ELKHART — Elkhart Community Schools held the first of four public meetings Monday night providing updates on the district’s fiscal status and priorities and collecting feedback on ways to attract and retain students
The sparsely attended forum, called “Educating Right,” was held at the St. James AME Church on Elkhart’s south side. The meetings are designed to enhance transparency on the district’s initiatives and allow the community to be a part of the discussion, leaders said.
Superintendent Steve Thalheimer said 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.
Some positions were eliminated, such as the assistant superintendent and a director of elementary instruction, who both retired, or the supervisor of community partnerships, district graduation facilitator, and the energy education specialist, who each moved from the district level to building-level roles that opened up during the spring and summer.
During the May primary, district voters turned down an operating referendum that would have generated almost $16 million over eight years with a primary goal of helping to attract and retain teachers and staff by increasing pay and benefits. It would have also raised property taxes.
“One of the things that I heard a lot of during the referendum is that we’re administratively heavy, so every time we have an opportunity to look at a position through attrition and determine do we absolutely need to replace it, we’re making that decision and in many instances have chosen not to,” Thalheimer said.
Assuming enrollment would be down as a district, Thalheimer said, the corporation also cut 30 teaching positions for this school year through attrition, resignations or retirements. 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.
These teaching cuts, which include salaries and benefits, together would amount to about $1.9 million in savings, Thalheimer said
To help with teacher retention, Thalheimer said an exit interview process was put in place Aug. 1 where outgoing teachers would share positive and challenging experiences at ECS and share on a scale of 1 to 5 how much it contributed to their decision to leave.
Elkhart’s official average daily membership (ADM) enrollment for September 2019 is at 12,114, down 108 from September 2018, Thalheimer said. State funding for education is determined by a school district's ADM.
“With the increase in state tuition support in last year's budget, a school can experience a slight decline in enrollment and still receive new funds when all factors are put into the funding formula,” he said. “Because the state increased the base amount it provides per student, that increase per student, even for fewer students, can result in overall new dollars.”
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.
Thalheimer listed three initiatives the district is emphasizing this year. One is the shelter immersion observation protocol, or SIOP, which is an introduction to help teachers understand the process by which students acquire a second language.
“So more specifically for our Hispanic populations (this instruction) would ensure that our teachers have the tools and the understanding to be able to build that foundational knowledge in creating language vocabulary-rich environments through which students can access English,” he said.
Secondly, Thalheimer said, all staff members in all buildings are working on trauma-informed practices so they can know how to build those relationships with students while also learning how to de-escalate behaviors and get the students to a position where they’re ready to learn.
All of this is happening within the context of the district’s third initiative, Professional Learning Communities.
PLCs put teachers together by department and have them work as a group to determine the best methods for teaching their subjects. These groups ask themselves what students need to know to succeed in school, what courses need to be taught, what students need to be able to do after taking a course and how the educators will determine if the students have learned a topic sufficiently.
“Our goal in that is to express that confidence in our teachers and create an environment where teachers can share work, best practices and create an environment in which they’re trusted to do the work they’re supposed to do as professionals,” Thalheimer said.
ELKHART 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.
Elkhart Memorial Principal Cary Anderson, who will serve as the new high school’s executive principal, said the vision behind the unified Elkhart High School is to ensure that students are college- and career-ready after they graduate.
The new Elkhart High School is comprised of six schools of study within one high school: Arts and Communication; Business and International Relations; Engineering, Technology and Industry; Health and Public Safety; Human Services; and Natural Resources.
Anderson said state standards, guaranteed and viable curriculum are the same across all schools of study, but themes, topics, resources and materials are connected to the chosen school of study.
“So if I’m the math teacher in the School of Business and International Relations, I need to figure out how to pull those resources, topics and concepts from the business world into my math classroom,” Anderson said. "The third piece is, how can I be a good teacher with a team of teachers around this theme? How can I collaborate with the social studies, science, language arts and all the electives within that theme?”
Anderson said having six schools of study provides students the opportunity to connect with other students with similar aspirations and with teachers who can make meaningful connections to their college and career paths; each school of study is supported by an advisory board consisting of community/business partners; students will take as many classes within the school of study as possible; and teachers, administration, support personnel are all connected to a specific school.
What the schools of studies doesn’t mean is that once a student picks a school, they can’t change.
“We think knowing what you don’t like is sometimes just as important as knowing what you do like,” Anderson said. “Students can change schools during their careers. The diploma/graduation will not be affected. Students will learn with all the same standards just through a different theme.
Anderson said the schools of study will include the Elkhart Area Career Center.
“Enrollment in EACC programs should increase and new programs could and should be developed,” he said. “EACC will still be a standalone education center, but EHS will be connected more than ever to the EACC programs.”
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.
The district plans to hold graduation for all seniors at the same location.
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.
The Thoughtexchanges will close on Oct. 31.
After the meeting, Abbie Albaugh, an Elkhart resident, said she appreciated the district’s efforts to be more transparent with fiscal matters and its program of reaching out to the community to answer questions and concerns and to get feedback.
She said she has a 1-year-old who may be attending ECS in the future and the meetings will help her be better informed.
“I’m a working parent and can’t always go to the school board meetings to hear what’s happening, and until this meeting, I had no idea what was going on,” she said. “I like the fact that (the district) is finally coming out to the community and saying this is what we’re doing to give parents a better idea of what’s going on. To hear these conversations coming out is exciting.”
• 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 15, at Bristol Elementary School
• 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 16, at Mary Feeser Elementary School
• 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 17, at West Side Middle School