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January 7, 2009 - After more than 140 years of serving some of the state’s neediest children, the Indiana Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Children’s Home’s mission of offering a “safe mentoring community where Indiana’s at-risk youth are given opportunities to excel” will end this May.
The decision to close the facility comes at the conclusion of a three-year review by the Indiana Department of Health (DOH) and a handful of other state agencies. The ultimate decision, however, which affects more than 180 employees at the Home, was made by a single state official – Indiana Health Commissioner Dr. Judith Monroe.
“As state health commissioner, I have the authority to make that decision,” Monroe told The Banner Tuesday afternoon. Pursuant to Indiana statute, the state’s health commissioner – a governor appointee – has administrative control over the Home and is responsible for the facility.
“We’ve actually been doing an evaluation of the Home the past three years,” Monroe said, “looking at outcomes and efficiencies and care of the children, and so forth. As we have done that evaluation, this has been a very deliberate decision that has taken a long time. But the final decision has been quite recent.”
Monroe said final discussions regarding the Home’s future took place over the “last few months.” She said it was hard to say exactly when the decision to close the facility was made, but said it probably came in the last month or past couple of weeks.
Home employees were scheduled to meet at 10 a.m. this morning with Monroe in the school’s auditorium. She and three others from the DOH, as well as at least one representative from the Department of Education (DOE), were expected to be on hand to present information about the closure decision and to discuss plans for helping employees with the transition.
Most employees – Monroe said there were 188 as of last October, 169 of which were full-time – found out about the pending closure through a letter Monroe mailed to them on Monday that arrived in Tuesday’s mail. The Banner learned about the closing when a Home employee brought a copy of the letter to the newspaper’s office.
“There’s no easy way to make these announcements,” Monroe said of the letters that went out. “This involves so many people, so we’re trying to be sensitive to letting people know as soon as possible.” By announcing the decision now, she said it was hoped that the transition would be smoother for both students and employees.
Monroe’s letter said students who attend the Home’s Morton Memorial School will be transitioned “to their community-based school corporations” when the current school year ends in May. While she acknowledged there was a financial component to the decision to close the Home, Monroe said concern for students was the primary motivation.
“Quite frankly, the kids come first,” Monroe said. “It’s what’s best for kids. So, If we had a system in place out there that was having remarkable success in scores and retention, or so forth, that would be different; but I don’t think we can justify the resources at this point going into this particular system.”
According to Monroe, the Home had 114 students as of last October, seven more than the school reported to the DOE in September. Monroe said these students, who were all in grades 5-12, came from 36 counties, and that this year’s graduating class was expected to have about 19 students.
Monroe told The Banner that student performance on the state’s ISTEP-Plus exam showed that most were falling way short of the state’s average pass rate. “When you look at the ISTEP scores coming out of the school … they’re very low,” she said.
“We don’t believe this is due to personnel,” Monroe continued. “I really commend the efforts out there. The superintendent has done a great job. … (and) the teachers, I think, put their heart and soul into it. But it’s the system – it’s a broken system.”
Monroe said part of the review process had been to study different educational models to see what works best. She said the educational model that the Home is based on, while it may have worked 30 years ago, doesn’t cut it today.
“When you take children and institutionalize them and put them in an environment like that to try to get better performance,” she said, “unfortunately … I think we’ve learned that kids need to stay in their home environment in the community and let the community be built up to serve kids at risk.”
This echoed what Monroe told Home employees in the letter sent to them: “Across the nation,” she wrote, “the trend is to care for students and clients close to the families and in the schools and communities that are better equipped to address needs through community-based resources.”
And there’s the cost. According to Monroe, Morton Memorial, which she said had a budget of $10.8 million for 2008, has a student to teacher-to-student ratio of one to five. “We have one teacher for every five students,” she said, “and the cost of educating those students, per student, is $91,205 a year.”
No determination has been made as to what, if anything, will be done with the Home, which sits on 419 acres that include an administration building, children's dormitory cottages, Morton Memorial School, a hospital, dairy farm, camp grounds and recreational facilities. Monroe said options that have been considered, but which were rejected, included using the location for a vocation school or charter school, or partnering with a post-secondary learning institution.
“Quite frankly, the roadblock has been the maintenance,” Monroe said. “It’s going to cost so much to upgrade everything.” According to Monroe, modernizing outdate physical facilities at the Home would take anywhere from $65 million to $200 million.
A small task force is continuing to look at possible uses for the facility. Monroe said the task force will also work to develop a plan to help Home employees with the transition.
“The kids are number one,” said Jennifer Dunlap, the DOH’s public affairs director, “but we do certainly want to look out for the dedicated staff and faculty that have been working there for so many years.”
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