Charlee Krueger finds her backpack and coat, and her mother Renee scrapes ice from the windshield of their car. By 7 a.m., they’re ready to go.
Charlee is a second grader at Maple Grove Elementary School in the Merrill Area Public School District.
She’s one of just 80 students enrolled in the far-flung school about 15 miles from the city. She could be one of the final 80 to attend school there, as Merrill contemplates closing it before next year.
The Kruegers used to live on a farm in the country near Maple Grove. They just moved closer to Merrill, but Charlee still takes a special bus every day to get to the rural school that’s more than just a school.
“If it was necessary, I would find a way to provide transportation to Maple Grove. It’s that important to me,” Renee says.
Renee takes Charlee about one mile to Jefferson Elementary School in Merrill, where they wait for the bus to Maple Grove to arrive.
Maple Grove is different than the rest of the schools in the district.
Nestled in the woods, a few years ago it became a charter school.
“A couple of weeks ago, a deer started running right across our woods,” Charlee explains. “It went ‘pew’ right across our woods.”
Students like Charlee do experiential projects, often outdoors. The school even has its own chickens to provide eggs. The environment at Maple Grove is one Charlee likes, and so does her mother, Renee.
“One of the things about Maple Grove is every teacher there knows every child. Not only do they know every child, they know every child’s family and extended families,” Renee says. “You don’t see that in the super-schools.”
But this year might be the last year buses run from Merrill to Maple Grove.
District Superintendent John Sample has proposed closing the school, in large part as a cost-saving measure.
“Right now, in my opinion, our student achievement is unacceptable, and that’s across the district,” Sample says. “That’s not just Maple Grove. It’s not just any one building or program. In order for us to work with the dollars that we have, we see some need.”
According to the latest school district report cards from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI), Merrill scored a 66.8, putting it into the “Meets Expectations” category. Many districts in the area were classified as “Exceeds Expectations,” while a few were labeled “Meets Few Expectations.”
The money saved by closing Maple Grove is needed to improve programming and educational supports across the district, Sample says. Plus, he thinks Maple Grove students might benefit from being more connected to those resources in town.
“Yes, [Maple Grove is] holding their own as far as meeting the expectations, but I think the resources that we can provide in town are much richer than what they’re receiving right now because of where they’re located,” Sample says.
The push to close Maple Grove fits into a trend across the Northwoods in the last few decades.
A WXPR analysis of DPI data shows districts in the area have closed 27 elementary schools since 1993.
Maple Grove would be Merrill’s sixth closure in that span. Antigo leads the way with seven, including three last year.
“Any time you close a building like that, it does become very contentious,” says Kim Kaukl, the executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance.
He blames a move of jobs and people from rural to urban or suburban areas as part of the issue.
As districts face tight budgets, they often have to choose between more physical schools and better programs.
“What’s important for our kids? A building or strong programming? To be viable, programming, to me, is always going to come out ahead,” Kaukl says.
“A school district might find that they are declining in enrollment and that the need for all of those buildings and all of those spaces is not what it was in the past,” says DPI Deputy State Superintendent Mike Thompson. “A lot of times, when they talk about closing an outlying building, a lot of the reason is they have declining enrollment.”
That’s true in Merrill, a district that has been losing enrollment for years.
But Maple Grove plays a role not just as a place for learning, but as a community hub. Thompson says that’s common among rural school buildings.
“There is a lot of passionate ownership around that school, around the smallness of that school,” he says. “That’s really where there’s the tough decisions to happen.”
Sample, the Merrill superintendent, realizes his proposal can bring out strong emotions.
“We’re not here to take away any memories of what was in the past, and we’re certainly not here to deny their students an education,” he says. “In fact, quite the contrary.”
Misty Vogel understands the puzzle. She and her husband put their two sons through school at Maple Grove, which is a quarter-mile away from their dairy
It’s hard for her to imagine that building sitting dark.
“It’s a sad vision, because it’s too indicative of what’s happening in rural America, in my opinion,” Vogel says.
Vogel thinks closing Maple Grove and moving students into town may actually hurt the Merrill district’s enrollment.
“If we want to increase our student population, what are families looking for? I really feel that Maple Grove has what a lot of families are looking for,” she says.
After dropping off Charlee at the bus to Maple Grove, Renee Krueger confirms that view.
She says she completely understands the district’s financial crunch, but closing Maple Grove isn’t the answer. It’s a view she’s made known to administrators. They’ve been “patient and tolerant,” she says, be she believes their minds are made up.
If Maple Grove does close, Renee says, the district will lose at least one student.
She’d consider sending Charlee to a school in a nearby district or a parochial school.
But a different Merrill elementary school is not an option.
“I feel the best option I give my children is not through what they’re going to receive academically. It’s what they’re going to receive socially,” she says. “I’m specifically looking for that smaller environment that can nurture children’s independent growth.”
The school board could decide in the coming months whether to close Maple Grove, which would take effect after this year. Sample says a closure could also be delayed by a year.