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South Bend Schools Approve Focus 2018 Plan

The South Bend School Corporation passed the Focus 2018: Design for the Future school plan yesterday with a unanimous vote. South Bend residents filled the meeting room for another opportunity to  voice concerns before school board members voted on the much scrutinized plan. Many parents expressed concern about how quickly the plan would make drastic changes across the school district.

Focus 2018 aims to address enrollment decline and financial difficulties faced by the school district, when property tax caps take effect in 2020. School Board President Stan Wruble previously stated the school corporation can’t afford to wait to make a decision. The school corporation said the school plans accommodate for new graduation requirements the state recently approved.  

Major changes outlined in the approved Focus 2018 plan include a change in school start times, moving fifth grade classes back into elementary schools, closing 3 schools and redrawing boundary lines; all before the start of the 2018-2019 school year.

The goal in changing school boundaries, closing schools and restructuring start times is to streamline transportation, another aspect of the plan that concerned parents. Some parents voiced concerns that changing start times would leave middle school students unsupervised, whether at the beginning of the day or after the school day was over. Middle school students would have the latest start at 9:00 a.m. and the latest ending day at 4:00 p.m.

Currently, the start time of both the intermediate and high school is 7:45 a.m. The school day ends at 2:45 p.m. School officials stated that the plan to restructure start times was based on scientific studies. Staggered school times would also require fewer buses running throughout the day.

Focus 2018 calls for three schools to be closed; Greene Intermediate Center, Brown Intermediate Center and the building that once was Eggleston Elementary. The Eggleston building currently houses the Rise Up Academy, an alternative school, that began in 2010.

More than a thousand students are expected to be reassigned to new schools. Many parents who spoke in front of the board before the vote spoke of their fears of the social ramifications moving students to new schools would have on their children. Some teachers will also be reassigned based on building changes and closures.

Three schools will be repurposed; Perley Primary Fine Arts Academy, Marshall Intermediate Center, and Clay Intermediate School. Perley will house Rise Up for the 2018 school year, while the fine arts magnet program at Perley will be moved to Nuner Elementary. Perley had a lot of parent advocates throughout the process of approving Focus 2018. Many parents, including some that didn’t have kids in the school, said Perley was significant and important to the community.

School officials praised parents for their involvement during the plan approval process. School board member Lesley Wesley said the final vote had nothing to do with parent involvement, but rather to fact that financial decisions had to be made.

“We talk about equality, but we don’t have the money to put the resources into buildings for equity,” Wesley said, “Parent advocacy is not equity, you’re a parent, you should be advocating for your children. When our kids can’t go on field trips to so see the local Nutcracker because there is no funding, we have to think about if we’re going to continue to pour money into brick and mortar or pour money into our children.”

Wesley said politics and emotions cannot play a role when decisions about finances have to be made in the school system.

School board member Rudy Monterrosa proposed an amendment that would delay the repurposing of Perley, by keeping Eggleston open another year. Two board members, including Monterrosa voted in favor of the amendment.

Wesley voted against the amendment and said she couldn’t allow one school to stay open and force other schools to make changes.

“We talk about equity,” she said, “We need to be fair to all students and all parents. If we take Perley and amend for one more year, we have to take every school and get them another year.”

Monterrosa said he understood the hesitation on approving an amendment on the spot, but he said he wanted to make sure the will of constituents was known.

“What I hope is that all of us will continue to work together so that we can do what’s best for our children throughout the South Bend School Corporation, regardless of how we feel about this outcome,” Monterrosa said, “What’s important is that we’re doing this for the youth of South Bend and the youth of this country.”

Superintendent Ken Spells said he thinks the plan can better streamline resources and better service the community.

“I’m proud of this community, and the passion they displayed tonight,” Spells said.

Spells said creating the plan was a challenge because people’s lives will be affected by the changes and teachers should feel confident the school corporation aims for a smooth transition.

“We’re going to make sure with this plan that we take care of our teachers. We know it’s a stress for them,” Spells said, “We’re working with them with HR, and I don’t want them stressed out during the Christmas break.”

President of the National Education Association in South Bend, Jason Zook said in general teachers are keeping an open mind toward the plan. He said there’s a lot of unknowns at the moment for how things will work out but said something had to be done in regards to declining enrollment and loss of funds.

“Now we know exactly what the plan is going to be. Now we can sit with the administration and talk about those pieces that are concerns, how some of these things will look,” Zook said, “As they create those details, we will react to those details.”

The U.S. Department of Justice will review Focus 2018 before it goes into effect to ensure new district maps are in compliance with government school desegregation rules.

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