Healy High School survives on small-town vibes

As one drives into Healy, population 230 residents, the school and reminders of it are never far from view.
As one drives into Healy, population 230 residents, the school and reminders of it are never far from view. The Wichita Eagle

Since the town’s beginning in the late 19th century, Healy High School has been the community’s focal point.

Drive into town and the first thing a visitor sees is the football field with a welcome sign that reads: “Home of the Eagles — We support our school.”

Unfortunately, this will be one of the first years in a long time the school hasn’t had a football team.

Beverly Roemer is principal of what will most likely be the tiniest high school in Kansas — Healy High School has 23 students. The designation won’t officially come until later this month when the state collects enrollment figures from the state’s 286 school districts.

Last year, Tipton High School was the smallest with 15 students. This year, Tipton, in Mitchell County, has 25 students.

Roemer is disappointed with the numbers.

“It makes me sad in that we have so much to offer kids,” she said.

It is the dilemma many small towns in Kansas face: How to balance dwindling populations, fewer children and a smaller tax base against school and community pride, generational roots and a passionate sense of belonging.

“I can’t say I am proud we are the smallest school because in some people’s eyes, they’ll say, ‘Then, why do you even stay open?’ Roemer said.

“But we stay open because we do offer a lot. We have good teachers and a beautiful school. Our kids are our best asset.”

With the price of oil and farm crops continuing to fall, finding the funds and resources to keep schools going in a rural community is a struggle. As the schools go, so goes the community in many cases.

“You can’t escape the idea that the school is the center of the community,” said Mark Tallman, associate executive director of the Kansas Association of School Boards in Topeka. “They are very valued and most of the time, communities want to do everything they can to keep them open and viable.”

But how do you do it in a community with only 230 residents or a county with a population of 1,700?

‘Hub of the community’

Healy, located in Lane County, is about a four-hour drive northwest of Wichita. It is on the high plains of western Kansas, almost the same distance from Wichita as it is from Denver.

The landscape is mostly tabletop flat with fields of milo, corn and wheat stretching into the horizon.

One of the largest employers in town is Sharp Brothers Seed Co., which has sold seeds throughout the world for more than 50 years.

“The school is the hub of the community,” said Dan Sharp, president of the company. He is a 1980 graduate of the school; his son Tyler is a 2005 grad.

“Life, in my opinion, should revolve around your children. Without a school, your community just dies quicker or just dies fast.

“I employ about 60 people, and it would be very tough to get employees to live in Healy if we didn’t have a school.”

Small schools, Tallman said, offer an intimacy that larger schools rarely can provide.

“The connection is strong (in smaller schools) but it becomes a bigger challenge in offering a broader curriculum, programs and services,” Tallman said.

The red brick school in Healy houses classrooms for 43 elementary students in addition to the 23 high schoolers.

Roemer, the principal, calls it a home away from home.

This past week, late summer garden produce spilled across her desk — a mix of tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchini. The mix of vegetables was brought in by staff to share — an example of small-town benevolence.

In 1972, Roemer graduated from Healy High School as Beverly Wilson. The school’s athletic director, Dana Shay, graduated in 1974; the math teacher, Brian Brooks, is a 1966 graduate, and the head maintenance custodian, James Ribbing, graduated in 1987.

Local residents often come in to volunteer at the school and fill in the workforce gaps. It is a classic example of how small town schools survive.

“When schools get that small, it becomes a real challenge — how do we get someone to come into the community?” Tallman said.

“Very often the schools that are successful have roots — people who are graduates and come back or who marry locally. It can be a challenge to attract and keep quality staff.”

As the population of the town has declined, Roemer said the school began taking in students from surrounding schools who may have special needs or whose families want them to have more one-on-one care and instruction.

The annual Healy School District budget is about $1.8 million, said Larry Lysel, Healy’s part-time school superintendent. By comparison, the state’s largest school district — Wichita public schools — has a budget of $662 million.

High schools that are small often have to have enough local wealth to be able to survive, even with state assistance, Tallman said. That becomes an increased struggle with aging rural populations.

“Sometimes the local tax base becomes so small, it becomes difficult to maintain facilities,” Tallman said.

Healy has adjusted. It has cut the number of days in its school week from five to four. A school day runs from 7:55 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Lysel is only in Healy four days a month. The district shares him with Palco. And the school has a counselor who comes in one day a week. The other three days, Roemer said, she often serves in the role of counselor for the students.

Roemer had retired from teaching several years ago but was asked to come back a few years ago — first to teach, then to become the principal.

Healy High School has eight full-time teachers and four part-time.

“It takes the same amount of money to run our school as it takes a school twice or three times our size,” Roemer said. “What will happen if our school closes?”

The number of schools in Kansas is slowly shrinking. According to the Kansas Association of School Boards, there were 307 school districts in Kansas in 1980; in 2016 the number is 286.

But for now, the Healy school staff focuses on what it can do, working to give individual attention to each of the students.

“We are so small, we know if someone’s grandmother dies. We know when someone’s cat dies,” Roemer said, an advantage to help school staff provide critical attention in times of need.

And it still maintains school activities so students can get involved. Although football will not be one of the options this year.

Five boys from Healy tried out for this year’s football team. The school partners with Ransom’s school district 37 miles away, but only one Ransom boy tried out.

“It was us carrying the team, and we didn’t have enough people to play our first game,” said senior Miguel Gonzalez. “This is the first year I haven’t played football … and it’s my last year.”

Despite the occasional challenges, it is unlikely the state’s smallest high school will close anytime soon, town residents say.

“They have been saying we will close since I graduated,” said Shay, the school’s athletic director and a 1974 graduate.

Small town woes

In many ways, Healy experiences the same things that other small towns across Kansas do.

At Tipton in Mitchell County, Gery Hake, principal of the Tipton Catholic School, said his school’s operating budget is about $320,000. Like Healy, the population is largely agricultural.

But what makes Tipton a bit different is how the school raises money. Each year — the first Saturday in August — Tipton holds a fundraiser in which more than $150,000 of the school’s budget is raised.

Alumni return and the town bands together. More than 1,000 people come back for the annual fundraiser to the town of 210 residents.

“Everybody here knows the importance of the school,” Hake said. “They are willing to help out.

“If we need drivers, people to run the concession stands, they show up. We do not have to worry about having them not show up.”

The school also uses an endowment that has been set up and the rest of its budget comes through donations through the Catholic Church, Hake said.

Each year, more than 90 percent of its graduates go on to community colleges or state universities.

“We have also had a few go into the military but at least the majority go on to a college of some kind,” Hake said. “And, the majority end up graduating from college.”

Daily life

For more than a century, the names of the graduates of Healy High School have been written on the school’s walls inside the building.

The names wind through the hallways. Many of the same family names are repeated with each generation.

School begins each morning at Healy when students — first graders through seniors — gather at the flagpole and recite the Pledge of Allegiance and sing the national anthem.

It is a noisy and bustling school with students interacting with all age groups.

“The best part is that there are nice people here,” said 10-year-old Randi Reed. “This is the best school and you can always say, ‘I need help. Hello!’ ”

The school is also about encouraging empathy and compassion among its students, Roemer said.

Freshman Eva Aliesen transferred this year from Scott City.

“Healy was like a home away from home,” she said. “I like it here more than my own home because it has so many things to do. I’m learning stuff I didn’t know how to do.

“And everyone here is like a gigantic family. Everyone sticks up for one another.”

Beccy Tanner: 316-268-6336, @beccytanner