Awakenings in Wawasee

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Under cloudy autumn skies in rural northeastern Indiana, a gust of wind whips the brightly colored helium balloons and hand-stenciled posters that students carry as they march from downtown Syracuse to Wawasee High School. "Say No To Hatred," one of dozens of posters reads, and another, "Racism Is A Social Disease." The crowd of 150-plus includes teachers, parents, babies in strollers, ministers and a saxophonist. The group follows four students holding a 17-foot-wide banner that proclaims, in bold green letters, "Wawasee Cares."

The crowd's spirits this Saturday afternoon seem to soar with the balloons as participants sing "Walk in the Spirit of Love" and "We Shall Overcome."

"I think this is going to wake people up," says junior Shyla Belin. "It's about time." The daughter of a Black father and White mother, Shyla was one of the first members of a racial minority to go through Wawasee schools.

The march and a rally afterward at the high school mark the start of an ambitious, week-long focus on community relations. Behind the upbeat slogan "Wawasee Cares" is a decision by the event's organizers and supporters to grapple head-on with hate close to home. During the last two school years, two local incidents involving charges of teacher racism have attracted wide attention, and the Ku Klux Klan has resurfaced in the area after a long absence. Although today's public response brings together concerned Wawaseeans of all ages, it has been planned and carried out entirely by students.

It would be hard for residents of Syracuse, Milford and North Webster -- the three small towns that formed the Wawasee Community School Corporation [or district] in 1962 -- to be unaware of the project. And that is the goal, organizers say: to step out and present ideas for people to think about. A few days before the march, the students ran a full-page ad in the local newspaper that featured a bold "Wawasee Cares" logo and a three-point commitment to promote tolerance and fight racism. They asked readers to support them by posting the ad in the windows of their homes and offices.

With money collected from local businesses, churches and service organizations, the students also printed 4,000 posters with the same logo and commitments and posted them throughout the towns. They asked every business with a marquee to display "Wawasee Cares" all week.

In her speech at the rally, visitor Elizabeth Dobynes, vice-president of the Indiana State NAACP, declares, "Young people, you have really set the pace for our state of Indiana. … You have caught on fire."

Superintendent of schools Mark Stock later tells the crowd, "Our community is a good place, but it can be better. With the ideals set forth by [these young people], we're going to make it that."

The approximately 35 campaign leaders acknowledge some disappointments. They had hoped for a bigger crowd and more "Wawasee Cares" logos in windows. They had hoped for the same television coverage that Klan rallies always get. They noticed that some supporters who feared disruption by the Klan did not show up.

They also know that the size of their group and the number of signs posted far exceeds what most people predicted and that they are making local history. The students' awakening to community needs and their decision to get involved builds upon other awakenings that began about two and a half years ago. The process is not complete and it hasn't been easy, but the story is one full of hope.

The Active Voice
Throughout most of its history, the Wawasee community has been almost entirely White. The 1990 census listed a minority population of less than 2 percent. But many believe that in the upcoming census, that number will be 8 percent and that it will continue to grow. A few minority residents are African American or Asian American, but most are Hispanic, as they refer to themselves. Of the three towns in the school corporation, Milford has the largest Hispanic population. Many came to work on migrant farms there in the 1960s and stayed to raise families. A large duck-processing plant and various factories have attracted recent immigrants. In some other nearby towns, the Hispanic population has grown to 25 percent or more.

The importance -- and the challenge -- of communication among all segments of the community during this time of change became painfully apparent in the fall of 1996. Details of the incident remain sketchy, but Hispanic parents became angry when they heard that some children with Hispanic surnames had been pulled out of classrooms to avoid standardized testing on the assumption that their scores would lower the average. About 35 Hispanic and biracial parents met several times at a local community center to voice concerns that their children were being treated unfairly in standardized tests, the gifted program and the Migrant Education Program. In previous years, they said, numerous Hispanic parents had gone individually to school administrators with similar complaints, but to little avail. The discussion meetings generated a new optimism.

Out of those discussions emerged Rays of Hope, an advocacy group for minority students that is cited by some Wawaseeans as the first step in the community awakening process. A major focus of the organization, says parent and police officer Joe Salazar, the group's president, is to make sure that the school strongly encourages all minority youth -- including poor students of all races -- to graduate from both high school and college.

Mark Stock had become interim superintendent shortly before the turmoil over testing. He notes that, at the time, the state required that students of limited English proficiency be exempt from the test. In his view, the problem arose because administrators had not explained the exemption policy to teachers adequately or to parents at all.

At the invitation of Rays of Hope members, Stock attended one of the discussion meetings and brought social studies teacher Jeff Van Drie along. Listening to the concerns expressed that night, Stock says, helped him better understand the parents' high expectations for their children and the painful memories of their own school experiences that the test incident had evoked.

He announced at the meeting that he was establishing a Minority Issues Task Force as a bridge between the schools and minority families. Stock appointed Van Drie chairman and asked the parent group to choose three members to serve on the committee.

