It may seem like eons ago, but many milestones were reached in Northwest Allen County Schools business in the two-and-a-half months of the year before schools first shut down in-person learning on March 16.

Despite students being absent from buildings for much of 2020, the district made headway on several projects early in the year.

In January, Carroll High School played host to a forum with state legislators who discussed everything from vouchers to state testing and teacher pay. Several parents, teachers, administrators and school board members from around the Allen County area offered a round of applause for Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, who called for an end to state testing.

“I’ve always said we don’t need a state test of any kind,” Kruse said. “… Most all teachers, I think, know their students, they know what they’re doing in the classroom, they know if they’re learning or not learning.”

Kruse’s sentiments were echoed by other legislators.

“High-stakes testing is really detrimental to the classroom and to teachers overall,” Rep. Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne, said.

GiaQuinta said the state has spent $133 million on testing over the past several years. While testing is required at the federal level, he suggested a more practical approach.

Sen. Liz Brown, R-Fort Wayne, agreed that teachers are the best form of student accountability, but she pointed out that states can lose federal funding if they abandon standardized testing. She called A-F school grading “not the most perfect” system, but she praised Indiana’s school curriculum.

“When people come into our state or leave our state to go elsewhere, whether it’s college or a job, there is an assurance that your education meant something and that diploma means something,” Brown said.

Rep. Dave Abbott, R-Rome City, called for a decrease in regulations altogether.

“We have to look at what we can do as legislators on unnecessary, burdensome regulations and testing requirements at the state level,” he said.

Later that month, NACS’ school board approved new branding for the district office, as well as Aspen Meadow and Oak View elementary schools. The board would later approve updates of branding, including school mascots, at each of the district’s buildings in an effort to reinforce its core values and create uniformity across its 11 schools.

February brought another milestone with the district hosting its first ever job fair. More than 200 people attended the event, applying for positions across the district including instructional assistants, food service assistants, custodial staff, buildings and grounds staff, technology staff, school nurses, bus drivers, office staff, middle and high school athletics coaches, lifeguards, swim instructors, teachers, substitute staff in all areas and more.

“We weren’t sure what to expect,” NACS Chief Communications Officer Lizette Downey said at the time. “When we saw people standing in line before the doors opened, it was great to walk out there and go ‘Oh, wow!’”

With a new elementary school, Aspen Meadow, scheduled to open for the 2020-21 school year at the time, and with a recent redistricting of the system’s elementary schools, NACS was in the process of assessing its staffing needs.

“Our goal was to build a pool of candidates for future job openings,” Lisa Harris, secretary to the district’s superintendent, said. “The event wasn’t necessarily for teacher-based hiring, but we had a good turnout of teachers, and received between 75-80 applications.”

That same month, the school board approved a plan for new school attendance areas to populate Aspen Meadow and address capacity issues at other elementary schools where some students are learning in portable classrooms. The plan called for nearly 85% of students to remain in their current schools.

Also in late February, State Superintendent of Education Jennifer McCormick paid a visit to Carroll High School, urging educators, parents and other members of the community to advocate for schools at the ballot box.

McCormick and Northwest Allen County Schools Superintendent Chris Himsel shared a plethora of data during the event to illustrate just how far Indiana public education is lagging behind most other states.

On a positive note, Himsel said, public education has “never been better.” Across the U.S., 89% of adults carry a high school diploma — compared to 34% in 1950. At NACS, 95% of high school students have graduated, which is up from 71% in the mid-1980s. However, the state continues to fall behind the rest of the country in education funding and average teacher salaries, despite declining administrator pay, he said.

As McCormick pointed out, Indiana has not seen an evolution in teacher salaries since 2002, and that pay continues to drop when factoring in inflation. Wages are down 26% for teachers with similar education and experience, and funding per student is only 88% of what it used to be. On average, 35% of Indiana teachers leave the profession within 1-5 years.

The month of March brought triumph and pain, with NACS delivering the news that Aspen Meadow would not be ready to open for the 2020-21 school year as originally planned.

“To ensure the health and safety of students and to ensure a positive experience for all Aspen Meadow families, we have made the decision to delay the opening of the new school,” Himsel said. “Therefore, the updated attendance areas will not be implemented until August of 2021, and during the 2020-21 school year the current attendance areas will continue to guide the assignment of students to our elementary schools.”

Himsel told school board members that the district had been advised that the project would not reach substantial completion within the planned timeframe. Even under the best circumstances, the building’s roof, gym and certain classroom spaces would not meet the target date before the start of school.

The silver lining was the groundbreaking of Carroll High School’s site improvement project — something the school corporation had been anticipating for many years. The project will include upgrades to several athletics and performing arts facilities, including a brand new stadium with a turf field, locker rooms, restrooms and expanded parking. Many pieces of the project have already taken shape, and Carroll’s new football field has already made itself at home.

“It’s been a long time coming in terms of desires to improve our facilities overall,” Carroll Athletic Director Dan Ginder said. “… We’ve been able to be a part of it from the very beginning in terms of designing with the architects and recreating spaces that we felt were necessary to make the overall experience better from a functioning standpoint and from a spectator standpoint.”

Of course, growth continued to be a trend in northwest Allen County despite setbacks due to COVID-19. The NACS school corporation now employs nearly 1,130 people, and the student population has reached nearly 8,000.

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