CHURUBUSCO — Smith-Green Community Schools began the 2019-20 academic year with several new safety measures in place.

Thanks to a safety grant from the state, the K-12 school in Churubusco has a complete overhaul of its security camera system, said SGCS Superintendent Daniel Hile. They also have new emergency radios. “The new system helps with visitor management.”

Hile recently sat down to talk about changes and challenges as the new school year begins.

One challenge is estimating what student enrollment will be. Last year K-12 enrollment was 1,150 for the district. But most districts have open enrollment now, meaning students may attend schools out of their district. Last year Smith-Green had 180 students transfer in.

The other big challenge is a perennial one: funding. “It affects every district differently,” Hile said. It’s crucial to have funding available “to recruit and retain the best teachers available for our students.”

A change in technology will be a new challenge. “this coming year we will be e-learning for the first time,” Hile said.

Each student will be issued a Chromebook, although not all elementary students will take them home. “Whether we like it or not our students are going to live in a digital world.”

A full suite of software is loaded onto each computer to prevent students from going to places on the internet where they shouldn’t be.

The Chromebooks will allow Smith-Green to assign homework to students when school is closed for inclement weather. Here’s how it will work: Hile will decide if a snow day will also be an e-learning day. If it is, teachers will have to post assignments by a certain time; kids can work on it at home on their computers.

However, being a rural school district presents challenges. “Not everybody has good Internet,” Hile said, so students are allowed five school days to turn in their work. Those who don’t turn it in within that time frame will be counted as absent.

As far as building projects over the summer, two sets of restrooms in the elementary and high school have been remodeled. The elementary commons has been remodeled and now has cool new furniture.

One of the most significant changes began last year when the three Whitley County school districts were awarded a very large Lilly endowment grant. The multi-year Whitley Works program partners local business leaders with high school students in all four grades. They talk about their occupations, and arrange tours, job shadowing and internships for the students. The students who meet all the obligations of the program get an extra honor at graduation.

With so much talk these days about the high cost of student loans, Smith-Green’s stance is to make sure students know what their options are. If they want to go away to college, they learn about financial aid. If they’re not college-bound they learn about skilled trades. “Trades are paying very well right now,” Hile said. “Construction trades are hot.

“Let’s make sure you get to see all the choices.”

The district works with the Impact Institute in Kendallville for students interested in trades. The best thing about trades, Hile noted, is that young adults “can come out certified and go straight to work.”

Smith-Green applied for and was awarded a grant from the Dekko Foundation for a mental health counselor who students can see at no charge. “Day in and day out I see students who are hurting,” Hile said. He hopes the grant will be renewed.

None of the school safety funding available goes to mental health, Hile said, although the staff does have some training in suicide prevention. Students are encouraged to do the right thing and speak up when they think something isn’t right.

They also have a full-time police officer at the school for protection and to foster a good relationship with law enforcement.

The school also practices Code Red lockdowns in case the worst scenario of a dangerous intruder ever occurs. Like his colleague at Whitley County Consolidated Schools, Superintendent Dr. Patricia O’Connor, Hile says, “There’s a fine line with those.” The goal is to help the students practice without creating “an overwhelming fear or anxiety.”

Despite the emphasis on safety and technology, the overall goal at SGCS is, of course, academic success for all. “We want kids to excel both as students and young men and women,” Hile said.