LEOLA, S.D. (AP) - Driving across the border to North Dakota would mean a big bump in pay for math teacher Pamela Fauth, but Leola is home.
Fauth is an integral piece of this community’s tiny but effective public school system, a veteran teacher with 22 years in South Dakota classrooms. She also worked in Ipswich and Aberdeen, which is about the same distance from her home as schools in Ellendale, North Dakota.
Fauth lives on a farm about five miles east of town. She’s no longer willing to make long drives in the winter just for work.
“This is where my children are,” said Fauth, whose twin daughters are seniors at Leola High School.
School leaders here have worked hard to increase salaries for the district’s dedicated and experienced teachers, said high school principal Bev Myer. The Leola district had a base pay of $26,500 in the 2012-13 school year, which at the time was the fourth-lowest starting salary for teachers in the state.
Starting salaries have since continued to increase, but not enough to compete with what classroom instructors make across the border, the Argus Leader (https://argusne.ws/1j8oGnG ) reported.
In spite of the proximity to North Dakota, a team of hard-working educators collaborate to provide students with the best possible lessons, Myer said. And they seem to be making a difference in the classroom.
Reading and math scores show Leola students are outpacing their peers in the rest of South Dakota.
“We’re pretty fortunate here,” Myer said. “Once you get out to Leola, you’re living here for a reason or you’re teaching here for a reason.”
The district’s elementary and high school were both named “exemplary” schools by the state Department of Education, even though about half of all elementary school students and about one in three high school students last year qualified for free or reduced-price lunch. The high school made Newsweek’s 2015 list of top 500 high schools for low-income students. According to the magazine, Leola High has a perfect graduation rate, with nine of 10 students bound for higher education.
Logan Heupel, 18, hasn’t figured out where he wants to go college, but he’s thinking about studying marketing. Teachers get to know each student’s strengths because of the smaller class sizes, Heupel said.
“I like being able to do kind of whatever you want to do, activities-wise,” Heupel said. “Being what you want to be.”
English teacher Ann Marie Fraser has two students in her smallest class. Her biggest has 11 students. She moved from Omaha three years ago when her husband switched careers, hoping to raise her two sons in a small town environment.
The Leola district had about 180 students enrolled in the 2014-15 school year, including students at its three Hutterite colony schools. The high school had just 32 students.
“We have these small classes and we can get so much accomplished in the time that we’re given with these kids,” Fraser said. “And the students in Leola have such a hard work ethic.”
Last year, Fraser also taught journalism and advised students who worked on the student newspaper and yearbook. Everyone at Leola seems to have more than one job.
Myer is also the athletic director and oversees testing. Fauth is math teacher, but she also leads a Spanish class, which she humbly describes as “a nice break in my day.”
A group of lawmakers and educators are working on a plan this month to give teachers such as Fauth higher salaries. Last week, the governor-appointed Blue Ribbon task force on school funding was presented with an extensive list of ideas for new ways to pay for public schools, including increasing taxes and redistributing existing dollars.
Fauth remains positive about the task force’s efforts, but in her long experience as a South Dakota teacher lawmakers have been unable to come up with answers.
“Boy, I hope they can find something,” Fauth said. “I just don’t know where they’re going to find the funding.”
Information from: Argus Leader, https://www.argusleader.com
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