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Small Nebraska schools carry on despite low enrollment

Posted at 7:21 PM, Feb 22, 2022

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — When driving to Lewiston Consolidated Schools you’ll see plenty of gravel roads, farmland and a few very small towns, such as Crab Orchard and Burchard.

“You probably can’t get a gallon of gas or milk in any one of them. There’s an elevator and maybe a bank, maybe a post office, so very small and very rural,” said Rick Kentfield, superintendent of Lewiston.

The district covers a relatively large area of 350 square miles, which includes three Nebraska counties. Because of this vast agricultural land, the district doesn’t need to charge high property taxes, but they struggle with enrollment.

“Always say we’re property rich and kids poor. Having kids for our extracurricular activities has been our biggest challenge,” said Kentfield.

By ‘kid poor,’ Kentfield is talking about the number of students in classes. On average, Lewiston has around 11 to 12 kids in each grade level with a low of seven kids in one grade.

This number is higher than it maybe should be as dozens of students opt-in from districts like Beatrice.

“They appreciate the small school atmosphere,” said Kentfield.

A dozen kids per grade level brings issues, specifically sports and extracurricular activities.

“We’re very small. We have cheerleading. We don’t have cheerleading tryouts. If you want to be a cheerleader, you could be on the cheer squad,” said Kentfield.

Lewiston has no freshman or junior varsity team, in fact, they’re happy to simply field a varsity team.

To do this they get creative, co-oping with schools within 50 miles of the district, which allows kids to get the same opportunities they would in more urban areas.

They just may have to drive a bit and wear a different uniform.

“Whatever we can find to get kids connected, that’s our challenge. We want to find something to keep them connected. It just enhances their educational experience,” said Kentfield.

Despite this being a rural school with a relatively low student population, they’re given some pretty nice amenities. They are building a brand new track and football field, all paid for by an anonymous donor.

And for kids that want to practice on this field with their team, but might not have parents nearby to pick them up, Kentfield says the community atmosphere of the school ensures all those kids have a ride home.

“Provide transportation for any kiddo that wants to participate in an after-school program, so we get really creative with that,” he said.

Over 100 miles away in Scribner it’s a similar, albeit unique, story. The district has less than 200 students.

“Some people look at that as too small and we look at that as an opportunity to provide great opportunities for kids,” said Superintendent Joe Peitzmeier

Scribner-Snyder Consolidated Schools like Lewiston there is a lot of farmland, giving plenty of value to keep property taxes low.

But their issue is students leaving the district.

“Biggest struggle we have is keeping kids. They get to 6th, 7th, 8th grade and they look to go somewhere else,” said Peitzmeier.

That somewhere else is Logan View Public Schools, 10 miles away. The two schools already join forces for most sports like football and basketball.

But Peitzmeier says around middle school kids start to want to go to class and practice in the same building.

While he can’t stop parents and students from leaving, his pitch is you can do a bit of everything in the Class D school with people you know well.

“You can go to school here with kids you’ve gone to school here since kindergarten. And keep those friendships and still have the high school sports by going to Logan View and being a part of the Logan View - Scribner-Snyder,” said Peitzmeier.

The low numbers certainly can be a challenge. The fifth grade class is only expected to have four kids next year.

But Peitzmeier says due to their tax base, no teachers will be let go, which isn’t the case across the state. They also can pay for extra curriculum that teachers seek to add to the classrooms.

“I think we have the ability to support teachers much better than a couple of other districts I’ve been in,” said Peitzmeier.

Still, this hasn’t stopped chatter around town about consolidation.

Due to low enrollment and more opportunities at Logan View, a few years ago, Scribner-Snyder and Logan View were in talks of merging.

But after the pandemic the two sides couldn't reach agreement and it fell through.

Now Peitzmeier, who’s in his second year after initially being hired to deal with a merger, says plans are for the school to stay in the community.

“We are staying on our own. There are no merger talks in the immediate future,” said Peitzmeier.

No town ever wants to lose its school which can be a part of its identity. City officials in Scribner are working to attract more people to the city. Plans for 18 new housing units are in the works, and a variety of new businesses have opened up downtown already.

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