Elkhart Community Schools forums continue

Community members gather at Bristol Elementary School cafeteria for Elkhart Community Schools second “Educating Right” forum on Tuesday night.

BRISTOL — Elkhart Community Schools officials met with the community a second time to provide updates on the district’s financial status, initiatives and to receive input on ways to attract and retain students.

About 30 people attended the forum called “Educating Right,” which was held in the Bristol Elementary School cafeteria.

Like the previous meeting,  held Oct. 7, Tuesday’s gathering was designed as an opportunity to enhance transparency on the district’s goals and to allow the community to be a part of the discussion.

The evening began with Superintendent Steve Thalheimer giving an overview of the district’s financial status and top initiatives.

The district has made $1.9 million in administrative reductions. The savings included hiring less-experienced administrators in places where veteran administrators had resigned or retired, and reclassification of positions out of administration classification, like the director of building services.

Other cuts included $1.9 million in teaching staff due to lower enrollment, Thailheimer said. Overall, 30 positions were cut. Each of the 14 elementary buildings was asked to reduce by one teacher, the three middle schools by two and the two high schools by five, he said.

Additional steps the district is taking to be more financially stable include using a consultant to analyze its claims; moving telephone communications to a different vendor; moving the Bashor program in-house; en-Focus analysis of food service program and administrative compensation; and investigating the corporate supply contract.

The top three initiatives Thalheimer said the district is emphasizing include shelter immersion observation protocol, trauma informed practices and professional learning communities.

Speaking next was Kelly Berheide, vice principal at Elkhart Central, who provided an update on the district’s unified high school.

The 2019-20 school year will be the final year that Central and Memorial operate as separate high schools, with upcoming seniors being the last graduating class of their respective campuses.

There will be six different schools of study geared to a specific career path such as engineering, human services, health and safety, and arts and communications.

Berheride will be principal of the arts and communications school.

Questions arose about the timeline of transition. Berheide said the 2021-22 school year will serve as a transitional year for the high school.

That’s when all construction will be completed and Elkhart High School will serve students in grades 10 through 12 at Memorial’s existing campus, 2608 California Road. Students in Grade 9 will attend the freshman division at Central’s current campus at One Blazer Blvd.

Other updates Berheide mentioned was that the new main office at the high school is finishing up soon – 99 percent complete. The student center remodel was finished in August; the new music area will be completed by the end of 2019; the district’s engineering technology and innovation building broke ground in September; and renovation for the Elkhart Area Career Center will begin in 2020.

Following the updates, Thalheimer walked attendees through a social media-like app called Thoughtexchange that the district will use to collect the community’s input on ways to attract and retain students while being fiscally responsible.

Through Thoughtexchange, participants will be asked in 300 characters or less to share ideas for fiscal responsibility and for attracting and retaining students. All participation is anonymous. After entering ideas, participants then move to the next screen where they’ll be able to rank ideas presented by others on a scale of 1 to 5 stars.

So far, the top suggestion on the app is that the district needs to attract and retain good teachers to attract and retain good students. The suggestion was ranked by 46 participants with a 4.2 star ranking.

The Thoughtexchanges will close on Oct. 31.

From December into January the school board will consider the recommendations from Thoughtexachange results and administrator analysis. The board will vote for two to three focus areas for the district administration to pursue.

The administrative team will then develop and execute the action plan based on the school board’s decision in the spring semester 2020.

The third forum was scheduled to be held at Mary Feeser Elementary School on Wednesday night and the final session will be at West Side Middle School at 6:30 p.m. Thursday.

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