If you want to talk about what's good in public education, you have only to look around to see the best of the best.
Katie Washington, of Gary, graduated from the University of Notre Dame in May, the first black valedictorian in the Catholic university's history. Four years before that, she was valedictorian of West Side High School in Gary. After completing her education at Notre Dame, she was accepted to five schools, including Havard, but chose to pursue a joint M.D./Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University.
Manuel Mendoza, the 2010 East Chicago Central High School graduate, earned a full, four-year scholarship to Harvard University where he is now a freshman. He is majoring in chemistry and plans to become a neurosurgeon.
Santhosh Narayan, a senior at Munster High School, shared a scholarship in December with a pair of students from New York with the national award-winning nanoscience project, "Engineering Nanoscale Biosensors with Thermoreversible Hydrogels for a Dual Therapy of Cancer Detection and Tumor-Targeting Drug Delivery."
From literacy initiatives to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) to college and career readiness, schools are providing great opportunities for students to be successful, said Hobart school Superintendent Peggy Buffington, who is president of the Northwest Indiana Superintendents Study Council.
Reading and Writing Workshops, READ 180, FastForWord and Compass Odyssey Learning provide many venues for literacy success. The Indiana College Accelerated Network is preparing students for post-secondary opportunities, she said.
The ICAN networks are under way and moving forward at Hobart, Lake Central and Crown Point high schools. All three schools, along with others in the region, are on the track to bring college and career readiness to all students.
At the national level, President Barack Obama's Race to the Top initiative brought many states on board, signing the Common Core State Standards Initiative, aimed at producing uniform, rigorous standards in math and reading. Indiana was among the first to sign on.
School improvement grants of $3.5 billion were awarded to help turnaround the lowest-performing schools in the country. Hammond High School was one of those that won a three-year, $5.9 million grant.
Highland Superintendent Michael Boskovich said his district is proud of being an exemplary school system.
"We have made sure that we are teaching the standards that we are judged on, and we are pleased with the progress our teachers have made in the area of differentiated instruction. We're doing lots of staff in-services to meet the goals we have for our students," he said.
Still, things like full-day kindergarten are not fully funded in Indiana, and it has a long-range effect on students.
"Early childhood education is vital to our communities," Buffington said. "Children need a strong early learning foundation to succeed in school and go on to be productive in life. The state says every third-grader must be reading at grade level before moving to the next grade. We need to catch them before they fall. Pre-K and Full Day kindergarten are critical components to this plan so as to provide students with early interventions so that they have every opportunity to be on reading grade-level."
Pre-school programs and full-day kindergarten are critical, reiterated Portage Superintendent Mike Berta.
"Despite the importance of these two programs, historically there has not been any action taken that leads me to believe that it will be fully funded," he said.
After two consecutive years where K-12 education have seen reduced budgets, Indiana's Governor Mitch Daniels and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett said there will be no budget cuts this year.
However, Hobart business manager Ted Zembala said further budget cuts are always a possibility in today's economic climate.
"There is also another possibility that funding cuts can happen based on the outcome of the funding formula," he said. "When K-12 education is mentioned, most people think 'public schools.' It is important to know that Charter Schools are also included in the definition of K-12 education. In the last biennium, prior to the budget cuts, the modeling of the state funding formula touted an increase of .29 percent in 2010 compared to 2009 and a .23 percent increase in 2011 compared to 2010.
"However when public schools and charter schools are separated in this model, public school funding would have decreased .26 percent and .23 percent while charter school funding would have increased 30.68 percent and 19.59 percent over the same biennium," Zembala said.
Merrillville Superintendent Tony Lux said there is no indication of how the state plans to provide equitable school funding.
"The concerns is that the changes that are anticipated could be negative and will be basically a financial abandonment of traditional public education," he said. "There appears to be no movement toward the most needed areas of funding increases: mandatory kindergarten, fully-funded, full-day kindergarten, increased summer school funding and pre-school instruction."