What happens when a small town — a VERY small town — in southeastern Indiana loses its public school and residents attempt against all odds to replace it with a charter school? To find out, StateImpact went to Canaan, Ind. (Population 90), where residents are trying to do just this.
Even with kids attending from other locations, Canaan’s one public school had an enrollment of just 99 students. So it was no surprise that the school was unable to sustain itself and forced to close last year.
The action was swift and the results were severe. The Madison Consolidated School Corporation came in and stripped out all of the furniture, the computers, many of the books, even the heating oil out of the fuel tank. The students were removed as well — they were sent to another school.
The building sat empty — until recently.
Deena Schafer is standing at a stove cooking ham, mashed potatoes, biscuits and green beans stewed with salted pork.
Schafer is not trying out for a role on Top Chef. She’s actually a teacher by trade, and she is on hand to celebrate the news that Canaan Elementary will be reopening as Canaan Community Academy.
And who better than Deena Schafer to be behind the creation of this charter school?
“This is my grandmother,” Schafer says while pointing to an old black and white photograph. “She’s now deceased, but she was a teacher and a principal here from 1931 to 1973. Then my mother taught here 34 years.”
Deena rattles off the names of family members who gave of themselves in the school. It’s not just her mother and grandmother but also her great aunt, her sisters, and several of her daughters. Many of her relatives plan to teach at the new school. In case you had any doubt, this pursuit is truly in her DNA. So much so that this is the inscription on the gravestone of Schafer’s great aunt.
“The school is closed. Principal has gone home.”
Prophetic in some ways. Before Madison closed the building, Canaan Elementary School had been losing a lot of students — nearly a third of its entire student body since 2006. It’s part of a trend happening all across the state. Rural communities have been losing people for years.
In their application to the chartering agency at Ball State, Schafer listed the target enrollment at 140 students. An overly optimistic target? Perhaps. But Schafer is starting an aggressive marketing campaign to target students in the outlying countryside.
“As we stand here in Canaan,” Schafer says. “If you go three miles to the east, you’re in Switzerland County and if you go three miles to the north you’re in Ripley County. So since a charter school can draw students from any part of the state, we’re having a lot of interest in those areas.”
There’s not much to see in this part of Indiana other than lots of farmland. And not many roads.
Karen Hartley’s son attended the old school, and now she’s thinking about sending her grandson to the new one-mostly because of the commute.
“We don’t have a bus that can bring him home,” Hartley says. ”So we have to drive 15 to 18 miles every day to go get him from school. In order to not toss him around to different places.”
But that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the alternative. For some kids in the area, THAT bus ride could take as long as two hours.
And so the efforts by Deena Schafer and others in the community have paid off. They’ve secured donations of furniture computers, library books. Nearly everything in the building is donated. Schafer has even managed to recruit help from the very officials that shut the place down in the first place. A fact she’s quick to point out as she walks around the building
“Even though they (Madison Consolidated Schools) removed all the desk and chairs in the building,” Schafer says. Then when they would get new furniture they would give us a call and ask if we wanted hand me downs.”
The Canaan Community Academy will open its doors in August. And once again, the sound of the old school bell will fill the air.