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Subject Matters: Diversity in Schools

Allen County schools, students navigate increasing diversity

Lynette Fields’ experience as a Black student at a predominantly white high school is marked with stereotypes and hurtful comments disguised as jokes.

The Carroll High School sophomore has peers who assume she eats only fried chicken and watermelon. They ask for permission to say racial slurs. They label Black people as thugs and call her “ghetto.”

And then there are the questions.

“Do I know my dad? Is my dad in jail? Is my dad a thug? Does my dad sell drugs? Do I smoke? Do I drink? Do I party?” Fields said, reciting in quick succession the inquiries she gets from classmates.

Lynette Fields

Fields

Fields’ school district – Northwest Allen County Schools – remains the least diverse Allen County school system, even though the percentage of white students has dropped at all corporations in the last 15 years. State enrollment data show 81% of NACS students were white last academic year, down from 91.1% in 2007.

Housing growth will likely fuel further change, NACS board President Ron Felger said.

“I have to believe that people of all races and religions want the very best for their children, and they’re here in this country to, you know, hopefully have a shot at the American dream,” Felger said. “I think they probably see Northwest Allen as probably a great educational choice and initial step so their children can have the opportunities to do that.”

The broader Fort Wayne community has increased discussions about diversity, equity and inclusion, largely through United Front – a cultural awareness program that launched in 2020. And those topics have also found a place in the NACS boardroom this year, both at the dais and at the lectern during public comment.

In a split vote in January, the all-white school board denied staff from attending a professional development conference in fear of what the keynote speaker – an anti-racist writer and educator – might say. Specifically, some members worried whether Tim Wise would address critical race theory, which has become a catch-all political buzzword for any teaching in schools about race and American history. It has also become a rallying cry for some conservatives who take issue with how schools have addressed diversity and inclusion.

At another meeting, parent Christine Gilsinger – now a NACS board candidate – told the elected officials she was upset that her 15-year-old was reading “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” for honors English. The sexual content wasn’t her only problem.

“The book is mostly set in segregated Arkansas, and the author often expresses her deep hatred of whites in graphic detail,” Gilsinger said. “All 10th grade students are aware of the history of segregation in our country. But considering its time and distance from their reality, they have all – Black and white – have been spared from personally experiencing (it). Is it the goal of this school to once again open that divide, to make them believe that their worth is determined by the color of their skin?”

In an interview this month, Gilsinger said she doesn’t want to send the wrong message to students. Students should feel empowered, she said, and they should know they can achieve their goals, regardless of their background.

“If you’re told you’re a victim, it makes you think that you can’t move beyond that,” Gilsinger said. “I don’t want kids to be in that mentality, no matter who they are.”

Travis Striggle, a district alumnus, said he wished NACS were more like the school system of his youth.

“We used to be a small, conservative, farm school and we came a long way from that,” Striggle said. “Now we’re a mega school. … We’re not so conservative like we used to be. I think it’s important that this school get back to its roots of conservative values, of putting kids first.”

Shifting demographics

Fifteen years ago, enrollment in Allen County’s four public school districts was mostly white, with that demographic accounting for 66.5% of students among nearly 90 schools. State enrollment data shows white students made up at least 90% of the population at 15 schools – one in Southwest Allen County Schools and seven in each East Allen County Schools and NACS.

NACS’ student population was 90% white when 1998 graduate Erin Salyers returned in 2010 after more than a decade away. She told the board in May that the lack of diversity was the only reason why she hesitated about moving back and enrolling her children, now middle and high schoolers, in the district.

Salyers was pleasantly surprised by a presentation last spring about NACS’ English language learners program. Barb Kiplinger, the ELL curriculum coordinator, shared that families in the community collectively speak more than 60 languages, and the district works with more than 30 of those languages daily.

“Some students get off the school bus (at home) and immediately switch into another language that their mom is speaking, very typical,” Kiplinger told the board.

