LAGRANGE — By 10:30 a.m. Wednesday morning, Lakeland Jr./Sr. High School Principal Robert Albaugh has already spent a lot of time on his feet.

A quick glance at his phone’s health meter showed Albaugh had already taken more than 10,740 steps in just the first couple of hours of the first day of school at the new Jr./Sr. High School.

“My average is about 12,000 steps a day, but I think today I might be able to break my personal one-day record of 22,000 steps,” Albaugh said. “It’s called management by walking around.”

For the first time in its more than 50-plus-year history, Lakeland is now the home to both junior and senior high school students. Like so many other rural school districts across the state, Lakeland spent the last couple of years watching its student population dwindle, and along with it, its state funding.

Last school year, Lakeland Superintendent Eva Merkel announced the school corporation would lose more than $700,000 because of those decreases, and said the system was on its way to losing $900,000 this school year if nothing changed.

So, after months of meeting with parents and staff, listening to various options, Lakeland’s school board members voted to close two of the school system’s three elementary schools, downsizing its footprint, shrinking its payroll and realigning the school system into its three remaining buildings.

Now, instead of a staffing and managing a high school building, a middle school building and three elementary schools, Lakeland has a Jr./Sr. high school for students in grades seven through 12, an intermediate school for students in grades three through six and a primary school for students K through second grade. That realignment is expected to save the school district more than $1 million this year.

Wednesday was the first official school day for the new Lakeland Jr./Sr. High School, and the day was devoted more about making sure every one of the nearly 900 students understand where they will be going to classes then it was about the actual classes. That work, teachers say, starts on Thursday.

All in all, Albaugh said the new school got off to a pretty good start. One of the biggest tasks that had to be completed Wednesday was getting both the staff and the students new ID cards.

Under the watchful eye of Assistant Principal Jason Schackow, groups of students walked into the school’s auxiliary gym throughout the day Wednesday and were told to sit down in the bleachers to wait their turn at one of four photo stations. Seventh and eighth grade students were issued IDs bordered in red hanging from a red lanyard. Freshmen, sophomores, junior and seniors have IDs bordered in blue and wear a blue lanyard. Staff members wear gray lanyards.

“Things are going smoothly. I’ve been to every building this morning, loved the feel of the intermediate school because we’re working on processes and teachers getting to know kids,” Merkel said. “Things are going smoothly. Even the preschoolers seem to be settling in.”

Merkel said the student enrollment numbers so far are right about where administrative staff expected them to end up. Some students did leave the school system because of the changes, but other students moved in, leaving the school with a smaller loss than most people expected. Merkel said it’s still too early to know just what that number ultimately will be.

There were several small glitches at each school. For example, no one was assigned to raise the flag at the intermediate school. Impact students at the high school had to eat lunch early today because of a scheduling mistake. Each of those oversights was quickly corrected.

Both staff and students at the Jr./Sr. high school are learning to function without bells. Because of overlapping schedules, the bells would have rung 22 times during the hour and half during the lunch period, so administrators decided to just simply silence the bells.

Even for staff, that might take a little time to get used to.

Albaugh admitted even he has to carry around a small paper copy of the school’s master schedule as he walks around the school.

“We also have staggered periods now, so sometimes there are kids in the halls when I think they shouldn’t be there,” he said. “So I have to carry a handy dandy little chart with me so I know what the release times are for junior high versus senior high.”

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