EDITOR'S NOTE: The signs for various schools are in yards around the city; the advertisements are on TV and the radio, encouraging listeners to enroll in one school or another. Choice has become a buzzword across the state when talking about education.
Whichever side of the choice debate you're on, the evidence of Indiana's and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett's push for more choices is evident in the various options parents now have for their child's education.
As students head back to school, this week's stories will feature different families and the education choices they make, their reasons and why their schools are right for them.
East Allen University welcomed its first class of 120 students today, the first official day of school.
The school is East Allen County Schools' early college magnet program, housed in the former Harding High School alongside seventh- and eighth-grade students in Harding Junior High School.
The school has no sports, but will offer intramurals and other extracurricular activities. Its focus is early college, giving students the ability to earn up to 62 college credits by the time they graduate from high school through a partnership with Vincennes University. The district opted to accept freshman classes until the school was full instead of transferring displaced Harding students back to the school.
The program has drawn students from around the district and from other districts like Fort Wayne Community Schools.
Here are profiles of some of the students:
Freshman at East Allen University
Previous school: Lakeside Middle School
When EAU Principal Doug Hicks told Victoria Garcia she had earned a spot to attend the early college magnet, she cried.
“I was so happy,” she said. “It's nice to know that I will be able to go to a school where I can start college early.”
That's especially helpful because Victoria could be in school for many years, as she follows her dream of becoming an anesthesiologist.
At Lakeside Middle School, Victoria earned straight A's in science, and she hopes to continue her academic success despite the challenge of higher-level classes at EAU.
“I like a challenge, so that's great,” she said.
Victoria said she was looking into the voucher program to attend a private school when her mom heard about EAU from a friend. Lorena Garcia is originally from Mexico and speaks only a little bit of English. Garcia translated questions for Lorena, who said she wanted her daughter to attend EAU because she's very smart, it sounds like a good school, and she wants what's best for her daughter.
“I like the idea (of the early college program) because Victoria can spend more time with the family while earning college credit,” Lorena said through Victoria's translation. “She's my oldest daughter. I like having her around, and I don't want her to leave.”
Lorena Garcia said she's very proud of her daughter's academic success and supports her 100 percent in whatever she wants to do.
Victoria said her parents have always held her to a high standard and put academics first.
She said she's most excited to meet her teachers at EAU to see how they measure up to the ones she's had in the past. She's also looking forward to the smaller classes at EAU compared to North Side High School, where she would have attended had she stayed in Fort Wayne Community Schools.
“It seems like we're going to be a family,” she said. “It doesn't seem like high school to me.”
Freshman at East Allen University
Previous school: Prince Chapman Academy
Teffenie Suggs heard about the formation of East Allen University through the closure of Harding High School. Her son was one of the students displaced by the closure. He currently attends Leo Junior-Senior High School.
“I thought that (the magnet program) would put Fort Wayne on the map, especially for kids that didn't necessarily want to attend a four-year college,” she said. “The more I learned about it, the more excited I became.”
McKenzie isn't exactly sure what avenue she will pursue after high school, but said she likes the fact that she'll have the option to get a job right out of high school, potentially earning her associate degree while also earning a high school diploma, or continue on to a four-year college and beyond.
She said she's particularly interested in math and science and possibly a career in medicine.
“She's a pretty smart cookie,” Teffenie Suggs said of her only daughter.
McKenzie said one of her goals at EAU is to be her class valedictorian and to meet the challenge of taking college courses while still in high school.
She also likes the idea of staying close to home and friends she's close with from Prince Chapman, as well as the small class sizes.
“Then you feel more connected and get to know each other better,” she said. “It's like a small family.”
Teffenie Suggs thinks the school will only become more attractive, especially for families with many children. She said she would have liked for her son also to be able to attend EAU because of the option to earn college credits while still in high school.
“With the cost of college today, you can't beat it,” she said.
Freshman at East Allen University
Previous school: Woodlan Junior-Senior High School
For Tyler Culpepper and his parents, Greg and Ann, an option that allows students to graduate high school with an associate degree seems like a no-brainer.
“This is an opportunity for Harding kids to get a leg up. This is an opportunity for your child to get something different,” Greg Culpepper said. “Here's your chance. It's a win-win situation.”
All three were admittedly skeptical at first, believing the talk of a new program at Harding was the district's way of getting the state off its back, Greg Culpepper said. Under state law, chronically low-performing schools, as Harding was, were at risk for state takeover.
But after attending several informational meetings, the Culpeppers couldn't understand why Harding parents and students weren't interested in the new option.
Tyler said he wasn't convinced the school was the best option for him, either. He spent his eighth-grade year at Woodlan after grade levels were reconfigured at Prince Chapman Academy. He grew to like the school and made new friends. He wasn't enthusiastic about leaving again for another new school.
He said also he wasn't sure how difficult the work would be at EAU.
“I'm the type of person who won't ask for help (in class), until I'm at almost failing level, and even then sometimes I don't,” he said.
With some assurance from friends and promises of tutoring, peer tutoring and a study skills class available, Tyler began to think this could be a good opportunity.
His older brother, a former Harding student who spent his senior year at Woodlan after Harding closed, showed him some of his college tuition and book costs. The idea of saving money to earn an associate degree was a major factor in his decision, Tyler said. And he's not as worried now about the possibility of two hours of homework a night.
“I want to prove to people I can push myself and see how far I can get,” he said.
With its main focus being academics and an early college education, EAU has opted not to offer sports, which Greg Culpepper said is one reason he believes many parents didn't give it a chance. Tyler said he likes football and would have wanted to play in high school, but the option of playing intramurals or in gym class was enough for him.
“I like sports,” he said. “I like football, but after learning more about the school, football is just not a key thing right now.”