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The Courier & Press

'Blindsided' students protest closure of nontraditional Evansville high school

By Jon Webb and Rayonna Burton-Jernigan, Evansville Courier & Press,

2023-03-14
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EVANSVILLE – When Taylor Davidson heard Harwood Career Preparatory High School was closing, she “cried for a day.”

At her original high school, she struggled with both her grades and mental health. But when she landed at the nontraditional school on First Avenue, she immediately found teachers who worked with her one-on-one and pushed her to do her best.

“My grades went up and my teachers gave me the resources I needed to become a better person and achieve my goals,” she said.

Now all that’s in jeopardy. Davidson was one about 15 students and community members who braved frigid temperatures Monday evening to line Walnut Street outside the Evansville Vanderburgh School Board meeting and protest the announced closure. Several attended a town hall afterward to voice their concerns to the school board directly.

Holding signs reading “student voices matter” and “Harwood is my home school,” the protesters cheered and jumped up and down as several motorists honked their horns in solidarity.

In an email to parents and students earlier this month, Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp. officials announced they would close the school and set up “Harwood Centers” in each of the traditional high schools, where students could supposedly receive the same assistance they were getting in the standalone school.

The decision came as a shock to the protesters – especially since it was made behind closed doors, without any discussion in a public school board meeting. EVSC spokesman Jason Woebkenberg said Superintendent David Smith and EVSC leadership chose to close the school as a "staffing decision."

Monday marked the first time the decision came up in an open meeting. Smith told the board that changing graduation requirements meant a smaller number of students were being referred to Harwood than in the past.

He said 32 new students had been enrolled, meaning only eight teachers would remain there next school year, making it difficult to keep the school open.

Harwood bills itself as “a non-traditional learning environment for students in grades 9-12 who may have experienced challenges in traditional schools,” its website states.

Students are often sent there for one of two reasons: attendance issues or credit deficiencies. Smith cited data he claimed showed that, for about 70% of Harwood students, those issues actually got worse once they were enrolled there.

"That’s not the fault of Harwood. They have incredibly caring staff that really does want to provide the best for all students," he said. "But we have not been able to leverage the kinds of supports in the scale necessary to the turn the trajectory around for some students.”

Members of the public 'blindsided' by decision to close Harwood

Davidson said she didn’t know the school was closing until she saw a Facebook post in which one of her teachers asked for moving boxes.

Other students at the protest claimed they didn’t find out until they got home from school on March 3.

Members of Oak Hill Baptist Church joined the students at the protest on Monday. Many of them have volunteered at the school for a decade, mentoring kids, helping at school carnivals and sometimes driving students to EVSC's Hangers, where they could pick out new clothes for free.

The church’s youth pastor, Bryan Gotcher, said he was “blindsided” by the decision, and that it was disappointing EVSC leadership didn’t give the public a chance to voice their concerns before the announcement.

“If there’s a need for the property or if there’s a better plan, let us know. We’ll support it,” he said. “I’m sure all the faculty would love to say, ‘hey, we just want to see these students succeed.' What’s the plan? There’s not even a plan laid out that I see is going to have a lot of success.”

Preparing kids for careers

One of Harwood's main focuses is preparing students for the workforce. Kids there can work toward a certified nursing assistance license or speak with representatives from Toyota and Berry Plastics, among other options.

Davidson is worried that personalized help will vanish once kids are pushed back into the larger schools. So she started a petition on Change.org to save Harwood. As of Monday night, it had almost 1,200 signatures.

“I think every kid deserves a chance. And we got our chances,” she said. “So how’s it fair the next generation can’t have it because they’re moving our school?”

One of the protesters, a Harwood freshman named Samantha, is part of that next generation. She was failing her classes and getting into fights at her original high school, but when she landed at Harwood, everything turned around.

She’s the kind of student who needs a lot of help and asks a ton of questions, she said. Her new teachers accommodated that and more, constantly telling her “you got this, you got this, you got this.” When a bout of anxiety came on, they gave her the time and space she needed.

For most students, that’s supposed to continue at the forthcoming Harwood Centers. Smith promised as much during his presentation, saying “whatever students need, we’re going to be able to provide.”

But Samantha said she’s already been told that even though she’s coming from Harwood, she won’t qualify for a Harwood Center back at her original school. And she hasn’t been given a straight answer as to why.

“They told me I have to go straight back into regular school,” she said. “It doesn’t make any sense. So I was kind of really upset.”

On Monday, her fellow protesters were, too. Davidson and others still hoped there was a small chance they could save the school they love.

“It can’t hurt to try,” she said.

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