SOUTH BEND – South Bend’s west side wants its high school principal to stay.
Dozens packed into a community room Tuesday night at the Charles Martin Youth Center to voice their support for Washington High School Principal Thomas Sims after South Bend Community district administrators announced school leadership changes last month.
One of the prominent moves includes transferring Sims in the fall from his current position at Washington to a role overseeing turnaround efforts at Dickinson Fine Arts Academy, which has lagged in academic performance.
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Sims, the main focus of Wednesday night’s discussion, did not attend the meeting organized by the LaSalle Neighborhood Association. Some questioned whether it was his choice to leave his post at the high school.
“It seems like every time we get somebody that is good, they want to replace them with somebody else,” said Henry Davis Sr., who spoke up in shouts during the Tuesday meeting. “I’m not asking you to leave Sims there. I’m telling you!”
Meeting attendees want Thomas Sims to stay put
Community members were quick to point to successes under Sims ‘tenure, including an increase in enrollment and and pre-pandemic graduation rates, and questioned how Sims’ move would impact stability within the school.
The facilitator for the school’s popular medical magnet program resigned in December, according to school board meeting minutes, and two other leadership positions, including principal and assistant principal, are currently posted on the district’s employment page.
The leadership changes have also revived longstanding fears that school administrators are preparing to close Washington. Tuesday night’s meeting was advertised under the tagline “SAVE Washington High School.”
“We need to make sure we remain diligent in keeping that school open,” City Councilman Henry Davis Jr. said. said. “We want to protect our interest by making sure if Mr. Sims is leaving … that we put somebody in that school that can carry the torch.”
Lynn King, an organizer of the Tuesday night meeting, read a statement provided to him by the South Bend district. School corporation spokeswoman Susan Guibert confirmed in a text that the statement came from Superintendent Todd Cummings, who did not attend the meeting.
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“The South Bend Community School Corporation has no plans to close Washington High School and remains committed to its strong medical magnet program,” the statement reads. “The principal moves we have made will ensure a strong, transformation principal at Dickinson Fine Arts Academy, collaborating with the new Washington principal to ensure the academic success of Dickinson, as well as other feeder schools to Washington.”
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Closing schools is a familiar conversation for the South Bend district as its leaders look to balance ownership of more than two dozen buildings with budgetary constraints and years of declining enrollment.
The corporation has closed or repurposed seven schools since 2018, and is currently looking to sell its downtown administration center. The district’s total student population has dropped from 18,000 students five years ago to fewer than 16,000 today, according to state data.
In January 2021, administrators publicly announced they were considering several options for the shrinking district’s middle and high schools, including closing or repurposing a high school into a career or vocational center. Administrators, however, have not brought any formal recommendations over the last year to close any particular middle or high school.
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The district has begun a facilities planning process in partnership with architectural firm Fanning Howey to study possible uses for $ 30 million in capital referendum money.
In a community meeting last month, Assistant Superintendent Kareemah Fowler said closing a high school is not off the table, though she did not name a specific school under consideration.
“We’re looking at the future and we’re looking at our enrollment. We do have to consider, ‘We do not need all these buildings,’ ”Fowler said. “I’m not saying this process will not address if schools need to close in the future.”
Distrust in the community
Jorden Giger, of Black Lives Matter-South Bend, said fear of changes trace at least back to a proposal two years ago to bring a Purdue Polytechnic charter high school to the Washington building. Though school leaders ultimately stepped back from the idea, distrust lingers among some on the west side.
“It’s not the fear that the school will be closed down entirely, but that it will move away from being a traditional school,” Giger said.
King reiterated that point Tuesday night, saying the community needs a promise that Washington will remain a school committed to teaching core curriculum.
“We do not want a vocational or (career and technical education) school to be primarily at Washington High School,” King said.
The Tuesday night discussion included a call to action to attend this week’s school board meeting and ask trustees to vote down Sims’ transfer. However, there was some confusion Tuesday about whether school board members had authority to prevent the principal’s move.
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A March 15 news release from the school corporation stated the leadership transition was pending school board approval. That statement was a mistake, Guibert said in a text, adding that “board approval is not needed for internal transfers.”
Jeannette McCullough, one of two trustees present for the Tuesday meeting, told community members, “there’s nothing etched in stone.”
And, Trustee Oletha Jones, also present, said, “you’ve got two board members who are trying to hold him accountable,” in response to criticism of the superintendent.
In his statement, Cummings said the district has launched both an internal and national search for Sims’ replacement.
“We will be very selective in our choices so that Washington will continue its upward trajectory of academic and athletic excellence,” Cummings said.
Those on the west side, however, say they’re not interested in a national search.
“My concern is why would you move a principal … that is stable right now, because we do not have a medical magnet coordinator and we do not have an assistant principal,” said Vera Crayton, a supporter of Sims’. “I do not want to see anyone that does not have any connection to our community at Washington High School.”
The South Bend school board is scheduled to meet at 5:30 pm Wednesday in the district’s downtown administration building.
Source: Culled From Healthy Duck.