The new task force, which came to include Joe Salazar and other parents and educators, met frequently and at year's end presented recommendations for 11 areas of concern, including those raised at the meetings. Eight of the recommendations were implemented during the following school year, including placement of a Spanish-language paraprofessional in every school and admission of minority students into the gifted program.

Over the next 14 months, however, two new incidents rocked the Wawasee community. Both involved teachers, both generated anger on both sides of the issues, and both focused national attention on north central Indiana. But they also set the stage for change.

"One of my first public comments," Stock says, "was that ten years from now people would look back and say that this was a great opportunity to make a difference in the community."

Painful Lessons
In April 1997, a White Wawasee 4th grader brought home a teacher-made worksheet about the Ku Klux Klan that appeared to promote the Klan rather than to teach its history. One question asked for five reasons people join the Klan, to which the child had answered "It's good fun" and "You believe in white not black." A word search included the words nigger, Jew, commie and fire. The child told her horrified mother that she had gotten her answers from a poster in the classroom.

Although the KKK for many years had a high membership in Indiana and was influential in the state legislature in the 1920s, Klan organizations had faded from view in the 1980s. Recently, however, there had been a few small Klan rallies in Syracuse and surrounding towns to decry Hispanic workers for taking jobs from Whites.

The 4th grader's family, with the support of their pastor, Rev. Sarah Tuttle, first tried to settle the worksheet matter with the teacher and then asked superintendent Stock to intervene. During Stock's investigation in mid-May, he suspended the teacher. Although the teacher always insisted that she was not a Klan member and did not intend to promote the racist organization, the Klan seized the opportunity to march in front of Syracuse Elementary in her support during her suspension.

Stock invited Tuttle and the child's mother and grandmother to some of the private conferences with the teacher. "It was coming out as a debate," Tuttle recalls. "Did the worksheet teach the history of the Klan, or did it promote the Klan?"

Tuttle and the women left two meetings feeling frustrated. But when Stock invited them to meet with representatives from the Minority Issues Task Force, Rays of Hope, the Fort Wayne chapter of the NAACP and the school board -- using Tuttle's Rock Church as neutral ground -- Tuttle and others called the session "very positive."

At that meeting, Stock explained his view that the teacher had shown very poor instructional judgment but was not a Klan member or racist. He believed that she used an inappropriate extra-credit worksheet that she hoped would reinforce a lesson on hateful language but that could have confused or hurt children in the attempt.

"People were angry," he recalls, "because they thought the teacher needed a severe punishment. Then a Black minister from the NAACP said that it was time for us to talk about forgiveness and healing. The negative energy left the room, and we started talking about how to move on."

In June, the teacher was placed on administrative leave for the rest of that year with the understanding that she would be rehired in the fall. A letter detailing the incident was placed in her file. Stock says the incident taught him a valuable lesson about handling volatile social issues: "We should have moved carefully but swiftly to get everybody involved to really talk."

Before school resumed the next fall, Stock invited Rays of Hope members to a teacher meeting on diversity issues. He warned teachers to consider not only what intentions they had for their lessons but also what others might perceive their intentions to be. That November, however, a school volunteer overheard a 3rd grade teacher in North Webster make stereotypical remarks about African Americans to her class and reported her to the principal.

This time Stock investigated immediately. The teacher acknowledged making the comments, and Stock concluded that her words directly opposed his instruction of just months earlier.

The teacher agreed to a discipline option of retirement, but hundreds of North Webster residents rallied in support of the longtime educator. At a crowded and emotional meeting in December, the school board overruled the superintendent by voting to overturn the retirement.

"I felt like Daniel in the lion's den at that meeting," says Stock. "People were screaming, 'We never had racial problems till you came here!' And maybe there wasn't an awareness of race issues before these incidents."

Stock points out that, although he was disappointed by the reversal, the school board did discipline the teacher strongly, suspending her without pay from January 1 to March 15. The teacher had had little contact with persons of color, he adds. Other board directives -- requiring that she attend a diversity workshop, participate in a teacher book discussion on related issues, and spend time with a Fort Wayne teacher whose classes included students of many races -- were intended to help her broaden her perspective.

One board member, parent and truck driver Michael Kern, was less philosophical. He resigned before the meeting in protest of the vote he knew was coming. "I couldn't tolerate the compromise to greatly reduce the teacher's punishment," he says. "Mr. Stock made the right decision, and the board members were basically behind him. Then there got to be such a horrible outcry from the community that the other board members got cold feet."

Kern says that he has heard racist comments from relatives all his life and, in the past, has simply left the room without saying anything. But as a school board member, he says, "I had taken an oath of office to be responsible for the welfare of these kids. That told me you can't just walk away and ignore it like you did when you were a private citizen." Kern hoped that his resignation "would give the issue legs long enough for somebody to catch onto it." After resigning, he joined Rays of Hope.

Rev. Sarah Tuttle, who had already become a member of that organization, shudders as she recalls the packed December board meeting.

"It was like being trapped in the '50s," she says. "It was like a bad movie." Hoping to build a sense of unity, Tuttle threw herself into planning and publicizing the area's first prayer service to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in January 1998. She involved Rays of Hope, the Minorities Issues Task Force, the Fort Wayne chapter of NAACP and area students.

