Harding High School closed four years ago, but the dream of reopening it refuses to die for some residents.
Now that an $87.5 million building referendum is on the table for East Allen County Schools, the United Pastors of Fort Wayne wants the Harding issue to be revisited.
"We want a full-service high school back in Harding," Pastor Robert Bell, the group’s president, said.
Stephen Terry, vice president, is proposing a $5 million to $7 million addition to the former Paul Harding High School that would allow the district to bring back the community’s high school students who are currently bused to the district’s four other schools.
Terry, a 14-year member of the East Allen school board until he lost re-election in November 2014, was one of several pastors who disrupted an Oct. 27 work session where the referendum amount was finalized and approved for the May election ballot. The pastor group says the Harding attendance area is being overlooked. Terry made his appeal to build an addition again at a board meeting this week.
Currently, the former high school is East Allen University, a community college partnership with Vincennes University. EAU, with 319 students, will have its first graduating class in the spring. With the CORE 40 curriculum already being taught, Terry would like to see a career or vocational component added for students not interested in taking college courses.
The loss of the community high school rankles.
"What a full-service high school does for the community, it brings communities together and when you take away that community piece, that full-service high school, you take away that community piece," said Paulette Nellems, an East Allen board member who represents the Harding district.
Part of that community piece is athletics. Geographically, East Allen is the 10th largest district in the state, covering the east side of Allen County from the Adams to DeKalb county lines. So while it’s possible that Harding-area teenagers can participate in a sport at the four other high schools, it makes their high school day longer and transportation difficult, the pastors say. Of the 3,241 high school students in the 9,348-student district, about 641 of those are Harding-area students who are bused out of that district.
Another missing piece at EAU, which students apply to attend, is the extracurricular activities including band and color guard, although there are clubs. Before Harding High school was closed, there were some Harding-area students who chose to go to another East Allen high school, officials pointed out.
"Where are they going to play basketball?" asks Bell, who resides in Adams Township and whose children graduated from Harding High. Although his church, True Love Missionary Baptist Church, is on Wallace Street in Fort Wayne, Harding-area residents attend his church.
At the time Harding was closing, parents wanted a turnaround school, acknowledging that test scores and student outcomes weren’t what they should be.
"We were not happy with what was going on in the building," said Nellems, who was then president of the local NAACP. "We thought the reason there was no achieving, everything was on the leadership. We felt like we needed something like what Fort Wayne Community Schools had done."
She is not inclined to blame Superintendent Kenneth Folks, who inherited the situation. The current referendum is focused on the New Haven attendance area, the last area besides the Harding attendance area to receive top-to-bottom renovations. School officials said earlier in the year that the board and administration would wait to see how EAU fares before committing more dollars to the Harding area.
But after a community listening tour was conducted in all five attendance areas in September, projects were added to the referendum, bumping it up from a proposed $74 million to $87.5 million.
About $9 million is dedicated to the Harding attendance area, but Nellems has complained that the proposed projects are more in line with capital improvements rather than major renovation and construction.
Folks and Chris Baker, board president, said even though they can offer little hope for reopening Harding, no decisions would be made until test score data is revealed after the new year, which would track student academic achievement of Harding area students.
Waiting for the data, however, will not silence the pastors, all of whom have ties in the area. Terry came to the Tuesday meeting to apologize for his outbursts at the work session, but continues to push his reintegration plan.
"We already have the Core 40," he said, referring to the state requirements for high school graduation. With a career piece, the two high schools – EAU and reopened Harding High School – could coexist and, who knows, win a basketball championship.