MAHOMET — It’s a common theme in this town — so much so that it’s almost assumed.
“We moved here because of the schools like everybody else,” said Brooks Marsh, a Montana native who has lived in Illinois since 1990. He and his wife, Tammy, owners of Mahomet IGA, have six children and raised them in Mahomet. They lived about 21 years in Sandy Ridge subdivision and now — with the last youth in college — have moved to a more rural location just across the Piatt County line.
Mahomet businessman Evan El Koury, vice chairman of the Mahomet Area Chamber of Commerce board and owner of Raptor Power Systems, grew up in New Jersey. His wife is a native of Savoy.
“Once our children came of age to go to school, we looked around and decided that Mahomet was the best place to come, which I think is what a lot of people do,” El Koury said. “Without the schools, I wouldn’t be here. My business wouldn’t be there. I wouldn’t have the same people I have. I wouldn’t know all the people that I know. I wouldn’t be doing this. It’s because of the school system.”
Walter Pierce, Chamber of Commerce director, also attributes much of Mahomet’s muscle as a growing community to the Mahomet-Seymour school district.
“That’s what’s really going to help Mahomet grow, is the school system is so strong,” Pierce said. “A lot of people will say we don’t have manufacturing out here, there’s nothing to bring people with jobs, and that’s true; it’d be nice to get a couple small ones out here. But we’re always going to draw because of the school district.”
Academic performance recognized at the national level? Check.
Athletics programs that routinely garner regional titles and state medals and trophies? Check.
Arts and other extracurriculars that consistently earn accolades? Check.
There are many reasons why the Mahomet-Seymour school district is in demand.
It’s about people
Naturally, Superintendent Lindsey Hall is one of the strongest advocates for the Mahomet-Seymour school district. She knows that “the word” is out about Mahomet-Seymour’s schools — and she talked to the Citizen recently about many of the reasons why the district stands out.
“There absolutely is a reputation of excellence academically, and in extracurriculars — and when I say ‘extracurriculars,’ I mean athletics, fine arts, clubs, activities — we have just a wide variety of opportunities that I hope and I think meets the needs of most if not all of our students,” Hall said. “What makes us excellent? First of all, it’s the people you hire, for sure, at the top of the list.
“There are many, many places in Illinois that are really suffering in terms of the teacher shortage, and while we are feeling the effects of that, it certainly is not full-blown here. We continue to attract really what we think is top-quality talent to put in front of our students. So I think that — it’s the people. I have to attribute it to just who you hire, the relationships they establish with students.”
Longtime Mahomet-Seymour High School staffer Chad Benedict, previously assistant principal and now incoming new principal for the high school this year, seconds that notion that it’s the quality of people who make the school district what it is.
“No. 1, we have great students, and No. 2, we have great staff, and that’s a great combination to have,” he said. “I think we have students who inspire staff, and staff inspire students. A lot of times, I’ll get staff that come into my office and talk about, ‘You won’t believe what happened in my room today,’ or ‘You won’t believe what happened in last night’s game’ or last night’s play or last night’s math contest.
“You continue to be blown away and so people get inspired and it motivates them to do well for their kids,” Benedict added. “Our staff’s motivated to work hard for our kids.”
People who make this school district excel obviously include the students themselves, Hall said in agreement with Benedict.
“But when we start talking about the accolades, such as the U.S. News and World Report (recent high ranking), then you’re talking about the performance of our top academic students. While that’s certainly important, we feel that we do an outstanding job of meeting the needs of all of our students — meeting students where they’re at,” she said. “We have students that come from a variety of backgrounds, with a variety of talents and abilities, and our goal is to serve them the best way possible and help them grow and learn and move toward their potential.
“I don’t know that you reach your potential when you graduate from high school; I think there’s still a lot more to do after that (but) I think our high school offers a wide variety of classes to take. We have a very strong CTE (Career Tech Ed) program. We have a very strong foreign language programs. We have a wide selection of advanced placement classes and dual credit courses, as well. I would love to just continue to see those expand and see opportunities expand.
“In our elementary schools, the most important thing we do is reading instruction and continuing to prepare kids to move on to the next level. I’m in classrooms a lot, and we do an outstanding job.
“I think that the people are attracted to Mahomet for a variety of reasons. Coming for the schools — that means a lot of different things,” Hall said.
Staff changes brought up
Mahomet-Seymour parents and residents are deeply invested in the local school district, as shown by the strong interest in this spring’s school board races. One topic discussed by some voters was a change in personnel in multiple administrator positions all in a rather short period of time. Hall knows what that’s like.
Serving as superintendent since 2017, she first worked in the district from 1994 to 2005, living in Mahomet from 1997 to 2005. She then left for a time to grow in her career as a principal.
Administrator and staff changes aren’t something about which she’s worried.
“They kind of fall into a couple of categories,” Hall said. “One is that we have people retire. They’ve dedicated themselves to a life of service to others and put in the appropriate amount of years and they retire. So, in all different job categories, we have people retiring. Since I’ve been here in 2017, we’ve had now four administrators retire. That’s a lot in two years.
“So there’s retirements. Every year, we have a group of teachers that retire, and some paraprofessionals, and maybe custodians and bus drivers. We’re going to have retirements. That’s part of the turnover.
“Another part of the turnover is people move on to bigger and better things,” Hall added. “I can go through the list of administrators who have left and for the most part have gotten promotions into jobs that they were seeking. Maybe the timing wasn’t right for them to do it here, but there was an opportunity in another place to do it. Why that all came together in the two years since I’ve been here, I can’t speak to that other than to say that, if you were to read their letters of resignation, it was a heartfelt decision to leave but it was also like, ‘I’m attaining a career goal.’
