State of the Schools address with 3 St. Joseph County superintendents

Michiana superintendents speak at State of the Schools address.
Published: Oct. 20, 2021 at 5:50 PM EDT
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MISHAWAKA, Ind. (WNDU) - Superintendents from the three major school districts in St. Joseph County reflected one of the most unorthodox school years ever during their State of the Schools address on Wednesday.

They spoke to an audience at the Battell Center Auditorium for the event presented by the South Bend Regional Chamber.

All three superintendents stressed was how important it is to have students learning in person.

That was a huge challenge during the height of the pandemic and now they’re seeing how being away from the classroom impacted their success.

Not only are these district leaders adapting to keep kids in the classroom, but also to keep them from falling behind.

When South Bend students came back after nearly 18 months of virtual learning, Superintendent Dr. Todd Cummings says he knew students needed academic support to catch up.

All that time at home also created a need for social-emotional resources.

“If you listen to our community data, domestic violence abuse is up, suicide rates are up, our students and families are struggling. They’re struggling coming back to school, they’re struggling to learn how to stay in a classroom. Not only are they deficient academically, but socially they’ve not interacted,” Dr. Cummings said.

School City of Mishawaka Superintendent Wayne Barker says that rings true for many of their students. They’re investing in more academic and wrap-around resources in their buildings and taking precautions to prevent sending students back to virtual, evident by their change in mask policies.

“We’re a mask-required environment. We’re going to continue all those mitigation practices that we have. I think shortly after mid-November, somewhere around there last year we went to a completely virtual environment for some of our secondary schools and we’re very hopeful not to do that. Our number one goal this year is to provide 180 days of in-person learning and that’s what we’re hopeful to do,” Barker said.

Penn-Harris-Madison School Corporation Superintendent Dr. Jerry Thacker noticed how students from families with financial struggles performed worse than the average student when learning virtually. They’ve adjusted their start of school masking policy and quarantine guidelines to keep students in the classroom.

“If you were in a family that had a lot of resources and had someone staying at home, the students did well--really well. We found the students that had the most disadvantages and the fewest resources, maybe technology issues and such, those students didn’t do as well. Our goal has to be to keep students in school,” Dr. Thacker said.

Putting a priority on keeping kids where they learn best, in the classroom.

Now a big part of being in the classroom is the face-to-face guidance students get from their teachers. They’re in very high demand right now with staff shortages across all three school districts.

South Bend Community schools have used grant and referendum dollars to increase teacher salaries and retention efforts. In other circumstances, they’ve had teachers cover classes virtually so students can be around their peers.

PHM’s Superintendent says they have staff shortages across the board that only got worse due to the pandemic. Dr. Thacker says they’re working to get their teachers competitive wages too.

Money also seems to talk at Mishawaka schools.

“We created a retention stipend and told our employees that if they finished last school year and were employed by the start of this school year, they would be eligible for a retention stipend, and we’ve paid those out. We’ve increased the dollars that we’re paying for substitute teachers. That’s an issue for us on an ongoing daily basis,” Barker said.

The impact of the pandemic on education is something 16 News Now covered extensively earlier this year. To hear the real stories of what was lost by students, families, and even teachers, when schools shut their doors, watch our series, The Lost Year.

The Lost Year: Setbacks and Successes for Students

The Lost Year: Sports Shutdown and Comeback

The Lost Year: Setbacks & Successes for Extracurriculars

The Lost Year: Setbacks & Successes for Extracurriculars

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