As the multiracial crowd of nearly 100 lit candles and sang traditional civil rights songs in both English and Spanish, Tuttle felt the stirrings of hope. "There was a renewed sense of commitment to bringing people together."

The Students Take Charge
Person by person, it seemed, the awakening was spreading. After the second teacher incident, Jeff Van Drie began talking with his social studies classes about the racism that had surfaced in the community and about another long-ignored issue -- poverty among White as well as minority residents. The lakeside Wawasee community included some multimillion-dollar homes, he pointed out, but some children came to school from shacks and substandard mobile homes. Many students seemed stunned to learn that some minority residents felt discriminated against or that anyone in the area lived in abject poverty.

Students in Van Drie's advanced placement American history course began asking what they could do about the problems. At nearby Manchester College, someone noted, a recent hateful E-mail sent to all minority students had prompted officials to publish a full-page ad in the local newspaper, detailing the college's commitment to tolerance and respect for all students. The idea gripped Wawasee junior Jaxon Swain. He went to the library that day and wrote the first draft of his own petition.

"The publicity regarding the teacher incidents and KKK rally had all been negative," he says. "This was a way to go public and be positive about it."

Jaxon wasn't alone. A group of interested students began meeting after school to make plans for a campaign. They solicited contributions for a newspaper ad from area businesses and service organizations. With Van Drie's help, they obtained permission from social studies and English teachers to explain the petition to every class in the school and request signatures that would be published.

Although some students declined to sign the petition and a few teachers told Van Drie that it shouldn't be circulated in classrooms, about 750 of the school's 1,100 students signed it. Teachers also signed, but the student organizers decided to keep the petition a student initiative and publish only student names. With the money they had collected, the student organizers published the petition and names in the local paper just before graduation.

"We condemn all messages of hatred and racism that have surfaced in our school and community," the full-page petition began in bold type. The commitments listed on the page became the basis of Wawasee Cares.

Recognizing the need for an ongoing plan of action in their towns, the students founded a service organization last spring, with Van Drie as their sponsor. They named the group the Amy Vanlaningham Society (AVS) in honor of a service-minded graduate of Wawasee High who went to Haiti as a volunteer student nurse in 1984 and was inexplicably murdered.

When AVS began planning Wawasee Cares over the summer, senior Glenn Strycker notes with a smile, "We brainstormed all the different things we could do. We all assumed we'd do one of them, but we ended up doing all of them."

At the administrative level, superintendent Mark Stock in early 1998 initiated a three-year plan for diversity training for teachers that includes first bringing in facilitators and eventually training local people to be facilitators. He also began seeking support in the community for the needs of minority families and families living in poverty. He went first to local religious leaders, then to the police chief, then business leaders. Those leaders agreed to set up a school/community diversity fund that would cover training expenses. Training would be available to them, too.

In August, during a week of diversity training, Stock invited AVS members to plan an evening session for students. Seniors Ben Ashpole and Ryan Yoder organized a dialogue in which student leaders could share their concerns about community issues with adult leaders. They divided participants into small groups to discuss what they could do about racism in the community.

"Overall, there was an optimistic feeling," says Yoder.

The Campaign Continues
Months after the fall rally that kicked off Wawasee Cares, people still remember the words they heard that day. They recall how football and wrestling star Jamie Salazar revealed a side of himself that few of his classmates knew as he read an original poem, "What Is Color?," and talked about discrimination his grandfather and father had experienced as migrant workers in Texas. They remember freshman Suzana Rodriguez' words about the frustration of being called a "wannabe" by some Hispanic peers because she studies hard.

Speaker Kristi Brandon, manager of the Wawasee Cares project, said that she, too, had been stereotyped -- that she was not a self-confident intellectual but a shy person with low self-esteem "who long ago started forcing myself to do things I'm uncomfortable with so that I could overcome my fears." And no one can forget how superintendent Stock fought back tears as he shared his own experience of becoming a leader by breaking through his high school reputation as a "nameless, faceless person."

Efforts by the students, by superintendent Stock and Rev. Tuttle, by Jeff Van Drie, by Rays of Hope and the new task force have already elicited signs of change in the community. The diversity training has given some business leaders new ideas for helping the schools. For example, at last summer's training, radio station general manager Bill Dixon learned that Spanish-speaking parents could not understand the school-closing and delayed-opening announcements that his station broadcasts often during Indiana winters. This year he added a Spanish translation to every announcement. Despite complaints from some listeners and threats by major advertisers to pull ads, he never reconsidered his decision.

"It's in the interest of every member of our community that every child is in school," Dixon says. "Some kids were missing school because of communication problems. It's a problem we could solve, and we did."

Jeff Van Drie acknowledges that he has been discouraged many times in recent years by the slow pace of change. But, like everyone else, he feels buoyed by the Wawasee Cares campaign.

"I believe personally that the truth will set you free," he says, "and that's what's happening. These kids are being set free. They're standing with the truth, and the truth is giving them confidence."