The Herald Bulletin

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January 26, 2014

Maureen Hayden: Peru schools chief, others looking for relief on debt-service law

INDIANAPOLIS – Chuck Brimbury is no-excuses kind of guy.

Five years ago, he inherited a world of problems when he took over as school superintendent in Peru, a city of 13,000 people in rural Miami County. The high school graduation rate was stuck below 69 percent. Absenteeism and dropout rates were among the state’s highest. Test scores were scraping bottom. The district faced a state takeover.

Now, the graduation rate is close to 98 percent, attendance has climbed, and test scores have skyrocketed. Peru is a “turnaround” model, especially for schools facing the mandates of state education reform.

Last year, Brimbury’s peers honored him as one of the best superintendents in the state.

These days Brimbury and his schools are a model for something else: unintended consequences. Facing drastic cuts – including a shutdown of bus service that could shut out marginal students – Peru’s schools illustrate the sometimes dire results of laws that may otherwise be well meaning.

Brimbury’s successes haven’t come easily, as he’s demanded more accountability from teachers and students. When students didn’t show up for class, he sent counselors to find them. When parents couldn’t come meet teachers, he sent teachers to the parents, wherever they were.

“We once had excuses for all our failures – a reason for everything that was going wrong,” he said. “We decided to drop those excuses.”

Things weren’t always so difficult in Peru, once a thriving community and the proud home to Grissom Air Force Base, which trained military pilots from around the world. But when the base closed in the 1990s, followed by nearby factories, the economy and the schools were casualties.

Today 70 percent of Peru schoolchildren are from families in poverty. The city has one of the state’s highest rates of single mothers and one of its lowest incomes per capita. The tax base plunged from $460 million to $318 million in assessed value between 2007 and 2011, and it hasn’t recovered.

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