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South Bend Empowerment Zone will continue through 2026 as education leaders tout positive growth

Justin Hicks

After conversations this year surrounding the future of a group of schools on the west side of South Bend, school officials recently gave the OK for South Bend’s Empowerment Zone to continue into 2026.

In 2019 after years of receiving failing school grades from the Indiana Department of Education, South Bend school leaders put together a plan to intervene and prevent a potential state takeover of Navarre Middle School and its feeder elementary schools.

That plan led to the creation of the autonomous entity called the Empowerment Zone which included increased academic and financial support for those handful of schools. The Zone is part of the district but has control over its own curriculum, scheduling and school-level spending.

Proponents of the Zone say recent test scores show progress is being made, but not everyone is convinced as the unique system moves forward for at least two more years.

South Bend Superintendent Todd Cummings, for one, feels the Zone still serves a purpose.

“We don’t walk away from academic interventions,” Cummings said.

The Empowerment Zone was originally set up to run through 2024, but talks began this year among administrators over the Zone’s future after the announced closure of Warren Elementary, one of the schools in the Zone.

Last month, schools boards of both the district and the Empowerment Zone approved a resolution that will see the Zone operate until at least June of 2026. At that point, both boards would have to vote to keep the Zone going beyond then.

Officials like Zone Board President Sam Centellas, say the de facto extension will provide stability, which is much needed since the Zone launched just months before the COVID-19 pandemic and didn’t get the chance to hit the ground running.

“I think as we started laying some groundwork in that initial year and we were able to do some good work during the pandemic, we’re just now getting into that momentum building of seeing the work done over the last few years come to fruition,” Centellas said.

The Empowerment Zone’s board, which unanimously voted to approve the new resolution. Centellas added the defined runway gives the Zone time to evaluate recently implemented policies like clear backpacks and dress codes.

Clear backpacks have since become standard throughout the whole district.

Zone CEO Davion Lewis said internal data shows disciplinary infractions and down and attendance is up, but he pointed to recent ILEARN scores as a strong positive indicator. According to data from the state, Empowerment Zone schools had higher growth rates on both English and math scores than the South Bend district at large and higher than state averages.

But not everyone is sold on the continuance of the Zone. South Bend’s school board passed the resolution by a 4-3 margin with board members Jeanette McCullough, Mark Costello and Leslie Wesley voting against the measure.

McCullough has often spoken against the zone and said at a recent meeting that Zone schools should be brought back into the district at large and that there’s no need to pay the salaries of a separate administrative staff.

“If you have all these great programs, you can bring these schools back into this corporation and put those programs in all the other schools that are having issues. There’s no need in my opinion, to extend the contract for this Zone,” McCullough said.

Determining whether the Zone is working also remains a nebulous task at times as the resolution includes no benchmarks or criteria Zone schools to meet. Criteria for the Zone when it was created included ISTEP test scores, though that test was scrapped by the state and Centellas said it’s hard to determine fair measuring sticks.

However, both Cummings and Lewis said the operating resolution isn’t an appropriate place to include benchmarks. Lewis added the Zone’s board will soon approve what he calls a “scorecard” of metrics for evaluation.

Marek Mazurek has been with WVPE since April 2023, though he's been in Michiana for most of his life. He has a particular interest in public safety reporting. When he's not on the radio, Marek enjoys getting way too into Notre Dame football and reading about medieval English history.