“So (former Mahomet-Seymour High School Principal) Shannon Cheek, moving on to a superintendency. Justin Franzen moved into a high school athletic director’s position. Chris Forman moved into an elementary principalship. The list goes on and on.”
And, Hall said, it’s not always a bad thing if staffers leave for other reasons, too.
“As far as teachers leaving — people leave. I don’t know how to explain that. I don’t have a sense that it’s a negative thing,” she said. “People’s partners get jobs and they need to move. Family situations change and they need to move. Other opportunities come along and they need to move. So that’s been my experience.
“And then, you know, we’re a huge organization — we employ more than 400 people, and so we’re in the top 20 employers in terms of number of employees in Champaign County,” Hall said. “You inevitably will have people who leave your organization because they’re not happy. And sometimes that is an excellent decision for that person and for the organization. I don’t necessarily look at that as a negative thing.
“I don’t see staff turnover as being negative. That’s not the feedback I’ve gotten,” she added. “Certainly people can look at it however they want to look at it. I think I have a little bit of inside information on it. It would be ridiculous for me to sit here and say, though, that with 400 employees there aren’t some people who might move on because they don’t like working here. But that’s fine. That happens.”
Hall noted her own departure and return to Mahomet-Seymour schools.
“For the people who are moving on to higher their career aspirations, they’ve gotten a great groundwork here,” she said. “I can speak for that too. I left in 2005. I had an opportunity to become a high school principal. I was ready for a change and the name of this school district, I think, strongly, held great value when I moved up north.”
But there are many reasons why she returned.
“My own children went to school here — my two youngest,” Hall noted. “So we raised kids in this community, and I was extremely honored to come back and be the superintendent.”
Student population on the rise
Naturally, with more and more people moving to Mahomet and the Mahomet-Seymour school district, student population is continually going up. In January, the school board and the Village of Mahomet Board of Trustees held a joint meeting to look at demographics and an enrollment projection study on which the two bodies collaborated.
It looks at growth through the next decade.
Among its statistics: Total district enrollment is forecasted to increase by 315 students, or 10.1 percent, between 2018-19 and 2023-24. Total enrollment will increase by 186 students, or 5.4 percent, from 2023-24 to 2028-29
“The village board and the school board … felt that it was worthwhile to have this study done so that we could have some kind of numbers … it’s what’s called a ‘forecast’ — it doesn’t mean that it’s going to come true; it’s kind of like a weather forecast — this is what you’re pretty sure is going to happen,” Hall explained. “It indicates for the next five years a pretty steady increase, but slow and manageable, and that’s what we’ve seen in the past.
“(So far) it’s just been like in the 1 percent range, which means 30 or 40 students (each year), give or take, and when that’s spread out over pre-K through 12th grade, then that’s manageable. We anticipate that that’s going to continue, and don’t see a reason why we would see any kind of decrease in enrollment. That’s not predicted to happen.”
For the coming 2019-20 school year, district enrollment is expected to be about 3,200.
As more students join the rolls at Mahomet-Seymour, some parents have voiced concerns about class size potentially increasing. This, too, was expressed by a segment of voters during the spring school board races, in which three newcomers were elected to the board of education.
Again, Hall remains confident that the district has this area of educating Mahomet-Seymour students in mind and under control.
“We know that as we grow, we need to add staff, and we’ve done that,” the superintendent said. “What I have to say about class size is this: There’s no doubt it is important in a child’s experience in learning. For sure, it is. It becomes more important when you have a very high percentage of low-income students attending your schools. Those students are more at risk for learning, and more at risk for dropping out, and so there is research and evidence that says that when you have a high poverty school district, that lower class sizes really make a greater impact.
“It makes an impact on populations such as ours, which, we’re at about 23 percent low income districtwide, but there are also other factors that have a greater effect on learning and achievement, and what that means is, has a greater impact on it,” Hall explained. “So while class size is important, there are other factors and other types of staff we can add which also can impact student learning and achievement in a positive way. If there were a magic number for class size, then everybody would probably be doing it. So you have to take into consideration: What are our resources? What can we pay for? And at the end of the day, we have to be able to afford it. And then the second thing you have to look at is: Do you have space for it?
“You just have to continue to monitor where your bubbles are,” she added. “For instance, we know right now our fourth-grade class is one of the largest classes — it’s like 255 kids. So there’s 10 classrooms in fourth grade this year, and as fourth grade moves up to fifth grade, then one of those teachers is going to be going with the class to teach fifth grade. Because we can’t take 10 sections of fourth grade and put it into nine sections of fifth grade, otherwise we’ll have class sizes of 30 or 31, and that’s too big.
“We do have class size guidelines, and when we approach the high end of that, then we have discussions about, ‘OK, we might need to add a teacher and lower the class size.’ A lot of discussion and thought has to go into that. We can’t just add unlimited numbers of teachers because … salaries and benefits are the largest proportion of our budget. Those are ongoing costs and they’re also compounding costs. Those costs don’t go down; they only go up.”
She acknowledges that these aspects of education in general may be complicated but aren’t any less vital for Mahomet-Seymour students.
“Those are super important decisions because they touch kids directly,” Hall said.
Benedict said growth is on the minds of administrators and staffers across the district.
“I think with some of the projected numbers in the district that they’ve given us, I think we have to be cognizant of growth,” he said. “We have conversations about, ‘How can we be proactive instead of reactive?’ There’s a lot — from facilities to curriculum to staffing — and then still meet the needs of our kids and our staff.
“You want to try and be out in front of that as much as you can. There’s a lot of thought about growth.”