Once Faced With Closure, Moores Hill School Finding Its Way Back
By Mike Perleberg
First graders perform at Moores Hill Elementary School’s Showcase on Thursday, April 28. Photo provided.
(Moores Hill, Ind.) – If you’re looking for an underdog to root for, consider Moores Hill Elementary School.
The kindergarten through 6th grade school is sacked with declining enrollment in a rural area with a stagnant population, a town with a few too many empty buildings, and little to no cell phone reception.
Despite everything going against the home of the Bobcats, South Dearborn Community Schools, the school’s staff and members of the community are genuinely giving it a shot at succeeding once again.
The SDCSC Board of Trustees held discussions last year aimed at closing one of the district’s four elementary schools, most likely Moores Hill, due to an ongoing shrinking of student enrollment. While schools aren’t expected to turn a profit, Moores Hill’s operating deficit of roughly $500,000 per year was becoming difficult to justify.
As they pondered closing the building, the school board heard the arguments from parents and Moores Hill town leaders. Board members were persuaded to give the school at least another year to prove that it was worth keeping open.
Almost a year later, there are encouraging signs of a transformation that many with ties to the school and Moores Hill community hope will lure families back. New principal Dr. Leanna Phillippe is orchestrating the school revival.
“It just takes baby steps. You can’t do it all in one year and we’ve done a lot this year trying to change the culture of the building,” says Phillippe, a former superintendent at Jac-Cen-Del Community Schools.
Among other efforts, there are new activities for students to engage in. Moores Hill is home to the first archery club in the South Dearborn district. New technology and newspaper clubs have also been popular extracurriculars that didn’t exist prior to this school year.
A spring showcase for students to perform on stage and exhibit class projects including the 6th grade science fair was recently held. A community garden for students is being planned.
Next year, the school will introduce a preschool program in an effort to increase enrollment and boost the preparedness of students entering kindergarten.
It’s no longer a school that shuts down at 3:00 p.m. each day, says Phillippe.
Lisa Snell, one of several new teachers at Moores Hill this year, says students are noticing the progress that the staff has worked hard to achieve in short time.
“We were talking in class late last week and they were saying how much this building had changed this year and how awesome it has been,” she says, recalling an impromptu discussion with students. “I asked them what was different since I wasn’t here last year and the things they articulated were amazing. They talked about all the new clubs to get involved in, the teachers and the principal really push us and they really care and want us to do well.”
The staff morale has also improved. The principal recently allowed teachers and janitors to enjoy an appreciation lunch while she and some parent volunteers monitored the students.
“It’s about making them feel like they are valued,” she says.
A true rebuild of the school would take several years as incoming younger students move up to higher grades. The board must decide if it can afford more time for the school and the community must determine how much support it is willing to invest.
A Moores Hill Elementary 6th grade student shows off her science fair project. Photo provided.
The Town Perspective
“If the South Dearborn school board would give them time, I think that school would be up and running where it needs to be,” says Dee Russell, the elected Clerk-Treasurer for the Town of Moores Hill and owner of Little Hoosiers, a chicken wing restaurant near town.
Moores Hill Town Board member Terry Ingersol says a lack of youth athletics were among the problems with the student exodus. He also believes athletics can be what helps bring it back.
“The town donated money to help get the archery team started. I’m also the finance officer for the Moores Hill Legion and we donated money to them,” says Ingersol, the grandfather of a former Moores Hill student now living out-of-state.
Phillippe says the town board has been supportive. Parents have been donating to support archery, basketball and volleyball teams. A community baseball league could be back in place in the summer of 2017 as efforts are being made to get ballfields in back in shape.
The town built a new sewer plant three years ago with growth in mind. The loss the school would make it hard to justify the plant, Ingersol says.
If Moores Hill Elementary ever closes, the two town leaders believe South Dearborn Community Schools would lose most of those students to neighboring Milan Community Schools. They also worry about the problems that would come with another empty building in the town.
“It’s just going to be a total mess because it’s not going to be fair to the parents. Why should Moores Hill parents have to drive miles to get to their kids’ school functions when everybody else is right there in their own hometown?” ponders Russell, who has a granddaughter she claims has excelled while attending Moores Hill School.
Russell calls Phillippe a blessing. The principal has been open to the community’s suggestions and has worked to get parents involved and invested in the school.
“We’re all pulling together in any way that we can to get this school back up and going where it should have been. It didn’t take one year to drag it to the bottom and it’s not going to take one year to get it back up,” Russell says.
The Milan Migration
“The school is working very hard to increase enrollment. That’s a huge thing. The bottom line with any school system is – I’ve been a superintendent – is you have to meet your budget,” Phillippe says.
There is encouraging news. Enrollment at Moores Hill is at 146 students, when expectation prior to this school year were for the school to have around 120. Phillippe warns, however, that about 25 6th graders will be graduating out to middle school.
In the 2014-2015 school year, South Dearborn Community Schools lost 64 students – as well as the funding that follows them – to nearby Milan Community Schools. Forty-four more went to Lawrenceburg. Ninety kids district-wide moved out of state. South Dearborn schools did gain 24 students from Rising Sun-Ohio County Schools.
Lower birth rates and economic trends in the Moores Hill area may be most responsible for the school being at only about a third of its student capacity. However, the allure of athletics, more extracurricular activities, and maybe even the perception of better academics at Milan schools are frequently cited as reasons many parents are opting to take drive their kids across the county line for an education.
Phillippe says all those things are being addressed.
“The academics are here now. I think there were some gaps and not that it’s perfect, I think you’re going to see a huge improvement in the growth of our kids. I think you’re going to see a huge improvement in what grade our school gets and how we’re pictured. Our kids have worked so hard on ISTEP this year,” Phillippe shares.
The new principal invites Moores Hill families with students going to other districts to come back and experience the changes that have taken place in the school’s culture.
Assurance from the school board could also help stabilize enrollment at Moores Hill. Staff have concerns that parents won’t come back or even give Moores Hill a first try with their kindergarteners if there is the looming possibility that the school could close.
“The students we have lost over the past several years may not come back with just the changes we have accomplished this year. If I were a parent and the school was on the verge of closing, I would not take my child out of a school only to move them again the next year or two,” says Snell.
Moores Hill School’s Ultimate Fate Rests With School Board
Moores Hill Elementary Principal Leanna Phillippe addresses the South Dearborn Community Schools Board of Trustees on Monday, April 18. Photo by Mike Perleberg, Eagle Country 99.3.
There were indications last summer that the South Dearborn Community Schools Board of Trustees would perhaps this summer revisit the matter of closing a school as enrollment falls. But, district superintendent Dr. John Mehrle says, there is currently no new discussion amongst the board or administration.
“It’s really not on anybody’s agenda right now. It’s just not been a point of discussion,” says Mehrle.
That doesn’t mean that the subject won’t come up again at some point in the future, he adds.
Mehrle agrees that Moores Hill Elementary is being given from the administration a fair shot at succeeding. He called Phillippe a competent principal who has put a lot of effort into building partnerships between the town and the school.
“She’s started up a lot of different activities and clubs like the archery club. There’s just a lot of activity going on. She’s really working hard and changing teachers out there to get a pretty good teaching staff. We’ve very pleased with her work,” Mehrle says
Phillippe prays Moore Hill Elementary will have the time necessary to prove itself.
“Moores Hill is just an awesome place to learn… …It’s really a family. I am so proud of where we’ve come this year and I think the kids will tell you how wonderful this school is,” Phillippe says.