All Commentary
Sunday, May 1, 2005

A Lesson from the Plains

How Tipton, Kansas, Created an Elementary School

Recent decades have not been kind to rural America. Technological advances in agriculture have resulted in output that can be produced by fewer and fewer people. This has resulted in the depopulation of many rural communities. Diminishing populations have forced many rural communities to consolidate their public schools in order to generate the necessary cost savings. These cost savings come at a price. Many times the community that closes its school begins a gradual decline. Without a local school, young families will seek to locate elsewhere, and the community, literally, begins to die.

Such was the fate of a small hamlet on the plains of north central Kansas. For the school year of 2002–2003, the Tipton Elementary School enrolled 70 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. After months of consideration, Unified School District (USD) 272, incorporating the communities of Cawker City, Downs, Glen Elder, and Tipton, decided in early June 2003 to close the school. After some initial protest, USD 272 decided to allow it to remain open but with only grades kindergarten through third. With only 16 students in these grades, the citizens of Tipton (population 275) realized it would not be long before the school district would close the school for good. Confronted with this fact, the town decided it must go private with its school.

Private education is not new to Tipton. It has had a Catholic high school, which incorporated grades nine through 12, since 1919. Since most of the elementary-school graduates have attended the Catholic school, the citizens’ first thought was to ask the diocese if it would consider incorporating kindergarten through eighth grades in their school. After consideration, the diocese agreed to add grades seven and eight. So, in a community meeting in June 2003, the Tipton community overwhelmingly voted to form a Christian school for grades kindergarten through six.

On June 18 the Articles of Incorporation as the Tipton Christian School, Incorporated, were filed. The school was also formed as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization. With a board of directors in place, groundbreaking was held on donated land on Sunday, June 22. In 47 days volunteer laborers completed work on the school well in advance of the first day of school, which was scheduled for August 25. With many materials donated and others purchased at discount, the total cost of the building was $52,000. As impressive as this is, a far more important factor was the bringing together of the community to accomplish this task. The result has been a community that is closer and has even more pride in itself.

On August 25, 34 students inaugurated the Tipton Christian School. Tuition was set at a modest $500 ($250 for kindergarten) for the year, with discounts for families with two or more children enrolled. The $16,000 in tuition revenue covered less than 15 percent of the first-year operating expenses of approximately $120,000. Though getting the school built was the initial concern, fundraising will be the ongoing concern. By the end of September 2003, more than $250,000 had been raised for operating expenses. Kelli Hake, a member of the school board, acknowledges that compassion fatigue may set in and that future fundraising may be more difficult. But for now, the board has enough money to complete the school years 2004–05 and 2005–06. Fundraising efforts today are targeted for the 2006–07 school year.

The school building has three classrooms, principal and staff offices, and restrooms. Students cross the parking lot to eat lunch in the cafeteria of the Catholic high school. The school employs 3.5 teachers, and the principal, Larry Tonne, donates his time. He had served the previous 17 years as the principal of the Tipton Elementary School. In the morning, first- and second-graders meet together, as do the third- and fourth-graders and the fifth- and sixth-graders. In the afternoon, the kindergarten meets with the first-graders, the second- and third-graders are together, and the fourth- and fifth-graders have combined instruction. The sixth-graders go to the Catholic high school where they are instructed by a teacher who is employed by the high school in the morning (hence the staffing of 3.5 teachers).

Greater Freedom

In addition to keeping a school open for their young children, Tipton residents have found an additional benefit in starting their own private school. That benefit is the greater freedom they are allowed as a private school. A parent, Kathy Streit, said, “One of the great things about having a Christian school is to know that our children can say the Pledge of Allegiance and say ‘One Nation Under God’ and not get into trouble.” The day I visited the school, one of the classroom doors had these words on it: “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” This would never be tolerated in a public school.

The Tipton Christian School began the fall of 2004 with 32 children enrolled. It continues on with its mission statement: The mission of Tipton Christian School is to nurture students in a Christ-centered education, who will achieve academic excellence anchored in rural values. This strength of character exhibited by the citizens of Tipton, Kansas, needs to be emulated by other communities struggling with their public schools.

All too often, it is easier and less expensive for the individual to sit back and let the government “experts” take care of his problems. But the people of Tipton were not content with the solutions of their government experts and decided they would continue paying taxes for USD 272’s public schools while funding their own private school. The result has been a stronger community. The same would be true for other communities. All of us must come to realize that important services, like education, need not be the sole purview of government. In fact, we must come to realize that these services will be better provided, both in terms of quality and cost, if done by the private sector.

For anyone interested in learning more about the fascinating experiment on the plains of north central Kansas, the Tipton Christian School welcomes any inquiries at [email protected].