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Elkhart Community Schools board votes to close Hawthorne Elementary School, repurpose into pre-K hub

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Hawthorne Elementary
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Dating back to 1929, Hawthorne is ECS's oldest elementary school building.

Despite objections from parents, the Elkhart Community Schools board voted 5 to 2 Tuesday night to close Hawthorne Elementary School and repurpose the building into a pre-K and community hub.

The district unveiled plans to close Hawthorne in January, and held several community meetings on the matter in February and March.

With the closure, Mary Beck Elementary’s current pre-K program will relocate to the newest part of Hawthorne’s building — which was built in 2004 — and several more classes will be added.

The district will also create a satellite student services office and a new “community hub” in the older half of the building.

Multiple school board members said Tuesday that the district is facing enrollment declines and staff shortages — Elkhart Community Schools has capacity for 17,000 students, but currently only has 11,000 — and so the closure will save money while reducing class sizes.

“There’s a huge level of distrust in this community, and this district earned that distrust,” board member Anne VonDerVellen said. “But at the end of the day, the bottom line is our kids need to get an education, and they need to have a teacher in their classroom. That’s what our priority has to be.”

But the decision faced intense public criticism. Parent Jason Moreno said it will negatively impact Elkhart’s south side.

“We’re contributing to instability by moving students around that entire side of town,” Moreno said. “It’s just another arc on a trajectory of slights that this neighborhood and this community has suffered.”

Republican Blake Doriot represents the 12th district in the Indiana State Senate, which includes Hawthorne Elementary and portions of Elkhart.

He said he understands the challenges Elkhart Community Schools faces, but that the process has not involved parents and pushed teachers away.

“I understand that four teachers have turned in their resignations and are going to be looking for other jobs elsewhere,” Doriot said.

The district is currently conducting a study to determine the impact of the closure. But Doriot said the results of that study will likely lead to closing another school.

“Part of what I was worried about, and I expressed that to the superintendent in our phone call, was that some of these students could be required to be moved twice to different schools in one year, two years, something like that,” Doriot said.

He asked the district to wait until the study was completed before considering the closure.

Board member Doug Weaver voted against the proposal and said the process of gathering community input was improper.

For example, he said at least one of the community meetings over Hawthorne’s closure was not properly posted ahead of time, potentially in violation of the Indiana Open Door Law.

In addition, Weaver said alternatives to the closure — including a Hispanic-focused charter school — were not fully considered.

Board member Kellie Mullins also voted no. She said many Hawthorne parents are Spanish speakers, and that they were not properly notified of the potential closure.

“I feel like how we handled this — in my terms — shady,” Mullins said. “And I won’t participate in that.”

Because of the closure, 335 Hawthorne students will move to Roosevelt Elementary, 66 to Monger and 96 to Daly.

But to maintain student-to-teacher ratios, 300 students will also move out of Roosevelt Elementary, which Mullins also criticized.

“We’re moving students that we never knew about, we’re changing districts that we never knew about,” she said. “We have students that have no idea where they’re going or if they’re even moving.”

The majority — 190 students — will move to Mary Beck Elementary. The remaining 110 students live in the Washington Gardens apartment complex. Sixty of those students will also attend Mary Beck, while 34 will move to Riverview and 16 will move to Beardsley.

District officials said in early March that 13 Hawthorne teachers will initially be placed at Roosevelt Elementary and seven at Mary Beck, making both schools’ student-to-teacher ratios approximately 20 to 1.

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.