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FWCS talks of outfoxing competitors

Vouchers, charters lure students, money

The school in the Fort Wayne Community Schools district that lost the most students to vouchers received an A under the state’s accountability rating.

Arlington Elementary, 8118 St. Joe Center Road, saw a spike in enrollment last year before the loss, which could be attributed to the voucher system requirement that students attend public schools for one year before being allowed to attend private schools with a state-funded voucher based on family income.

During a work session Thursday evening, the FWCS board began to talk about a plan for how it can address the competition including voucher schools and charters because the district, despite now being the state’s largest, is losing students to the competition. Last year, FWCS lost 392 students to vouchers, the most across the state.

“We have an excellent public school system,” board member John Peirce said. “We educate all kids to high standards,” unlike charters and private schools that “cherry pick” students and send the difficult students back, he said.

Despite losing students, the district has maintained steady enrollment, surpassing Indianapolis Public Schools as the largest district in the state with 30,622 students. The district as a whole also received an A from the state, accompanied by three years of growth in state standardized test scores.

Peirce said the competition has forced the district to think differently, ensuring FWCS offers what parents and students want. But competition also creates a distraction by forcing the district to focus on money because losing students means losing funds, he said.

“We’re in a state that I think is of the belief that public schools are not very good and the strategy is, I think, to put us out of business,” board member Steve Corona said.

With an increase in the institutions that can authorize charters, particularly through the creation of the Indiana Charter Schools Board, the number of charters in the city has increased. Thurgood Marshall Leadership Academy and Smith Academy for Excellence opened this year for students.

“The state is supporting charters in a way they’re not supporting us,” Superintendent Wendy Robinson said.

Both charters when authorized were hoping to locate within East Allen County Schools, but because of problems securing specific buildings, both schools are now located within the boundaries of FWCS. Board President Mark GiaQuinta has taken issue with charters moving after being approved for a proposed location because he said it doesn’t allow the district to make its case against the charter.

GiaQuinta said the board needs to be more active in explaining these effects to legislators. He also said the district needs to communicate with parents to find out what the district is doing well and stick to it.

Robinson said the district will come back with a plan for how it will proceed internally, through external communication and partnerships and its legislative agenda. She said the next part of the conversation is to look at school boundaries.

The district is also looking outside the state for funding support. It recently secured $15.3 million over two years in federal grant money for teacher training and incentives. It is also finishing up a Race to the Top-District grant that could give the district up to $40 million to expand technology and other programs for students.

Robinson said the district is also working on a parent survey to be sent out before the district’s choice fair, an event that showcases the different magnet and other program offerings in its schools. The fair is Nov. 3.

Five schools will be targeted as priorities because of the amount of competition in the geographical area: Bunche Montessori, Harrison Hill Elementary, Towles Intermediate and South Side and Wayne high schools. These schools are located mostly on the city’s south side. The district hopes to develop processes for better parent communication and improve offerings at those schools that could be implemented in schools across the district.