By Ann Craig-Cinnamon | Photos by John Cinnamon and Dann Veldkamp
You know the start of school is upon us when you can’t swing a cat without hitting a back-to- school sale. So as the notebooks, pencils and backpacks go flying off the shelves, now might be a good time to assess how Center Grove schools are faring. After all, whether we have children in the school system or not, we are all paying for it in property taxes and the job our school corporation is doing does affect us as a community. Besides the ultimate concern about the preparation of young minds, there’s also the issue of property values. Living in the Center Grove School district has always been a plus when it comes to selling your home. People actually want to move here because of the reputation of the school system. But there have been a lot of changes over the past few years, not the least of which was in the School Superintendent’s office and there are big issues facing all schools in today’s world such as school funding, student testing, teacher merit pay, and school referendums. When just up the street you have a school district in which less than 65% of students actually graduate from high school and another nearby district that made headlines by charging families for bus transportation, it is a front and center issue that affects everyone.
So, we visited with the Superintendent of Center Grove Schools to get an update; a report card, if you will, on the challenges facing Center Grove Schools. Richard Arkanoff is beginning his sophomore year as the head of our school district and he is quite accessible and open to input. In fact, that is the major thing that I took away from my conversation with him. He wants community input. He wants people to get involved.
The major challenges for Center Grove Schools, as Superintendent Arkonoff sees them, are all the changes in state law, especially the new teacher evaluation model and the fact that all school corporations now have to have a performance based pay system. He says a committee was formed that was made up of teachers and administrators that developed a teacher evaluation model that he believes will work, but then, down the road, merit pay will kick in. He is not a big fan of merit pay saying “I don’t believe teachers do the job for the pay. They do the job because they love to teach and they love kids.” He continues, “In almost all the research I have read, motivation for teachers comes from the gratification of working with students not from the salary; not from the pay. So, I’m not sure that merit based pay is going to be as effective as our legislators think.”
School funding is a constant problem that many school districts are grappling with these days. So, how are Center Grove Schools doing financially? Is there red showing on the bottom line? Is there the chance of increasing the school property tax or charging parents for bus transportation in the near future? Mr. Arkanoff says no. He says that Center Grove Schools are in a good financial position. We’re not well-to-do but when we compare with other districts, we are doing ok. Enrollment, however, needs to be monitored because last year was the first year that it actually declined in Center Grove School history. It was minimal, fewer than fifty kids, and he attributes it to charging around $2000 a year for kindergarten, which was on the high end for schools in Indiana. That has now changed after the state came up with funding for kindergarten and he thinks enrollment will go back up as a result.
You may have noticed that no new school buildings have been built for a few years and that West Grove Elementary is now leased to a church and Maple Grove has been repurposed as an Academy for the high school. Mr. Arkanoff says we are one classroom away from capacity on elementary schools but unless there is a ridiculous boom, he sees no need to build any additional buildings for the foreseeable future. He calls the high school snug but says with a few modifications it should be able to handle growth for the next ten years.
If you are like many people who have a problem with the building of what has been referred to as football and basketball palaces, you’ll be happy to hear that those days are well behind us. Athletics are now being funded through donations and any significant building that impacts property taxes must go to a taxpayer referendum. Referendums have created major problems for other school districts but, so far, we’ve had no such issues in Center Grove. Superintendent Arkanoff says “people want a lot of unique programming for public schools, but what they don’t understand is that that costs a significant amount of money. If you want small classroom sizes, then we need the funding to pay teachers.”
The Superintendent says that Center Grove Schools still have a great reputation and are considered one of the top districts in the state. When considering the Indianapolis area’s best districts, we usually rank up there with Carmel, Hamilton Southeastern, and Zionsville Schools. But even though our students scored above the state average in the most recent ISTEP tests, we were still 1% to 2% shy of the state goal of 90%. He says “maintaining success is a challenge. It’s one thing when you are working toward becoming successful. We are successful and now we must be more focused”. He says we need to use more data in determining if students are learning, not just being trained for the ISTEP tests.
Toward that goal of a more focused future, the school district is currently developing a three to five year strategic plan with emphasis on four areas: programming, communication, environment and staffing. There are committees for each of the focus areas and the district is looking for volunteers to serve on the committees. This is a great way for you to get involved in your school district and help determine its future. One of the areas being studied is online learning with the goal, according to Mr. Arkanoff, of becoming a world class online program that can be accessed anywhere. He adds that traditional learning won’t go away and teachers are still the most relevant factor when it comes to learning.
He calls today a challenging time for education on many levels. Accountability is now a major issue for teachers and administrators alike. The impact of social media is a big factor for schools too and to deal with it, Center Grove had to create a new policy. Mr. Arkanoff says it’s a balancing act to control potential bullying and harassment and at the same time being careful not to tread on students’ freedom.
All in all, Superintendent Arkanoff is a very upbeat person who takes very seriously his job of making sure that each child has the opportunity to learn. “Just like I tell teachers every year, this is all new to the child. We want it to be the best experience it can be. That will draw the child into a love of learning and onto college. That is everyone’s job, that the child has a great experience of going to school.”
For more information about Center Grove Community School’s Strategic Plan go to http://www.centergrove.k12.in.us. If you want to volunteer, give Richard Arkanoff a call. He wants to hear from you. cg
Ann Craig-Cinnamon is a 30 year Radio & TV Broadcast veteran. You may recall her as the host of popular radio morning shows in Indianapolis for many years. She and her husband, John are also business owners. Her lifelong love of world travel led them to start a travel franchise, CruiseOne, in Center Grove. Ann is a writer, travel speaker and author of an upcoming book about her time spent living in Iran.