There’s much to learn by interacting with people who are different than you, Salyers said.

“I believe humans are more (like) each other than different. And getting to know people that are not like us helps increase empathy, remove stereotypes and reduce discrimination,” Salyers said by email. “I think it can be dangerous to live in a filtered bubble where you only interact with people that look, act and think the same as you.”

Those interactions have the potential to happen more often now in the county’s public schools, the focus of this series. As of last academic year, white students composed a slim majority countywide – 54%. Fort Wayne Community Schools became a minority-majority district between 2007 and 2022, shifting to a population where 38% of students are white, from 56%.

“If you’d walk in our buildings, you’d see our – you know, the diversity that we have,” FWCS Superintendent Mark Daniel said, noting diversity is more than skin color.

Supporting integration

Only two schools – both in rural EACS – served an almost all-white population.

Between 2007 and 2022, EACS’ overall enrollment shifted to 61% white from 73% white, and the Asian population surged to 14% from 1%.

The district is excited about its diversity on all levels – not just racial diversity, spokeswoman Tamyra Kelly said in a statement crafted by a team of district officials. The statement also said EACS has people including certified English language teachers, interpreters and parent liaisons help students transition and thrive in their educational setting.

“As some schools in EACS have become more diverse, we have sought to create a support structure that will enable all students to find a home and to thrive in school,” Kelly said.

FWCS had a superintendent in the 1980s who resisted desegregation efforts and a school board that in 1985 rejected a plan to bus elementary students to achieve racial balance. The district now considers diversity one of its strengths, officials have repeatedly said. But, they add, it requires attention.

The changing demographics come with a need to support the integration of students and to better understand the cultures represented, Daniel said. That doesn’t necessarily mean everyone has to agree with everyone’s traditions or beliefs, he added, but the differences shouldn’t escalate into negative reactions.

The goal is to create an educational environment that’s inclusive, supportive and one where students can learn – hopefully, from each other, Daniel said.

“If you don’t have those intentional discussions,” he said, “I think you’re leaving it on the table for chance. And you can’t allow this to be by chance today.”

JoAnne Alvarez agreed. She’s the executive director of diversity, equity and belonging at Ivy Tech Community College Fort Wayne and Warsaw.

“Sadly, prior to George Floyd, I think as a nation we were very passive,” Alvarez said, referring to the Black man killed in May 2020 when he stopped breathing as a Minneapolis police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck. His death was a primary motivator for demonstrations and protests nationally and in Fort Wayne calling for racial justice and equity.

“I think now companies and organizations are starting to be more intentional,” Alvarez said. “And diversity isn’t a bad word like it used to be.”

Common message

The response to Floyd’s killing made the launch of United Front even more pressing, said Greggory Smith-Causey, program manager for Fort Wayne United.

People don’t know how to speak with each other about diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, he said. United Front is trying to change that.

“Giving everyone in Fort Wayne, and hopefully beyond Fort Wayne, the ability to sit at a table … and just have conversations about some pretty tough topics, race in particular,” Smith-Causey said.

Greggory Smith-Causey

Smith-Causey

More than 200 companies and 8,000 people joined the effort, which far surpassed organizers’ hopes of having 50 groups and 500 individuals participate.

“That means that our city, in particular, was ready to have that conversation,” Smith-Causey said.

Alvarez described the initiative as empowering.

“Bringing people together of different cultures for greater understanding,” she said. “How could it not be a win for Fort Wayne?”

The four K-12 school districts were part of the conversation. Smith-Causey said it’s important to tap into these communication hubs.

“We know if we can influence those individuals – teachers, administration,” he said, “that message gets trickled down to parents and students and everybody that we want to have that common language of humanity, belonging to something.”

Schools can’t assume the work will happen elsewhere, such as in homes and churches, Daniel said.

“In our community and in our country, we’re having issues with having conversations, so where does that have to take place?” Daniel said. “We are a learning environment. We are to teach, so this is where it happens.”