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School bells going silent in Clarkfield first time since pioneer days in western Minnesota town

The small community's charter school has made the decision to close as enrollment declines, leaving the community without an operating school for the first time since pioneer days.

Clarkfield Charter 103007 clarkfield magnet 5.JPG
Dakota Ramos is shown as a 10-year-old student in the Clarkfield Charter School in a West Central Tribune file photo from October 2007.
Bill Zimmer / West Central Tribune file photo
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CLARKFIELD — For the first time since pioneer days, school bells will not ring in the Yellow Medicine County community of Clarkfield this September.

On July 19, the board of directors for the Clarkfield Charter School voted to close the only school operating in the community.

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The Yellow Medicine East School District had closed the H.A. Haag Elementary School in Clarkfield in 2009, and had previously ended junior high and senior high classes there.

“It’s a very, very difficult thing,” said Kathy Koetter, director of the charter school about the decision to close. She said the board has been struggling since spring with the issue of whether or not the school could open this year as enrollment continued to decline.

The decision affects eight staff people, including five instructors and custodial, administrative and food service employees.

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Koetter is confident they will “land on their feet” thanks to ample job opportunities in their fields and their strong work performance with the charter school. She said one of the reasons the board made its decision at this time was to avoid putting the staff through the continued uncertainty that existed for their jobs going forward.

Last year, the school operated as a prekindergarten-grade 4 school with 62 students, 40 of them in the K-4 school for which the school receives funding from the state. There were only 35 students enrolled for the coming year, too few to make things work financially, according to Koetter.

“That’s over $100,000 in revenue,” she said of the loss represented by the decline. “That was pretty much the hill we were trying to climb.”

While the community has been very supportive of the school, Koetter said it just no longer appeared feasible to raise the level of support needed.

The charter school was opened in 2007 and began serving more than 60 students in kindergarten through grade 6. Its enrollment peaked a few years later with 75 or 76 students but has been declining ever since.

The director noted that a variety of factors led to the decline. The school is not able to operate its own transportation system, and relies on the Yellow Medicine East District for busing. As a result, it is not able to attract students from areas outside the district, such as Montevideo or Marshall.

Rural demographics in Clarkfield and Yellow Medicine County are not favorable, either. The town of just over 900 people is aging and the population of children in Clarkfield and the surrounding countryside has been shrinking, Koetter said.

Another factor she pointed to is the growing educational options available at this time. Some of the former charter school students are now being home schooled or have enrolled in area private schools.

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The COVID-19 pandemic only accelerated the enrollment decline for the charter school. That’s when some of the parents began homeschooling their children and exploring other educational options.

Another factor was the school’s size. It was too small to offer opportunities in sports and other extracurricular activities. Consequently, it saw a decline in enrollment in grades 5 and 6 as parents sent their children to larger schools where they could participate in the activities the small school could not offer. As a result, it reduced its programming to PreK- 4 last year.

The charter school focused on academics and its ability to offer classes close to home for its young students and their families.

Parents with young children are now faced with the need to send them out of town for school, something they did not want, Koetter said.

Parents “loved this little school,” she said. “We were like a little family. We really were. Everybody working together.”

Right after the vote to close the school, Koetter began notifying staff and parents about the decision so they have time to find new jobs and schools for the year ahead.

“I heard from a lot of parents who are very sad, and thank the school for what they did for the kids,” she said.

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Steve Koetter was serving as director of the Clarkfield Charter School in 2007 when the West Central Tribune published this photo in October 2007 with a story about the newly opened school. He is shown with Olivia Jensen, age 7 at that time.
Bill Zimmer / West Central Tribune file photo

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoors reporter for the West Central Tribune.
He has been a reporter with the West Central Tribune since 1993.

Cherveny can be reached via email at tcherveny@wctrib.com or by phone at 320-214-4335.
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