Ind. Parents Push for Partnership in How Schools Are Run

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Fort Wayne, Ind.

The Rev. Mike Nickleson says it's time for his sons' high school to strike out on its own. The way he sees it, educational opportunities there aren't what they should be.

Built for more than 1,000 students, the classrooms at Harding High School now have fewer than 700. Where students once chose from four foreign languages, now there are two.

Each year, the school struggles to muster enough students for advanced-level classes. Teachers' salaries, once the region's highest, have lost their competitive edge.

"Our best and brightest leave our schools and go to college and are not as prepared as kids who are not as gifted," said Mr. Nickleson, the pastor of Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church near the Fort Wayne suburb of Adams Township.

Frustrated by what they see as the East Allen school district's reluctance to address their complaints, Mr. Nickleson and a group of Harding High parents are demanding a greater say in how the school is run.

In an unusual example of parent involvement that goes far beyond booster clubs and bake sales, the Harding parents are challenging the way their school district is organized and the way its schools are governed.

With the help of an outside consultant, they're drafting a plan to reorganize the management of Harding High and its three feeder schools. With help from grants and donations, they hope to add to the schools' course offerings and programs.

The group is collecting signatures to petition the East Allen school board to accept their proposal, which they plan to present sometime this month.

"One of the goals is to encourage parental involvement not as a watchdog, but as a partner in the development of their kids' growth," said Mr. Nickleson. The pastor is the president of the Coalition of Parents and Patrons of Education, or COPPE, which includes several predominantly black churches, the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the local Urban League.

"Harding is a good school, but it isn't all it could be," said Judy Thames, the president of a predominantly white Harding parents' organization that is also a member of COPPE.

The entire East Allen district has had to cope with a sharp decline in both enrollment and tax revenues that hit the district more than a decade ago. But the coalition contends that Harding has problems distinct from those of the district's other schools.

It is the only predominantly African-American, urban high school in a majority white and rural district that stretches from the Fort Wayne city limits to Amish communities and farming villages near the Ohio border.

For years, no one in the district worried much about the quality of the education. Through the 1970s, a growing population and a healthy tax base made it easy for the district to keep parents happy at each of its five high schools.

Changing Times

"The school system had a lot of money coming in, and it was a school system that was well respected throughout the state of Indiana," said Bill Banks, a founding member of Harding Area Parents, yet another local group that is part of COPPE.

But in the early 1980s, the International Harvester Co. cut about 10,000 jobs from its Fort Wayne operations, where the company built the Scout, a four-wheel-drive vehicle. The cutbacks, along with a relatively new state school-aid formula, cut into the district's budget, and the loss of jobs contributed to declining enrollment.

Since the mid-1970s, the student population has fallen from about 12,500 to its current level of 9,250.

"When Harvester was here, this district had everything it wanted," said James Gland, 65, who retired as the district's superintendent last month. In the years since, the district has had to make some tough compromises, and it is many of those decisions that have angered the members of COPPE.

At one point, Harding High parents supported efforts by the district to consolidate its schools as a way to keep more course offerings in the face of shrinking enrollment. Those plans would have closed some schools while busing more students to the ones that remained open.

But many of the recent consolidation plans, the parents feared, would involve busing a disproportionate number of black students--a concern fueled by the lack of minority representation on the school board.

Though the district has lost about a fourth of its enrollment, the school board has opted to keep all five high schools open.

"Each of these towns has a strong, strong commitment to keeping things the way they are," said Mr. Gland, who nonetheless supported consolidation. "As a superintendent faced with the day-to-day problems of resources, you either have to cut internally or increase resources, and we've done everything we can and now we're at the point where we've got to get rid of people.".

But opponents of consolidation say such a move would rob communities of identity and lead to long bus rides.

"We like the smaller schools, even though you may not be able to offer as many classes," said Connie Heckler, a school board member since 1992 whose term expires next month.

Ms. Heckler said Harding actually has more course offerings than the other high schools, and she noted that district enrollment has stabilized in recent years.

Members of COPPE suspect that race has played a part in the community's rejection of consolidation. Harding and the middle school and two elementary schools that feed it account for about 90 percent of the district's minority students.

But Mr. Gland rejects that argument. "If Harding were all white, then I still don't think they'd want their schools to close," he said.

Fort Wayne Eyed

Last year, the Harding parents seriously looked toward leaving the district altogether. They asked the neighboring Fort Wayne district to consider annexing Harding High and its feeder schools.

But after studying the demographics, Fort Wayne officials determined the move would disrupt their own racial mix.

The Harding group now hopes to create an alternative management system that would let the parents increase their school's course offerings and create a magnet program.

"I want to provide an environment where the curriculum is so exciting that white parents and white families want their children to participate in that," Mr. Banks of the Harding Area Parents said.

COPPE has already sought advice from a private consulting group, the Michigan Partnership for New Education, which advises groups working to form charter schools.

Because Indiana law doesn't permit charter schools, the Harding parents propose that they be given greater control over the schools, but without leaving the district entirely.

"The physical assets would remain in control by the district, and we would become a management board within the district," Mr. Nickleson explained.

One of the parents' main goals is to restore more foreign-language and advanced science courses.

"I think you ought to be able to take French, Spanish, German and maybe even Japanese or Russian if you want," Mr. Banks said.

To pay for new programs, the parents would seek grants and donations from businesses and foundations. "I feel strongly that if we get into this and we need money, people will contribute," Ms. Thames said.

Although school board members say they'll listen to the proposal, they also caution that handing any authority over to local schools raises a lot of questions--questions about liability, union contracts, and funding.

"Our board is open to listening to people," Ms. Heckler said. "But the more you think about it, the more you realize the kind of complications that kind of thing would have."

Vol. 15, Issue 38

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