To read more of our interview with Neurohr, check out the Q&A with her.)
But Neurohr isn’t just an average elementary school teacher at Kohler or in Wisconsin. Lori was the 2008 Wisconsin Elementary School Teacher of the Year and the 2009 Wisconsin State Teacher of the Year. To win such prestigious awards requires going above and beyond the call of duty, using new and innovative teaching methods.
“A lot of teachers spend their own hard-earned money to try and get the supplies and resources they need for the kids,” said Neurohr. “I’m really trying to not make my students work with less, because I get what they need.”
But in a effort to save teachers time and money, Kohler has found a new way to engage students, technology and the Internet. And in a successful community like Kohler, the possibilities for technology are endless.
To expedite the transition to modern technology, in 2010 the district went wireless, allowing Internet access throughout each level of the schools. This has enabled ideas like “BYOD”—Bring Your Own Devices—to allow kids to use technology and the Internet without the school spending extra money on computers.
Neurohr said that with new state-approved “common core standards” that schools must follow, many workbooks and textbooks that fit those standards are becoming harder to afford.
This has resulted in needing to make more copies of worksheets. But, to avoid over-using paper, Neurohr gives students more hands on projects and games.
Websites like Prezi.com or Glogster.com create interactive presentations and posters that would use supplies like poster board and paper, which may not be affordable. But where the Internet has really become a tool is in actual online instruction.
Middle School English teacher Amanda Sprang has experimented with a new online “blended learning” website called BrainHoney.com, an online course management system.
BrainHoney.com offers teachers an opportunity to place curriculum aligned to the common core standards online, while engaging students through a variety of interactive and differentiated activities.
The site tracks when students log on, and notifies teachers when students are falling behind.
“An advantage to BrainHoney is that there is a free version to use. Currently that is what my course is running on, and it offers everything I need,” said Sprang. “Because teachers design the courses, most of the information students would need to complete assignments would be appropriate and content-worthy. This could eliminate textbooks, which some schools are already doing.”
Online classes have introduced new ways to save money at the high school level as well. Laura Multer, counselor for the school district, said that Kohler has several online advanced placement classes, including calculus and composition.
“Typically between 60 to 75 percent of the students take at least one advanced placement course in their four years in high school,” said Multer. “The rigor of the coursework a student takes has a direct impact on ACT performance, and the ACT claims that tough course work is the best prep for their exam.”
Technology continues to evolve and save educators time and money.
Websites like VirtualHighSchool.com, which Kohler uses for online AP courses, saves the district money on teaching intense, in-depth courses, and allows students to move at the pace which they need to comprehend the difficult materials.