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School closing distractions

As the number of school-closing proposals across Indiana increase,

the number of impassioned pleas to save schools grows.

But one argument persists in Fort Wayne that continues to baffle:

Elmhurst High School shouldn't be closed because it's the most

successful high school in the district. Apparently, it's an argument

that's fueled by Fort Wayne talk radio discussions. I've also heard a

newscaster for one of the local TV stations raise the issue,

suggesting that academic performance should be a measure considered.

Fort Wayne administrators have taken great pains to avoid suggesting

that academic performance has anything to do with the proposal. The

matrix they used weighed school enrollment, capacity, course offerings

and building conditions -- adding up to a convincing case for closing

the school.

It's not entirely surprising this is an issue. The Indiana Department

of Education has targeted 23 schools for improvement under the state's

accountability law, and taking over a school or merging it with

another is one of the punitive consequences schools face after five

years on probation.

The Code Blue opponents of FWCS's long-range building plan in 2007

also argued that the district didn't deserve public support because

its performance lagged other districts, as if students must earn the

right to learn in decent buildings.

Since others have raised the issue in connection with Elmhurst,

here's the reality: It's not the "best academic high school" in Fort

Wayne, as one talk radio listener told me.

-- The school has not met adequate yearly progress guidelines under

the No Child Left Behind requirements in any year since the measures

began in 2002.

-- Its graduation rate of 84.1 percent is slightly better than the

district average, but lower than Northrop or Snider high schools' 90

percent rate.

-- The zero-dropout distinction that supporters point to refers only

to the last academic year. More than 8 percent of the class of 2009

was still finishing diploma requirements last fall. Four percent were

officially classified as dropouts.

-- Just 49 percent of Elmhurst students passed both English and math

portions of ISTEP+ last year, down from 55 percent the year before.

The state average is 73.7 percent; the districtwide average is 61.1

percent.

-- Just-released figures from the Indiana Commission for Higher

Education show that 62 percent of Elmhurst graduates in the class of

2007 required some remedial coursework after they enrolled at Ivy Tech

or a state university.

All of this is not a criticism of the school. With 63 percent of its

students coming from low-income households, it does an admirable job

in academic performance. But if supporters are going to raise academic

achievement as an argument for keeping the school open, they should

use data and not emotion.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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