Today, the Merrillville Community Schools Corporation, located in a suburban town outside Gary, Ind., is an award-winning district, having achieved a 90 percent graduation rate in 2012 with 78 percent of its students demonstrating proficiency in English, math, and science.
The district advanced despite a drastic change in demographics over the last two decades. In 1998, the number of students living in poverty was about 20 percent, with 12 percent receiving free or reduced-price lunches. Today, those numbers are at 60 and 57 percent, respectively. The change also meant that more students were behind academically when they started school, says Anthony Lux, who retired this past June after 19 years as Merrillville’s superintendent.
“This was a trend we were seeing in surrounding schools, as more poor families were leaving Gary to have better educational opportunities in other towns,” he says. “But we consciously took the approach that we would see diversity as a strength and a positive.”
In closing the achievement gap, the district emphasized reading and writing in its five elementary schools and on helping struggling freshman start high school on the right foot. It also began preparing middle schools for college and careers. As a result, the achievement gap between minority and white students on state tests decreased from 18 percent in 2007 to 12 percent this school year.
Bringing people together
The number of minority students in the district has risen from 28 percent to 83 percent since the 1990s. After a racially charged fight between white and African-American students during his first year as superintendent in 1994, Lux says, administrators brought parents, students, and community members together to talk about how to improve the school’s environment.
Merrillville Community Schools Corporation
- Schools: 8
- Students: 6,900
- Staff and faculty: 383
- Per child expenditure: $9,532
- Students receiving free or reduced-price lunch: 57%
- Dropout Rate: 2.5%
- Website: merrillville.schoolwires.net
“Parents of different races were able to come together, and heard from each other,” he adds. “They realized they wanted the same things—academic success in a safe environment. And that really set the tone for what we wanted to accomplish,” he adds.
Merrillville also provided diversity sensitivity training for every employee.
Focusing on freshmen
With more economically disadvantaged students entering Merrillville schools, staff members had to adjust to teaching students at a wide range of academic achievement levels, especially in high school, Lux says.
The district focused on freshmen who had previously struggled with state tests or failed middle school
classes. “We wanted to make sure these students started high school on the right foot and raise their probability of success,” Lux says.
In the 2009-2010 school year, the Freshmen Center opened on the northeast corner of Merrillville Senior High School to help incoming students adjust. It houses seven computer labs, a lecture hall, a media center, and two guidance counselors, all dedicated to offering students more individual attention.
Upperclassman mentors give freshmen academic and social help, such as advice about what classes to take and what clubs to join. The center also houses the Freshman Academy, in which teachers volunteer extra time tutoring freshmen who did not pass their eighth grade state tests in English, math, and science.
Lux says these programs have helped more students graduate on time and increased their chances of success after high school. “All of our teacher volunteers in the Freshmen Academy just have unconditional love for kids and an undying determination that academic success is our only option,” says Mark Sperling, the former Merrillville assistant superintendent who succeeded Lux.
In Merrillville’s five elementary schools, intermediate school and middle school, K8 students work in computer labs on the Fast ForWord program 30 to 50 minutes a day, depending on the grade level. Through individualized, adaptive exercises, students use the program, created by Scientific Learning, to build reading, language, and cognitive skills that are foundational to learning.
Students are assisted in the lab by an aid and their classroom teacher. At the high school, the software is targeted to students in grades 9 through 12 who are struggling academically.
“Every week, Scientific Learning sends me reports on all our schools and where they are in each aspect of the Fast ForWord program,” Sperling says. “In the reports, we review our current data as well as our results over time. We also discuss the reports with school principals. Using the reports, they can then drill down to monitor the progress of all their students, so we continue to see growth at all levels.”
As a result, from 2011 to 2012, students in grades 4 through 8 made significant improvements on Indiana’s state ISTEP+ tests, increasing their ELA scores by an average of 21.9 points and their math scores by 27.8 points. Overall, 78 percent of students demonstrated proficiency on the ISTEP+ ELA in 2012, up from 71 percent in 2010.
The reality of college and career
The district also now emphasizes college and career readiness in middle school. In eighth grade, all Clifford Pierce Middle School students visit the Reality Store, a yearly event in which the district partners with the Merrillville Chamber of Commerce.
For an hour, the students pretend they work and have a monthly paycheck. They visit several booths that represent life events, such as owning a house and buying a car. The students make choices about how to spend their money, such as on a mortgage, a car payment or cable TV.
“This program has been very successful and it has since inspired many career days at high school, where they learn about career options,” Sperling says. “A number of other schools in the area have come to observe the program to replicate it in their schools.”
Since implementing all of Merillville’s reforms over the last 20 years, the district’s high school has been honored as a top school by several national organizations, including the Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color, the International Center for Leadership in Education, and by U.S. News & World Report.
The district’s Pierce Middle School has also been named a model site by the OSEP Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. It was the first middle school in Indiana to receive such a designation. Jonas E. Salk Elementary School was also named a 2013 National Blue Ribbon nominee by the U.S. Department of Education.
“Overall, we’re just really proud of how our staff and youngsters have really embraced these positive programs and have seen them as a way to work with struggling students,” says Sperling.
The changing demographics have been an asset, Lux adds.
“We’ve called it the ‘Merrillville Advantage,’” Lux says. “Along with our programs, our students are exposed to a diverse environment, which prepares them for the cultural realities of working with different people in the workplace or college.”