By Ron Newlin '76
If I told you that the Superintendent of Tippecanoe Valley School Corporation had been involved in the local school system for fifty years, you would assume we were being led by an elder statesman facing mandatory retirement.
Brett Boggs just turns 55 this year. When I sat down with him in his conference room earlier this semester and asked him how long he’d been in the district, he answered, “I started attending school in kindergarten at Mentone, so, 1961.”
“There was a period of about four years in college where I still lived in the community but wasn’t involved the schools,” said the 1974 Mentone High School graduate, “but other than that …”
And even the undergraduate interlude had a Valley flavor.
“My senior year at Grace College, Mark Barker, the principal at Akron, asked me to substitute teach for Phil See in P.E./Health, then Kate Jennens in 4th grade.” Jennens retired that summer, and Boggs was interviewed by the principal and Superintendent Lloyd Harrell and approved for the position.
Suffice it to say that no one is better positioned to comment on what has changed, and what is constant, about the schools and communities that we’ve come to think of as Valley.
“The biggest change I’ve seen is the effect that technology has had on everything we do,” Boggs offered. “I remember the first computer placed in my classroom in the early 1980s … how exciting that was, and how the kids responded.” One favorite was a problem-solving game based on the Oregon Trail with an elementary video component.
“We used it as a learning center – if you finished your other work early, you could spend time on it.”
Today’s equivalent, suggests Boggs, are computer whiteboards. “You go into the school in Akron and see kids doing things freehand on white boards and slates that they used to be doing on a chalkboard – but the board is saving their work to the computer.”
Valley has also been able to invest in technology for two-way video-conferencing, or distance learning – a tool that can allow teachers to bring subject matter experts, including alumni, into the classroom without either party having to travel. The students aren’t just benefiting from the technology – they are demonstrating it. “Ben Rogers’ Marketing Class recently made that presentation to the school board.”
Beyond the walls of the schools, Boggs said, “The community has changed a lot. Frankly we deal with a lot more poverty now. When I moved to Akron in 1978, there were many older, and sometimes more affluent folks. Today many of our families aren’t affluent.” Over half of Valley students qualify for free or reduced meals, for example.
“What has stayed the same is the nature of the community, the closeness, the fact that people care about each other – that has not changed one iota.”
“Not as many of our families are involved in agriculture, but there’s still a strong work ethic.”
That exchange is vintage Brett Boggs. He is even-handed, courteous, and a consensus builder, respected within the community and beyond (in 2003 his peers in the Indiana Association of School Principals named him District Elementary Principal of the Year). He’s also aware that he’s the CEO of a $20 million operation -- the community’s leading employer and provider of its most important service –- and that public education has never been more financially challenged or contentiously debated. And he’s not unwilling to calmly consider some controversial positions.
“If we’re trying to do what’s best for students the State should consider lengthening the mandatory school year,” Boggs suggested at one point. “That would not be popular with many; not with the students, for certain.”
“But we’re competing with countries that have longer school years and longer school days.”
I interviewed Boggs earlier in the current legislative session, before the full range of proposed reforms were known and before the walkout and gridlock put the entire legislative session at risk. “The Governor is unhappy with teachers’ unions, that’s obvious,” he said at that time. But he doesn’t think Valley is one of the districts that has incited that displeasure.
“Many school districts have language in their contracts that makes it difficult to administer their schools effectively and do what’s best for students. Fortunately, we’re not one of them.”
“If the legislature really wanted to help us out, they could mandate an 8-hour day,” Boggs offered at that time. “If they want us to begin school after Labor Day and end the school year before June 10, then just create a state-wide school calendar and put everyone on it. I like the State Fair as well as anyone, but if we’re going to let the State Fair tell us determine when the school year starts…”
Of course, virtually none of the public education reforms being debated these days involve increased funding.
Two years ago, Indiana cut and capped property taxes and paid for that tax cut with an increase in the state sales tax – giving state government far greater control over local school districts’ budgets. Last year, the state responded to declining overall tax revenues by cutting Valley’s budget by almost $600,000 – funds that the school board now can’t replace locally if they wanted.
Along with that funding change, the state did away with school districts being required to charge transfer tuition for students who don’t live in the district.
“The state is encouraging competition,” Boggs pointed out. “That bothers me a little bit. On the one hand they encourage us to collaborate, but at the same time we’re pushed to compete for students.”
Still, he points out that Valley has responded to that challenge by developing a competitive advantage. Unlike surrounding schools, Valley has chosen to fund full-day kindergarten.
“Now that it’s open enrollment, we have 51 students from non-resident families. Several of those are coming for our full-day kindergarten. We feel if we can get them here, we can keep them here.” While Valley does lose some students to Warsaw and Rochester, mostly kids who ride with parents who work there, “I think it’s a net gain for us,” Boggs suggests.
Of course, Boggs would believe in full-day kindergarten even if not for the open enrollment issue. “Of all the interventions we have in place for our students, that’s the most important. It makes a tremendous difference in a student’s future progress.”
But Boggs is aware that the schools in our hometowns are facing more global issues than the current fiscal and legislative challenges. Not least among them is the fact that the population of rural Indiana is not only not growing, it is actually dwindling. Fulton County lost 1.3% of its population in the 2000s.
