- Associated Press - Friday, January 27, 2017

EVERTON, Mo. (AP) - Not long before Karl Janson took the superintendent job here, K-12 enrollment hit a barrel-scraping low of 138, graduation hovered at 85 percent, only six out of 10 graduates went to college or the military, and teachers routinely left for better-paying districts.

A dreaded word, consolidation, was being tossed around.

Fast forward five years: Enrollment has rebounded to 181, all the seniors graduated on time, nearly all graduates enroll at Ozarks Technical Community College and, last year, no teachers resigned to take a job at a bigger school, the Springfield News-Leader (https://sgfnow.co/2jqLIHm ) reported.

Everton was also named the “Outstanding Rural School District” for 2016-17 by the Missouri Association of Rural Education.

“We felt this year that we really turned that corner we’ve been trying to make,” Janson said. “With the bond issue and the renovation happening and the way our students are performing academically and the preschool, we felt this is what we’ve been working for and let’s celebrate.”

He added: “This was a huge state-level award for us.”

Janson said it may be easy for some to overlook Everton and, by extension, the tiny school district.

The once-vibrant town that grew along the railroad tracks in the 1800s has seen better days. The official population stands at 319; Many residents commute to work elsewhere. Few businesses exist within the city limits and mixed among the inhabited and well-manicured homes are abandoned and neglected structures.

“There is this really interesting narrative about Everton. It goes way back to the 1800s. We were a large community in the old days. There was a brick factory here. Downtown, you can see where the old foundations were,” he said. “Harry Truman started his senate campaign on a train in Everton.”

Tragedy is also part of that narrative.

In the early 1900s, a train derailed on the curve northwest of the town. A couple decades later, the community - worried another child would be hurt - put an end to high school football after a player suffered fatal injuries on the field. In May 1997, four teachers were killed in a car wreck.

“There is a tight community feeling here,” he said. “All our kids know all the kids. They are related to a lot of them but even if they’re not, we’re Everton. We are going to take care of our own.”

Janson and others who choose to live and raise families in the Dade County community - 30 miles north of Springfield on U.S. 160 - describe the school as the heart of Everton. It is also the largest employer.

“The center of any small community is its school and without the school you lose the community,” he said. “Our community is resolute in keeping the school.”

The viability of the school was in question at the height of the recession when enrollment, which had been as high as 250 two decades ago, started to slide. Limited job prospects and the high cost of fuel spurred many struggling families to move away.

Nearly four out of every five students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals, a national measure of poverty.

As the economic outlook improved, enrollment started to stabilize. About the time Janson took the job in 2012, there was community support to try new things and improve the school, including:

- Starting a preschool. Without any licensed child care or early childhood education options in Everton, parents were forced to make tough decisions. The program, started four years ago, is full with 20 students and there is a waiting list.

- Recruiting and retaining top teachers. Starting pay, at just $26,250, isn’t much of an incentive. But, teachers are given a lot of freedom and power. They have a voice in all decisions.

- Finding resources. In recent years, teachers have successfully requested more than $25,000 through DonorsChoose.org to fund classroom projects and provide laptops, flexible seating, shoes and out-of-state field trips for students.

- Exposing students to career options. High school students can take dual credit courses through area colleges and universities. The district also partners with businesses to provide an internship program.

- Helping students pay for college. Everton joined the state’s A+ program, which pays tuition at numerous public, in-state, two-year colleges for high school graduates who meet academic, attendance and citizenship expectations.

- Improving the building. Through a voter-approved 2015 bond issue of $855,000 and a low-interest loan from the U.S. Department of Energy, the district replaced its costly boiler with a high-efficiency heating and air conditioning system, insulated walls, dropped ceilings, added LED lighting, and added cool air to the 1952 gym.

Everton was also the first district in southwest Missouri to adopt a four-day week. The idea, pitched as a cost-saving measure after voters rejected a bond issue, was embraced by the community.

It cut expenses in the annual budget, now $2.1 million, by more than 2 percent, and improved teacher and student attendance. It also gave the district flexibility to offer snow make-up days, student internships and staff training on Mondays.

“Looking at our test scores, they have just continued to rise. We have the highest average ACT in the schools around us,” he said. “Our discipline has improved. We still have frequent flyers but they don’t get to cruising altitude during a four-day week.”

Principal Heather Harden, who has worked for the district since the late 1990s, said there is an attitude in Everton that the school is worth having, worth keeping and worth fighting for.

“We have a familial atmosphere. Everybody pitches in and there’s not ever a lot of ‘I don’t want to do that’ or ‘It’s too much,’” she said. “In a small school, people step up.”

Chief among Harden’s priorities is keeping teachers happy and plugged in. She said they are called on to provide input on everything from scheduling changes to new curriculum options.

Sixth-grade teacher Krista Armstrong said the leadership has backed her ideas on everything from adding more technology to changing the set-up of her classroom to accommodate different learning styles.

“Knowing that students need movement to increase their learning was a factor,” she said.

Armstrong, in her 12th year of teaching, said she was drawn to Everton in part because of the small class sizes. Class sizes in the school range from eight to 20 students.

“I am able to have 12 students that I get to know one-on-one,” she said.

Teacher Dana Dreier, who was hired in 1984 and still works part-time despite retiring in 2010, said Everton has repeatedly pulled together to help others rebuild after a fire, recover from a loss or rehabilitate following a serious health issue.

“What really hit me when I got here was the community. They are supportive of each other and of the school. They are friendly. They are like a family,” she said. “When something happens to one person, the community, they all rally around.”

She said the “cadet” program, which allows older students to volunteer in elementary classrooms, is possible because classes are all together.

“It is wonderful to have everyone in the same building,” she said.

Andi Montgomery, a junior, said she takes courses that allow her to simultaneously earn high school and college credit because she is trying to get a scholarship to attend the University of Missouri-Columbia, where she plans to study agricultural marketing.

She grew up on a farm near Everton and hopes to return.

“Here you know everyone. You are related to someone here,” she said. “You are personally connected.”

Joey Dowler, who moved to Everton in eighth grade, said the small class sizes means more attention from teachers. “You know they are here for you.”

Both Dowler and fellow senior Samatha Shumer, who grew up in Everton, admitted they wish there were a wider variety of classes to choose from at the high school level. They also wish there were more sports and school clubs available.

But the teens, who both plan to attend OTC and eventually earn teaching degrees at four-year colleges, said they feel supported at Everton. Shumer, who works at the gas station, has one of the few part-time jobs available to teens in the town.

“I like going to a small school because you are more comfortable,” she said. “You know everybody.”

Janson and his wife Leah, who teaches seventh grade in Everton, hope to stay in the community until their youngest child - age 9 - graduates. They are among three married couples on the school staff.

He said the next big step for Everton is to apply for another U.S. Department of Energy loan to add enough solar powers to eliminate the utility bill and further reduce overhead expenses.

Janson said while funding will remain a challenge in the small district, it is outweighed by the advantages.

“We have the ability to know all our kids, know all their parents, know all their grandparents. There is a lot of relationship-building that is extremely effective at getting our kids to go above and beyond where they think they can go,” he said.

“Our students don’t fall through the cracks unless they choose to and their parents allow them, because we’re not going to allow them to.”


Information from: Springfield News-Leader, https://www.news-leader.com

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