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GRIFFITH — Feeling the effects of legislative change passed down by state lawmakers, Griffith Public Schools Superintendent Michele Riise issued a charge to the Griffith community Tuesday night to come together to decide what can be done locally to ensure student success.

Joined by state Rep. Chris Chyung, D-Dyer, in a lively discussion at the Griffith-Calumet Township Branch of the Lake County Public Library system, Riise outlined some of the major legislative changes most greatly effecting educators, including the implementation of a new statewide standardized test and graduation requirements beginning with this year's class of freshman students.

"We can't depend on the government, we just can't," Riise said. "We're going to have to come together as a community to decide what do we want our students to experience."

The conversation, which drew a couple dozen Griffith parents and educators, was the fourth in a series of education-based meetings Chyung has organized this fall with local superintendents.

The representative also met recently with Lake Central School Corp. Superintendent Larry Veracco. The two will have a final meeting at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Dyer-Schererville library.

In the Tuesday night meeting, Riise took time to explain how the state's new graduation requirements, often called graduation pathways, pose a challenge to a smaller school district like Griffith Public Schools.

Under the new requirements, schools must provide a number of opportunities for students to immerse themselves in postsecondary readiness experiences, such as job training, internships and civic engagement.

An existing partnership with the Hammond Area Career Center may already fill the obligation of some students' career interests, Riise said, although only fewer than 100 of Griffith High School's approximately 800 students currently participate in career center programming.

To allow every high school student ample opportunity to explore selected career fields, Griffith High School may need to consider expanding its own curriculum offerings in newly required fields like Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — an emphasis of Gov. Eric Holcomb's Next Level workforce development agenda.

But, in doing so, schools might need to invest thousands of dollars in career and technical education programming to provide exposure to industry materials, such as 3D printers or machinery, to allow students to gain hands-on experience — a tall ask for a small district such as Griffith which has recently felt the effects of declining enrollment and decreased state funding.

When legislation was passed mandating reworked graduation requirements, no additional funding was attached to help districts adjust to the change.

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Riise said her staff has been working to survey current eighth and ninth grade students to gauge their current career interests and respond accordingly, though the superintendent voiced concern in keeping up from year to year as new classes of students bring new interests.

"I'm really scared about graduation pathways because there's a lot of pieces to it," Riise said. "What if you're that teacher with that degree teaching something kids don't want?"

Among other changes, Riise expressed frustration with the first administration last spring of the state's new ILEARN exam, which returned underproficient scores among districts statewide.

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Riise said she was not pleased by the unexpected contents of the state's more rigorous exam and the affect it could have on school accountability grades and teacher evaluations.

"A lot of these legislative mandates that they do, parents perceive it as schools doing the mandates, and it's really not us," Riise said. "It really us trying to come into compliance with what the mandates have been from the state."

The room turned to Chyung for explanations as to why Indiana legislators appear to favor policy detrimental to public education.

The Dyer Democrat was quick to clarify his voting record against controversial legislation, such as the state's enacted 2020 budget which increased education funding but directed no money specifically to teacher salary.

He pointed to millions of dollars of campaign contributions made to some Indiana legislators from political action committees advocating for many of the unfunded mandates straining public educators.

Chyung called on local communities to be a part of the conversation through educating friends on the issues, signing onto letters to legislators and coming together to create a cohesive list of demands for change  

"Education in this state has gotten so partisan, point blank," Chyung said. "We can have more legislative victories that are for public schools if we have those voices behind us."

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Education Reporter

Carley Lanich covers education in Lake County and throughout the Region. She comes to Northwest Indiana from Indianapolis and is an IU-Bloomington grad.