Education is a topic we hear a lot about. It's also a subject that can really define a community.
A lot has been reported on the South Bend Community School Corporation.
Things like the superintendent switch, low ISTEP scores, low graduation rates and controversial school board actions.
Most of us would like to see the school system improve. But how do we do it?
We thought the answers may lie with the people on the front line of education: the teachers.
For this special series of stories, we interviewed current teaches and recently retired teachers from around the school system, and asked them many questions.
Many of the questions had to do with School Corporation’s low graduation rate.
Right now 1 in 3 South Bend students are dropping out.
“I think it's really difficult for these kids to see that the graduation diploma is the ticket to the next part of their life. They just see it as way too much work,” said Lafayette Traditional School 3rd grade teacher Anne Lewandowski.
For 17 years, Lewandowski has taught at numerous elementary and middle schools throughout the school corporation. She says after a few years in the school district it was hard to ignore the graduation rates.
So she decided to do some research herself.
“The number one thing the teenagers have told me is that they get so far behind, they get frustrated, so then they drop out,” Lewandowski said.
Teachers say new programs and classes to try to help those students catch up are the right idea; but they say there needs to be more.
Over the past 20 years, South bend's graduation rate has only been above the state average once. Follow the link below to see these statistics, and the rest of the corporation’s “snapshot.”
The state changed the way they compute these rates two years ago, but South Bend is still well below the curve.
“Students are feeling that graduation is not an important entity of their life anymore. Of course they want a diploma, but getting to that entity is not what they see as valuable they have other things that are in their way,” Lewandowski said.
Elementary school teachers say focusing on developing good attitudes and making sure students learn the basics they need to move forward; is really all they can do to put kids in the right direction.
But they say middle school is when other factors come into play, especially in inner-city schools.
“(Students are) having this societal and gang influence to not learn and not be successful; to get into trouble and to be the tough guy. I think that really impacts them when they get a little bit older,” said Harrison Primary 3rd grade teacher Bob Steinmetz.
“It's very difficult for the schools to compete with the kids who see people with a lot of "bling" in the neighborhood; who are getting big bucks from nefarious activities, you know. Then we're saying to them, oh no its better, it's better to stay in school and take algebra,” said retired teacher Rosemary Benchik, who has worked with the school corporation in many programs since retiring in 2002.
Teachers say many of the students that end up dropping out... Don't have a strong support system at home to see them through.
Success rates often depend on poverty levels. We have a high level of poverty within our school corporation, if you look at the number of children who are on free lunch. That's, I think, a pretty strong indication,” said Phyllis Largey, who retired after 38 years with the South Bend Community School Corporation.
Right now, 2 out of 3 South Bend students are on free or reduced lunch.
It's the highest percentage in the last decade, and the number has been consistently above the state average.
“Just everybody in general laments the fact that, well the parents aren't taking the responsibility and parents aren't doing what they’re supposed to be doing. But we're not really walking in the parents' moccasins either. Their biggest problem isn't you know whether or not this child is getting an A in math. It's basically meeting basic necessities; food, and housing and transportation,” Benchik said.
So what can teachers do to combat all these factors?
“One of the things you can do is build relationships with your students and the other thing is make sure that you are teaching and not covering material,” Largey said.
“The most important thing that I can do as a third grade teacher is to get their parents and students together on the same page and give them the reasons for graduating and going on to higher education,” Lewandowski said.
“(We need to) say hey, you know, you really need this education. You need to be attentive all the time and really appreciate the fact that what you're getting here is going to help you later on in life,” Steinmetz said.
“What we have to do is make education interesting, fun enough, challenging. I hate these words, but challenging enough so that the kid will see that they want to stay in school, and right now it's not,” Benchik said.
Tomorrow, in part two of this series, we'll talk about what many teachers see as a limiting force: the ISTEP tests.
These scores, too, are consistently well below the state average.
But tomorrow we'll hear what teachers think about this measuring stick, and how they think the system affects the learning process.