“Enrollment has been extremely consistent over 20-25 years, it’s been very steady,” Boggs says of Valley. “We’ve grown, last year to this year, after being down about 140 students, K-12, over the previous three years.”
From a distance, I found this surprising. I’ve been aware that, 31 years ago, Valley won its first state championship as a Class A football school (the smallest of three classes). Today Valley competes in basketball in the second largest of four classes. Valley has gone from being in the smallest third to the largest half of Indiana high schools – I assumed that meant that the population was growing along with the booming orthopedics industry in Kosciusko County.
But in fact, Valley is still about the same size today – about 650 students in the top four grades – as it was when it was created in 1975. What has happened is that 100 other schools that used to be somewhat larger are now somewhat smaller.
Boggs thinks that the Akron-Mentone community will remain large enough to support an independent school system. He’s not so sure that the same is true for smaller area schools districts like Triton, Argos, and Caston given the current political and financial realities that could cause small school districts to consolidate with their neighbors. When asked to look five years into the future, Boggs becomes philosophical.
“In our community, the school is often the center of community life. If that changes, I don’t know what will be the center. No one knows for sure where technology is taking us. But there’s always a need for people to get together -- a need for people to learn to work together, to work in the real world with people who are the same, and different from you.”
And yet sports and music and theater – the extra-curriculars where so many of those lessons are learned – are under fiscal pressure everywhere. And societal changes are reducing their relevance anyway.
“We have fewer and fewer kids participating in after school activities,” Boggs acknowledged. “Often, lack of participation has to do with socio-economic situations. It’s expensive. Just getting them there or picking them up afterwards is expensive. We haven’t gone to ‘pay to play’ like other school districts in our area, but we do pass along more of the expense for uniforms and equipment to families than we did in the past.”
And a growing percentage of students work during the school year. “That number has increased significantly. It is amazing to me the number of kids involved in extra-curricular activities that also have a part-time jobs on top of that.”
Family dynamics are changing, too.
“A fourth grade teacher might see a lot of in-and-out, more than we’ve had before. Seven, eight, nine kids in; seven, eight, nine kids out over the course of the year. If you have 25 kids, and you have 10-12 children living with both bio-parents, that’s quite a few.”
And, “It’s amazing the number of high school students we have that are on their own.” Many students take advantage of what is now called the Burket Alternative Education Center to attend school half-days, so they can go to work to pay the bills.
But Boggs isn’t one to make excuses from these realities. The schools work to make the seven-hour school days provide expansive, “beyond-the-textbook” opportunities.
“I do an hour’s worth of classroom visitations each week. I see a lot more collaborative work now,” Boggs said, citing a recent visit to a the high school’s Project Lead the Way lab class, where several groups of two or three students were using Lego-like components to build a machine to sort marbles.
Internship programs – once the culmination of a college education – are now a high school effort. “We’re trying to get students placed where they’re thinking of that as a career – for instance, with a veterinarian,” Boggs offered. “Students leave here every day to experience time in a hospital, or with EMTs, to see if they might be interested in a career in health care.”
Poor graduation rates have plagued almost all Indiana high schools in recent years, but Boggs cites principal Kirk Doehrmann and the TVHS staff for increasing Valley’s rate from 68% to over 80% in the past four years.
“We have two graduation coaches at our high school. Each has 15-17 students, identified as at risk of dropping out of school, and the graduation coaches work with them daily. If we can get kids to connect with at least one adult in the school, that makes the difference.”
And there are other areas in which Boggs is pushing ahead. For all the state and federal mandates to test and measure progress within each class, no government agency requires school districts to measure their efficacy once they’ve issued diplomas.
He’s charged current Mentone principal Angie Miller (TVHS ’85) with developing a survey instrument so the school corporation can poll its graduates and begin to document their educational and vocational achievements (the number of two-year degrees, four-year degrees, other certifications) in the years since graduating – as well as to invite their feedback and suggestions for improvement.
“We’ve been urged to do this kind of research, not by the State so much, but by our accrediting body. We’ve been saying we need to do this for a few years, and so we’re going to do it.” Increasingly, Boggs believes, this kind of data on a school system’s effectiveness after the fact is going to be useful, if not required, by potential federal and foundation funding sources. He wants to have it sooner rather than later.
Parents of current students who are Valley alums themselves will be invited to complete the survey online or at one of the schools. But what of the two thirds of Valley graduates who no longer live within the school district? That’s one of the reasons we’ve been using this newsletter to recruit Valley alums to help build the email database of people who have moved away.
I asked Boggs what he would like Valley alums to take away from this conversation. His response – after an hour of candidly assessing a world of challenges – revealed his commitment to his profession and his community.
“Bottom line, this is still a very good place to live and raise a family. A lot of things that people from here say were advantages for them, are still advantages. “
“We’re very progressive for a small rural school. We have leadership and a staff with an intense desire to be excellent, to be great.”
“Families and students should know that if they work hard here, and take advantage of the many opportunities available to them, they can compete with anyone from anywhere.”