Lawrence Township Stakeholder Academy highlights the challenges, triumphs of public education

by | Dec 1, 2023

I spent 2023 reconnecting with Lawrence Township schools and came away impressed and hopeful.

As with any large, complex organization, opinions will vary. But it was helpful to get a close-up look at the system and how it’s adapting to the changing needs of students, families, and society.

Things have changed in Lawrence Township Schools

Our two daughters went to Indian Creek Elementary, the former Craig Middle School, and Lawrence North High School after we moved to the township in the early 90s—specifically because of the schools.

My wife Martha and I volunteered in the schools but lost touch after our children went off to college and careers. I offered to volunteer again this year, but teachers and substitutes are in short supply nationwide, and a district official said, “You would be everyone’s best friend if you would become a substitute.”

I have an Indiana teaching license, nine years as a Ball State professor and student media adviser, and the experience of my previous volunteer work. So, to learn how our public schools are doing today, I taught as a substitute, served as a Cat Parents volunteer at LN football games, and joined the district’s Stakeholder Academy, a group that meets monthly with the superintendent and top officials for briefings on finances, academics, and the district’s challenges and achievements.

By the Numbers – Metropolitan School District of Lawrence Township

The ninth-largest district in Indiana touts its high graduation rate—95 percent in 2023, compared with 86 percent statewide. The district says 87 percent of its graduates are employed or enrolled in Indiana, compared with 85 percent statewide. Sixty-seven percent of high school seniors in the district have passed advanced placement or college-level courses, compared with 60 percent statewide.

  • Students – 16,000
  • Employees – 2,300
  • Buildings – 23
  • School buses – 225
  • Budget – $250 million
  • Public funding per student – $7,200
Lawrence Township Schools Superintendent, Dr. Shawn Smith, visits the 2019 North Shadeland Alliance Fall Festival.

Strong support builds strong schools

“In order to have a strong school corporation, you have to have a strong community—and this is a strong community,” Dr. Shawn Smith, superintendent of Lawrence Township schools, told the Stakeholder Academy class on our first night.

Sharing an up-close look at the public schools helps build support, he said.

“If anyone wants to learn about the school corporation, we’re going to bring them in so they can understand the ins and outs of their local school district,” Smith said.

In Indiana, public funding follows the student, so enrollment is critical. A district that is growing and adding students will have more resources—and will lose funding if students leave the district or switch to alternatives such as charter schools.

The district takes pride in its Early Learning Centers on the elementary school campuses of Amy Beverland, Brook Park, Mary Castle and Winding Ridge. The centers feed the district’s 11 elementary schools, and all four are accredited by NAEYC, the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

The McKenzie Center for Innovation & Technology offers 15 national certifications, and over half of the district’s high school students have at least one class there.

A non-partisan, elected, five-member school board serves as trustees to oversee the district and approves budgets and contracts, including a new contract with teachers in November. Average teacher base pay was increased by a minimum of 5.62 percent, and pay for new teachers—considered vital for recruiting–was increased to $50,000.

What the stakeholders saw

I asked my fellow members of the Stakeholder Academy for their impressions and heard from several, including Kate Elliott.

“For me, as the parent of two young children, it was a wonderful orientation to the district,” she said. “I had no idea about the recent investments in buildings, staff, and programs. I learned so much about how the district makes decisions, and it really validated our decision to move to the Lawrence Township area and enroll our kids in the community schools.”

Kristie Krone’s own children have graduated, but she still found the sessions on the district budget, school funding, and legislation especially informative.

“Strong public schools are the bedrock of a strong and vibrant community,” she said. “There are so many wonderful ways to support our public schools, and this opportunity is just one more way to do that.”

Like other participants, Dr. John Kunzer recommended the briefings to others.

“The program provides a comprehensive overview of key items facing the school system–from strategy to operations to legislative affairs,” he said.

“As a pediatrician and a parent of three children in the Lawrence school system, I felt better prepared to be an advocate for our schools and proud of all the great work our teachers and administrators do every day.”

For Stephanie Greenwald, the highlights included learning about the Indiana Graduates Prepared to Succeed program and the GPS Dashboard, a data tool that shows student progress in key skills and outcomes.

“You can see a decrease in test scores across the board post-pandemic, but you can also see the scores rising again,” she said. “That’s great. We are getting back to where we were and where MSDLT should be.”

She also cited the ability of students to earn advanced training and college credit while in high school, allowing them to save money later on college tuition and obtain valuable skills.

Overall, she said, “The programming they offer at the high school level is on par with some of the other much bigger area high schools.”

Greenwald appreciates the diversity of Lawrence and defends the district when people ask her opinion on the best school systems.

“I have two kids in an MSDLT elementary school, and I love that they are taught about other cultures and have friends with a variety of races and backgrounds. They are having fun while learning all the important things they need to know.”

Lawrence North Students participate in the 2023 North Shadeland Alliance Fall Festival

The importance of community for Lawrence Township Schools

Smith, a former assistant superintendent for Pike Township Schools, was named superintendent ten years ago this month.

“As public schools, I think we have to market and promote what we do,” he said. “I think that is something Lawrence will do — we will go on the offensive to show the community, the state, and the country that we provide a quality public education.”

A former Indianapolis Public Schools and Washington Township teacher, Smith relishes talking about public schools—and dispelling misconceptions.

“There is a synergy on the northeast side of Indianapolis that has brought people from all over the world,” he told the stakeholder group. “They are being educated, and they are graduating and going on to bigger and better things.”

“Do we have problems? Everywhere has problems,” he said. “We have to get back to supporting one another.”

“And those who do have issues, we can’t turn our backs on them. As a public institution, we don’t turn our backs on anyone.”


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