The Herald Bulletin

April 26, 2013

Elwood Community Schools working on districtwide initiatives

New superintendent would oversee changes

By Dani Palmer
The Herald Bulletin

ELWOOD, Ind. — With a name like Moving the District Forward, it’s probably clear what the essential idea of Elwood Community Schools’ proposed districtwide initiatives is.

To sum it up, the district wants to improve student achievement and teacher performance while becoming more competitive. It received a ‘D’ grade from the Indiana Department of Education last year.

“The board’s expectation of me was to move the district forward and bring to the table ideas,” interim Superintendent Tom Austin said.

With a six-month contract that’s up June 31, it was “a large undertaking,” but Austin discussed ideas with building administrators and developed initiatives that will likely be implemented, if approved by the board, over the next two years.

Many would be funded by a $2 million bond issue approved earlier this year.

The school board has already voted in favor of a $166,600 wireless project that will include tablet device training for staff this summer and eventually provide students with one-on-one technology, or mobile devices. The district is moving to wireless this fall and hopes to begin the one-to-one in 2014.

A tablet can do the same thing as a textbook while offering more, Austin said, along with lessening the backpack load.

“I think it’ll keep our students engaged,” Middle School Principal Teresa Boucher added. “Be a good learning tool for them.”

An overhaul of what grades are in what buildings has yet to be approved by the board, but is being proposed for 2014-15.

Eighth-graders, and possibly seventh-graders, would move to the high school while third-graders could potentially move to the middle school, making it an intermediate school.

Austin said pros include a chance to expand student programs and an opportunity to more efficiently use staff.

The biggest challenge, he noted, would be how to distribute that staff.

Boucher said there have been social concerns over putting seventh- and eighth-graders in with high schoolers, but added she believes it would help the younger students “develop maturity a little quicker,” along with providing more offerings.

“Having kids in a learning environment that can be best suited for their educational needs is important,” said Timothy Smith, who will take over as superintendent on July 1.

Austin is also proposing a look at curriculum efforts that are unique to buildings and useful across the spectrum.

That would include the possibility of a second foreign language at the high school, new programs at the Hinds Career Center, a redesign of Elwood’s alternative school and professional development for staff.

Boucher said the development would help in areas like math, where test scores are struggling most. There are questions as to whether it’s the curriculum, teaching methods or another area that needs improved.

In 2010, Gov. Mitch Daniels cut education funding by $300 million, causing layoffs and eliminating art, music and physical education at the elementary level, Austin said.

Moving the District Forward proposes bringing those programs back. The more program offerings the district has, he said, the more competitive the district will become, in addition to providing students with more options.

To further implement the eight-step process that assesses student strengths and weaknesses, Austin has proposed the hiring of a data couch who would review all student data in the schools daily.

Amidst all of the proposed changes, Austin said he understands the need to be sensitive to community concerns while still doing what’s best for the district; “a delicate balance.”

“Change can sometimes be good and be a promoter for positive,” Boucher said.

Austin added that Elwood Community Schools is off to a good start with the balanced calendar that was approved in February.

He’s heard good things from Alexandria Community Schools that made the switch this year and said he believes it will help with learning retention and allowing the students more time to refresh.

“In terms of student achievement, studies show it’s really beneficial for low-achieving students,” Austin said.

Smith will be stepping into the role of superintendent in July and oversee any changes, whether they be from Moving the District Forward or his own — if approved by the school board.

He said it’s important to “really create a learning environment that builds on success” while making good decisions that are within the district’s limited budget.

Find Dani Palmer on Facebook and @DaniPalmer_THB on Twitter, or call 640-4847.