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Teachers, parents criticize ECS plan to close, repurpose Hawthorne Elementary School

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Screenshot of YouTube
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Elkhart Community Schools Superintendent Steve Thalheimer speaks during a Feb. 7 community meeting about the potential closure of Hawthorne Elementary School.

Late last month, Elkhart Community Schools Superintendent Steve Thalheimer unveiled plans to close Hawthorne Elementary School and repurpose it into a pre-K and community hub.

But the proposal faced significant criticism from numerous parents and teachers during a Monday night community meeting.

Under the plan, the district would move all Hawthorne students and staff to other schools. The pre-K program at Mary Beck Elementary would relocate to the newest part of Hawthorne’s building, which was built in 2004, and several more classes would be added.

The district would also create a satellite student services office and a new “community hub” in the older half of the building — the oldest section dates back to 1929 — with potential programs promoting kindergarten readiness and providing physical and mental health services for students.

During the Monday meeting, Thalheimer said enrollment declines mean the district has lost millions of dollars in funding over the past several years. And now, it also is facing staff shortages.

“We are behind the number of teachers that we need to give ideal class sizes to our students, to be able to ensure that there is a licensed teacher in every classroom to teach those students,” Thalheimer said.

He said it would cost upwards of $5 million to fully renovate Hawthorne as a K-6 school, but only $1 million to renovate part of it for an expanded pre-K center. Overall, it would save the district around $232,000 a year, and that consolidation would also reduce class sizes.

But numerous parents and teachers say the plan is a mistake, including Bruce Klonowski. He worked for Elkhart Community Schools for 47 years, including over a decade as Hawthorne’s principal.

“When you close a school, you take away the culture,” Klonowski said. “And as you have said, you move students here, there and everywhere. It’s not the same — it will never be the same.”

Vernique, who only gave her first name, said she’s zoned for Concord Community Schools but sends her kids to Elkhart because of the teachers at Hawthorne.

“My kids come home and call me their names — and I’m pretty sure they call them ‘mom’ too,” she said. “They have other mothers here. They’ve got 10 of them.”

But she, and several other speakers, said they believe a decision has already been made and that the board will close Hawthorne no matter the feedback.

Rebecca Kimball, who has a sixth grader at the school, called the proposal a “band-aid.”

“You’re just shuffling kids around, you’re shuffling parents around, and the parents don’t like that,” Kimball said.

JoAnn Paulson is a teacher at Hawthorne, and thanked parents for coming to the meeting.

“I went K through 6 here, my kids went here, I’m the third Paulson to teach here,” Paulson said. “When I pulled into the parking lot and I saw the cars, I was like ‘That is the pride of the South Side.’”

Paulson said staff are “reeling,” and only found out about the potential closure a few weeks ago.

“I guess I want to ask what the rush is?” she said. “Can we have some time to work out a plan?”

In response, Thalheimer said the main driver is the staffing situation.

“Our hope was that coming into this school year, enrollment would bounce back. It didn’t,” he said. “Maybe if we held on through the first semester, we’d get enough staff members to fill our vacant positions. That didn’t happen.”

Elkhart Community Schools will be holding more public meetings on the potential changes this Wednesday and Thursday.

After that, the board is expected to vote on the plan at its next meeting.

Elkhart Community Schools is the licensee of WVPE.

Contact Jakob at jlazzaro@wvpe.org or follow him on Twitter at @JakobLazzaro.

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Jakob Lazzaro comes to Indiana from Chicago, where he graduated from Northwestern University in 2020 with a degree in Journalism and a double major in History. Before joining WVPE, he wrote NPR's Source of the Week e-mail newsletter, and previously worked for CalMatters, Pittsburgh's 90.5 WESA and North by Northwestern.