Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Big Get Smaller ...

I was in Muncie today, and picked up a copy of the Star Press at a gas station because the headline caught my eye:

“The New Kid in the Class: Declining Enrollment shifting Central to 3A Next Year”

I’ve been following the shifting demographics of Indiana communities for years, but this is truly a stunning development.

For traditionalists (which in Indiana means almost everybody), the idea that Muncie Central High School is no longer the Big Bad Bully on the street – not only that, but not in the top 10, the top 20, or the top 100 – is downright disorienting.

In the century where the one-class state basketball tournament was one of Indiana’s defining features, Muncie Central’s pre-eminence was as much a given as the sunrise. Muncie Central won more single-class state championships than anyone else – and more than all of Indianapolis’ or South Bend’s or Gary’s or Fort Wayne’s schools combined – between 1911 and 1997. Muncie Central won their first title by beating John Wooden. Muncie Central won their last title by beating Damon Bailey. Muncie Central was the prime villain when Oscar Robertson and Crispus Attucks smashed the color barrier, and when Milan’s Bobby Plump fired the shot that inspired Hoosiers.

Of course, nothing lasts forever, which in the grand scheme of things is a good thing. But the reaction as reported in Muncie’s paper of record reflected the disorientation. One 73-year-old fan argued that Muncie Central and Muncie South should merge (Muncie North was closed years ago) so the community could continue to compete in the top tier of the IHSAA tournament. “If they combined them, then they would not go to 3A,” said Charles Corn.

Others didn’t want the benefit of increased enrollment from the eradication of Southside to put them back in the upper bracket. Max Linn contended, “I think we could play with any of them in 4A.”

“Play in 4A,” added Marcella Murphy. “We’ve been the best for years and years, and we can still be the best if we are given the chance.”

And then there was this from Max Linn’s wife, Georgia: “We’ll play easier teams (in 3A), so that’s a good thing … when we play Indianapolis Pike and all those big schools, that’s hard for a little school.”

Huh. Is Muncie Central a little school? Well, over the last two years, their enrollment dropped from 1,146 to 945. Compared to Ben Davis’ 4,544 or Carmel’s 4,443, Muncie Central is pretty small. Some of their fans don’t want to compete in a “second-tier” tournament. Others don’t want to keep competing against schools five times their size … even though they are still in the 74th percentile; even though Muncie won its first eight championships by plowing through the opening rounds of the tournament against teams one-twentieth their size.

But there’s something bigger than that going on here. Muncie Central has fallen into the second quartile of high schools because Muncie, the city, is bleeding population; but they are not unique, they are typical.

I took note this fall when Fishers High School, in its fifth year of existence, won the 5A state football championship. Pretty impressive; just as impressive as my high school, Tippecanoe Valley, winning the 1A state football championship in 1979 in its fifth year of existence – beating another small rural school, Hamilton Southeastern (HSE), for the title.

But one of the reasons I took note was because Fishers High School was created just five years ago when it was carved out of HSE. Over the 25 years since little HSE met little TVHS for the small-school state title, HSE grew so fast and so large, that by 2005 it could be split in two … and both halves would still be in the top quartile, larger not only than Tippecanoe Valley but larger than Muncie Central. (In fact, had HSE and Fishers not been split 5 years ago, this year HSE would have been the largest school in the state by 500 students, or 10%, over the #2 school, Ben Davis.)

Meanwhile, Tippecanoe Valley has moved from Class 1A in a 3-class football system, to 3A in a 5-class football system (and, indeed, to 3A in a 4-class basketball system). Is this because Akron and Mentone are thriving, growing metropolises? Uh, no. But they are in the distinct minority of Indiana communities in that they are not, like Muncie, bleeding population from the carotid artery.

Valley is a little smaller than it was 35 years ago – 617 vs. 648 students in the top 4 grades. It moved from the smallest 33% in 1979 to well into the top 50% in 2010 not by growing, but by losing population less rapidly than 80% of the rest of the state. Valley didn’t grow … they just passed 100 other communities that lost 20% of their population, and didn’t quite catch another 100, like Muncie, that lost population at a similar or greater rate, from a larger base.

Here’s the issue. A dozen suburban counties in Indiana are growing like wildflowers. Eighty others – including five central cities and 75 rural communities – are dwindling. Does it matter?

I don’t know. It just makes me uncomfortable.

From a “school size” standpoint, I think the current administration in the executive branch of state government is done pussy-footing around. Big, rich, and growing are going to get an increasing share of the available revenue. Small and stagnant communities are going to be forced into consolidations that may well improve the prospects for some current students. But are the dynamics that are causing them to get smaller going to be addressed? Stay tuned … but don’t wait for the cavalry …

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