K-12 EDUCATION: Education staying strong in lean times

Technology, innovative programs prep students to meet future head-on
2010-02-28T00:00:00Z K-12 EDUCATION: Education staying strong in lean timesBy Brian Williams - brian.williams@nwi.com, (219) 548-4348 nwitimes.com

Strong academic achievement, innovative programs and dedicated community involvement -- all in spite of ever tighter financial constraints -- characterize public education across Porter County school districts.

No district in the county has had better education news recently than East Porter County School Corp.

Each of the district's six schools were named Four Star Schools in the past year by the Indiana Department of Education in recognition of academic excellence and strong attendance.

In addition, in the most recent graduation rates that the state released, the district's Morgan Township High School ranked fifth among 368 schools in the state with 98 percent of students successfully completing high school in four years.

The additions of classrooms and other facilities at two of the district's campuses came in on time last summer and under budget, Superintendent Rod Gardin said.

Community support is a big part of East Porter's success, Gardin said, pointing to more than $40,000 in donations from the community to add 500 bleacher seats to the refurbished Kouts High School gym.

New technology, such as interactive white boards at all three elementary schools, is transforming student learning and preparing students for 21st century work and study, he said.

Four Star Schools abound elsewhere in the county as well, with schools receiving the accolade in Union Township, Porter Township, Portage, the Duneland area and Valparaiso.

Six of the county's nine high schools were named "best buys" by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce. Boone Grove, Chesterton, Morgan Township, Valparaiso, Washington Township and Wheeler were recognized for producing the greatest academic achievement per dollar of taxpayer funds.

Advances in technology also take center stage in Porter Township Schools. Boone Grove High School this winter has pioneered online days in which students tackle a day's learning from home via computers.

Since the current generation of students will encounter online courses in college or job training, now is the time to expose them to the technology, school officials said. Boone Grove's two online days were designed to teach students time management in a virtual environment and how to access teacher help through electronic help desks.

In Union Township schools, the numbers of students passing the ISTEP and taking Advanced Placement or dual credit classes has increased, Superintendent John Hunter said.

The district is among several to incorporate the Harmony student management system, a communication tool providing parents with up-to-the-moment student progress reporting.

Union Township School Corp. teachers also continue to expand their peer-to-peer professional development and share best practices.

Wheeler High School initiated its Freshman Academy to bolster support for targeted students and provide mentoring as they start their high school careers.

At Portage High School, the graduation rate has improved for three straight years thanks to two initiatives to keep students in school and on track to graduate.

A "looping" program lets at-risk freshman and sophomores take an extra hour of math and English each day and continue with the same core teachers both years. The aim is to buoy students so they will be driven to stay in school.

And an after-school online credit recovery program helps seniors earn missing credits that would keep them short of a diploma.

In Hebron, the MSD of Boone Township was able save about $1 million in interest on its $3.9 million bond project by tapping into federal stimulus dollars. The recently completed project resulted in upgraded electrical, insulation, lighting and climate control systems at the elementary and middle school complex.

In Duneland School Corp., Liberty Elementary School this year will complete a kindergarten and first-grade wing that will add 29,000 square feet to the district's fastest-growing elementary school.

While most districts are working this winter to trim budgets in the wake of Gov. Mitch Daniels' call for $300 million in cuts to public education, Valparaiso Community Schools does not need to make any reductions through the end of the current school year due to long-term fiscal prudence, said David White, the district's finance director.

The Valparaiso School Board will produce a mission statement and a strategic plan this summer after a series of two dozen public forums to gather input on the community's vision and priorities for education.

The board this year also will select a successor to Superintendent Michael Benway, who retires in June after 20 years leading the district.

And looking ahead to the future, students at all nine county high schools can now choose dual credit courses in which they experience college-level rigor and earn college credits while fulfilling high school requirements.

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