A letter to the editor defending Indiana's school voucher program claimed a benefit often cited. Most voucher schools are faith-based, the writer claimed, “which means they may pray and learn values, right from wrong.”
I think of that argument when I visit public schools and see teachers, administrators and staff demonstrating love, kindness and compassion to students each day – sometimes in schools that serve as a safe haven from everyday life. And nowhere does the example ring truer than at Arcola Elementary School, where heartbreaking losses at the start of the last school year were tempered by a school environment remarkable for embracing each student, teacher and the school community overall.
Luann Simon, a beloved Arcola custodian, was driving on U.S. 30 on Sept. 9, 2016, when her car was struck from behind by a car traveling at more than 140 miles an hour. She was taken to an area hospital but died from blunt-force trauma.
Students and staff were still shaken by Simon's death when – just over two weeks later – students Liliana Hernandez, 7, and Rene Pasztor, 6, were abducted from their grandparents' home and found dead in a car in Elkhart. Their mother, Amber Pasztor, pleaded guilty to smothering them to death.
“Last year was heartbreaking, devastating and life-changing,” Principal Kathleen Perfect said in a recent interview, “I have teachers say there was life before last September, and life after last September. And I don't think that ever goes away.”
The principal hasn't talked to reporters about the tragic blows, but Perfect said she agreed to speak now because she and her staff realize there are other schools that will experience trauma, and the Arcola “family” wants them to understand how they can prepare.
“If you have the foundation and the relationships and the faith, even as tragic as our year was last year, we were able to support one another – and it's still that way,” she said, “There are still days when you don't know if someone is having a difficult day.”
Arcola's size and history contribute to its story. With an enrollment of just 180 students, the elementary school is near the Whitley-Allen County line, more than 10 miles southwest of most schools in the Northwest Allen County Schools district.
Built as Arcola High School, it became an elementary school after Arcola and Huntertown were consolidated as Carroll High School. Community members pushed for the building's original brick facade to be preserved when the building was renovated. Inside, the original gymnasium floor is the only reminder of the school's past in a bright and cheerful building.
But there are reminders everywhere of the caring and compassion that convinced Liliana and Rene's grandparents to stay connected to Arcola. The children's grandmother told Perfect it is “comforting” to be at the school – a reminder of the happiness the children experienced when they were there.
Teachers and students also remember Liliana and Rene as they were – the first-grader for her love of music and her little brother for his love of all things Batman.
By chance, both had special days on their last day at school. Liliana's teacher had called the principal to his classroom so she could hear a special story the 7-year-old wrote. For Rene's class, it was Community Helper day, and a parent who is a landscaper talked with the 5-year-old, who he spotted digging in the courtyard garden.
“Everybody should be able to dig,” Rene told him, “It's just fun.”
For their classmates and teachers, the aftermath of the tragedies was difficult. Administrators and counselors from other Northwest Allen schools stepped in to help and surround the Arcola family.
“Explaining evil to children is not an easy task. ... The discussions were real,” Perfect said. “It was very much family supporting each other. I had two kindergarteners putting their arms around their teacher.”
In one effort to heal, the teachers held a bake sale. Luann Simon was an accomplished baker, so they used her recipes to raise more than $1,200 for Riley Children's Hospital, where her family designated memorials be sent. At the school's fall festival in 2016, trees were planted in memory of Simon and the children. The school's courtyard this spring will include wind chimes to honor Liliana's memory, and a digging garden, as Rene would have liked.
“What Arcola has done is demonstrate very well (that) the importance of what we do to help kids become productive members of society is not only measured by test scores,” said Northwest Allen Superintendent Chris Himsel. “When we face adversity, whether it's death, or something with a job, we all have to have the skill and ability to face it.”
Himsel said Arcola and other Northwest Allen schools build on what families do at home – not in an attempt to change it, “but to support and complement it, regardless of your religious views.”
“Arcola has done a beautiful job of building resiliency,” he said. “In the long run, they are going to be stronger and better people.”
Perfect summed up the difference she sees at her school.
“This isn't a job for my people here,” she said, “It's a mission. ... In this profession, you're not a teacher and then you go home and you're not – you live and breathe it. It's part of everything you do.”
Karen Francisco is editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette.