Elkhart schools mull overhaul of system, parents propose alternative

Wednesday Sept. 14, 2016

Elkhart Schools Superintendent Robert Haworth, who helped pull together the proposed overhaul of Elkhart Community Schools. By Tim Vandenack

Elkhart Schools Superintendent Robert Haworth, who helped pull together the proposed overhaul of Elkhart Community Schools. By Tim Vandenack

ELKHART — One of the current burning topics of debate, at least among many parents and Elkhart school officials — the proposed overhaul of Elkhart Community Schools.

ECS leadership unveiled a proposal last April to revamp the two high schools in Elkhart, with one, Elkhart Memorial, serving 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders, and Elkhart Central serving ninth-graders. Many view it as high school unification. The plan also outlines changes to the middle schools and one elementary school and many other tweaks in the school system, aiming to better school kids and prevent transfers out of the district, a big problem that results in loss of state funding.

Needless to say, it’s got many wondering what it all means, what would become of the high schools, whether it would really work and keep kids here. But it’s complicated.

I’ve taken on a role trying to grasp and understand the topic, a pretty hefty one, and pulled together a pair of stories that ran as a package on Monday (though one posted online on Sunday). One focused on a counter-proposal put forward by three parents following the process and their calls for more ideas from the public:

The other offered an update on the decision-making process timeline:

I wrote a pair of stories on the topic last month, too, one parsing the the high school unification issue (here), the other offering a more general look at the debate and issues at stake (here).

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Elkhart homicides, violence — unfortunate norm, on the rise?

Monday Sept. 12, 2016

Elkhart police stand guard outside the home of a July 31, 2016, triple homicide. By Tim Vandenack

Elkhart police stand guard outside the home of a July 31, 2016, triple homicide. By Tim Vandenack

There have been eight homicides in Elkhart so far this year, including a July 31 triple homicide, the latest. That’s more than any year as a whole (with more time to go in 2016) dating to at least 2012

There have also been 28 armed robberies.

It all begs the question — is violence running amok?

I called some area leaders, pulled together some figures (including gunshot reports) to write a quick analysis of the situation. People are buzzing about crime — it’s come up at two recent town hall-style meetings I’ve attended — but it’s not clear how to get a grip on it. I tied it all in with a young man’s impromptu memorial to gun victims earlier this year, something I also wrote about.

Here’s the latest story, with the homicide victims and robberies in an accompanying sidebar:

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Elkhart’s homeless prodded out of Tent City

Sunday Sept. 4, 2016

The Elkhart homeless camp known as Tent City, located on city-owned property. This photo is from June 8, 2016, before the city prodded them off, Aug. 31, 2016. By Tim Vandenack

The Elkhart homeless camp known as Tent City, located on city-owned property. This photo is from June 8, 2016, before the city prodded them off, Aug. 31, 2016. By Tim Vandenack

The controversy over a homeless encampment in a wooded area on city-owned property came to an uneventful conclusion with the peaceful departure of the contingent last Wednesday.

I first wrote about the issue in June after Mayor Tim Neese offered jobs to some of the homeless, hoping to prod them off the land into homes, finding three takers. The city had announced plans to clear a portion of the property and wanted the homeless to leave.

Elkhart Mayor Tim Neese, left, listens to Michael Parker, who had been living in the Tent City homeless encampment on Sept. 1, 2016, at St. James AME Church, Elkhart. Parker left the encampment and lives with two others in a home now. By Tim Vandenack

Elkhart Mayor Tim Neese, left, listens to Michael Parker, who had been living in the Tent City homeless encampment, on Sept. 1, 2016, at St. James AME Church, Elkhart. Parker left the encampment and lives with two others in a home now. By Tim Vandenack

I tracked back to see if the three were still working for the city. Turns out they weren’t, I couldn’t find them:

Meantime, the deadline loomed for others still living there to leave, Aug. 31, and that turned into the focus of coverage last week by fellow Elkhart Truth reporter Ben Quiggle and I. I wrote this:

Ben handled the main departure day story (here). Neese and homeless advocates found those who were still there places to stay and things ended happily ever after, momentarily, anyway.

I wrote another story last year (here) about a homeless man who was living in the encampment, called Tent City.

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Libertarians give Elkhart County voters a third choice, Coleman says Walorski is inaccessible

Saturday Sept. 3, 2016

Libertarian candidates Ethan Legg, left, who's running for the District 21 seat in the Indiana House, and Ron Cenkush, who's running for the 2nd District U.S. House seat. Photos supplied

Libertarian candidates Ethan Legg, left, who’s running for the District 21 seat in the Indiana House, and Ron Cenkush, who’s running for the 2nd District U.S. House seat. Photos supplied

Labor Day will soon be here, which means even more election coverage.

But we’ve already been doing plenty of it at The Elkhart Truth. U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski, a Republican, and her Democratic challenger Lynn Coleman are in the midst of debating whether, when and where to debate, which I used as an opportunity to delve into Coleman’s charges that Walorski is inaccessible. Walorski is holding off on committing to a debate, same as she did two years ago, and Coleman maintains that she doesn’t mix sufficiently with constituents:

Same day that appeared in print, Walorski held a gathering — with a group of business leaders in Elkhart County (look here), hearing their lament that there aren’t enough workers. She regularly meets privately with small groups, her Facebook feed shows, but hasn’t had a town hall or public listening tour of late.

Turns out there are a pair of Libertarians on the ballot, one vying for Walorski’s seat, Ron Cenkush, and the other, Ethan Legg, running for an Indiana House seat that serves part of Elkhart County. I wrote about them, noting that voters here will have more than just Democrats and Republicans to choose from:

There will also be three Libertarians further up the ballot, for governor. U.S. Senator and president.

This, I reckon, is only the beginning of our political coverage…

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The Amish, Trump, feral cats and graffiti — my week in a nutshell

Tuesday Aug. 16, 2016

Amish buggies at a hitching post outside a Nappanee grocery store, top, and the graffiti-covered Elkhart Art League building, which Elkhart parks officials want to demolish. By Tim Vandenack

Amish buggies at a hitching post outside a Nappanee grocery store, top, and the graffiti-covered Elkhart Art League building, which Elkhart parks officials want to demolish. By Tim Vandenack

Amish attitudes toward voting and the push to permit feral cats in Elkhart — those were a couple themes I’ve been focusing on the past few days.

We learned of a new group, the Amish PAC, a political action committee trying to promote presidential hopeful Donald Trump among the Amish, and I used that as a springboard to gauge voting attitudes of the sector here in Elkhart County. The Amish have a strong presence in northern Indiana, particularly Elkhart and LaGrange counties. I went to Nappanee to track some Amish down, and it turns out they’re not that interested in voting (they put their faith just in God):

The feral cat issue could be coming up in the Elkhart City Council, and that was the focus of another article. Elkhart City Council President Brian Thomas made a passing reference to the dismantling of a feral cat colony in the city, a turn that upset feline advocates. In talking to him afterward, I learned an ordinance was in the works that would permit such colonies, and working with an intern, Allison Todd, we sought out more:

Finally, controversy sprang over plans to demolish a graffiti-covered building in a city park used by the Elkhart Art League, a non-profit group that promotes the arts. The city maintains it’s in bad shape and wants to tear it down, but Art League reps say leave it alone, despite the colorful exterior (the result of a policy allowing graffiti art). Stay tuned on this one:

  • “Elkhart Art League, parks officials spar over future of graffiti-covered High Dive Park building,” Aug. 12, 2016

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Elkhart man makes Styrofoam cup memorial, annexation, a triple homicide

Monday Aug. 8, 2016

A group of kids from Strong Avenue held a lemonade sale on Aug. 2, 2016, in the wake of a triple homicide on the street. It wasn't a reaction to the incident but underscored that there's more to the neighborhood than violence. By Tim Vandenack

A group of kids from Strong Avenue held a lemonade sale on Aug. 2, 2016, in the wake of a triple homicide on the street. It wasn’t a reaction to the incident but underscored that there’s more to the neighborhood than violence. By Tim Vandenack

With the small staff here, work at The Elkhart Truth lets you dip your toes into many sorts of stories. No doubt about that.

This is perhaps my favorite from the past few weeks, a story about a local man, Damond Smart, who identified, via Styrofoam cups in a chain-link fence, more than 70 area victims of gun violence:

Smart aimed to underscore the violence that occurs on the streets here and send a message to the public, mainly those in south-central Elkhart, an older, lower-income part of town — don’t get mixed up with the wrong crowd and end up with your name on the fence.

Top: "All Lives Matter," one of many messages on chain-link fence turned into a memorial of Elkhart gun violence victims. Bottom, L to R: Vigil to gun violence victims organized by Smart; Angel Wilson, ex-fiance of one of three victims of triple homicide; Larry Sims, who organized a campaign to help Rainelle, W. Va., deal with flooding. All by Tim Vandenack

Top: “All Lives Matter,” one of many messages on chain-link fence turned into a memorial of Elkhart gun violence victims. Bottom, L to R: Vigil to gun violence victims organized by Smart; Angel Wilson, ex-fiance of one of three victims of triple homicide; Larry Sims, who organized a campaign to help Rainelle, W. Va., deal with flooding. All by Tim Vandenack

Other topics of late:

Triple homicide: The reaction from the Strong Avenue neighborhood, rocked by a triple homicide on July 31.

The news initially caused nervousness (“Elkhart shooting deaths leave Strong Avenue residents jittery, shocked,” Aug. 2, 2016). Then a group of Strong Avenue kids put up a lemonade stand, not in response, but it underscored that there’s more to the neighborhood than violence (“Strong Avenue kids join forces to underscore good in the neighborhood,” Aug. 3, 2016).

Annexation: The end, finally, of the last of three bitter lawsuits filed by Elkhart County homeowners fighting annexation into the city.

The city agreed to carve the homeowners out of the area to be absorbed, a bitter issue that led in part to Mayor Dick Neese’s defeat last year at the hands of Tim Neese, who took over the mayor’s job on Jan. 1. I did an analysis, looking into the many issues raised by the controversy, as a seven-item list (“At a glance: Elkhart annexation cost $500,000, but will generate nearly $3.93 million a year,” Aug. 1, 2016). I also took a look at the prospects for more annexations in the wake of the resolution (“Elkhart annexation all but complete, likely not to be repeated anytime soon,” July 27, 2016).

Helping West Virginia: A local man who took matters into his own hands and called area businesses, seeking donations of construction supplies to help victims of flooding in West Virginia rebuild (“Elkhart man works the phones, collects truckload of aid for flood-devastated West Virginia town,” Aug. 7, 2016).

Larry Sims — a former RV-sector worker now seeking disability due to a congenital heart condition — has family in the West Virginia town he wanted to help, Rainelle, and launched his efforts despite never having done anything like it before.

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There were Elkhart County angles as well to the GOP and Democratic national conventions

Monday Aug. 1, 2016

Me, Tim Vandenack, on WNIT's Politically Speaking, discussing the GOP and Democratic national conventions. Screen grab from program.

Me, Tim Vandenack, on WNIT’s Politically Speaking, discussing the GOP and Democratic national conventions. Screen grab from program.

The Republican and Democratic national conventions in July provided plenty of fodder for local coverage — reaction from locals taking part as delegates to what went down in Cleveland and Philadelphia.

With a Bernie Sanders delegate and Hillary Clinton super delegate from Elkhart County, covering the Democrats proved to be more interesting. At least there were a few more sparks than at GOP event, which resulted in the formal nomination of Donald Trump. I spoke with the local delegates by phone (didn’t make it outside the confines of Elkhart County), but it still offered a means to connect locals with national events.

I also served as a talking head on Politically Speaking, a political program on the local PBS station, WNIT, discussing the conventions (look here).

Here are links to two of my articles:

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Elkhart County’s Latino population focus of series, “Hispanics at Home?”

Wednesday June 29, 2016

 

HispAtHome

Some of the people I spoke to for The Elkhart Truth series, “Hispanics at Home?” By Tim Vandenack

By now, Hispanics have a well-established presence in Elkhart County.

Aiming to take a closer look at the segment, but wanting to do more than state the obvious — that they’re an increasing share of the population — we took another approach. We’d try to get a sense of how connected the Latino newcomers feel in Elkhart, Goshen and the rest of Elkhart County.

The end result — “Hispanics at Home?”, a three-part series that ran in The Elkhart Truth last month. I helped craft the approach, but it was a team effort, largely involving myself, reporter Sharon Hernandez and Managing Editor Mark Maley. A group of Goshen College journalism students also contributed plenty of material.

A few takeaways:

  • Latinos have their own tight-knit community, their neighborhoods, their stores. Latinos have Spanish-language churches, there’s even a soccer league that caters to a largely-Hispanic population. That tends to create a sense of two parallel worlds.
  • Still, many leaders have emerged and are emerging, trying to raise the voice of Latinos, get them more involved in the broader community.
  • Younger Latinos, comfortable in both the Anglo and Hispanic cultures, bilingual, are increasingly feeling at home here, even if they were born in Mexico or elsewhere in Latin America.

I wrote several stories, shot video and did plenty of social media along the way. I crunched a ton of U.S. Census Bureau figures, which helped document the growth of the segment, where Latinos live and the nature of the population (native or foreign-born, their roots in Latin America). Some of my highlights:

Here’s a promo video I put together to tease the package before its launch:

The immigration issue is big in Elkhart County and the rest of the United States. It’s an issue that draws me, having lived in Latin America, origin of many immigrants here, and I’ve written a lot about it over the years.

 

 

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Traveling in Obama’s motorcade provides presidential glimpse

June 14, 2016

View of the people watching the presidential motorcade, from the motorcade, Elkhart, June 1, 2016. By Tim Vandenack

View of the people watching the presidential motorcade, from the motorcade, Elkhart, June 1, 2016. By Tim Vandenack

President Obama is long gone.

His visit here is not forgotten, though.

It offered me a unique opportunity — traveling in the motorcade with the press and seeing all the machinations that go into a presidential visit. Plus, I saw Obama for the first time, heard him speak.

Air Force 1

A post shared by Tim Vandenack (@timvandenack) on

I embedded as a local pool reporter when he came on June 1, writing up brief accounts via my iPhone for media consumption of the president’s movements as the trip progressed. I saw him arrive and leave on Air Force One. I watched his speech at Concord High School, getting a glimpse of The Beast, the limo that hauls him, and got access to The Lerner Theatre, where he taped an hour-long PBS town hall meeting.

Amazing seeing the people lining the road to get a glimpse of the motorcade. Incredible the security. Incredible how well-oiled a machine the motorcade is.

I wrote a first-person account of traveling in the motorcade:

Here are a few more things:

Of course I tweeted, posted on Facebook and posted Instagram pics all along.

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President Obama’s coming to Elkhart. Again. He’ll be talking about the economic recovery.

Sunday May 30, 2016

A rendering of President Obama at Tolson Youth and Community Center, Elkhart. Photo taken Feb. 19, 2016, by Tim Vandenack

A rendering of President Obama at Tolson Youth and Community Center, Elkhart. Photo taken Feb. 19, 2016, by Tim Vandenack

ELKHART — President Obama’s coming to town. Again.

He visited Elkhart twice in 2008, during his first campaign for president, and returned twice to Elkhart County in 2009 to tout his plans to revive the U.S. economy, then in the depths of the recession.

Now he says he’s coming back on Wednesday for another address at Concord High School, which will be his third stop there. He’ll also take part in a town hall meeting at The Lerner Theatre, organized by PBS NewsHour, the Public Broadcasting System news program.

The Truth staff is keeping busy tracking down the details. Here are a few of my contributions:

I did another story crunching some of the economic numbers for Elkhart County, comparing things now and then. That’s yet to be published. The economy has definitely rebounded, with lower unemployment, more people in the workforce and better wages in the manufacturing sector. The big question — does Obama deserve credit?

Come Wednesday, plans call for me to be following the president around. It’ll be exciting, exhausting, I expect.

 

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