When the Indiana Department of Education released its list of Four Star Schools in February, East Allen University was among just 15 Allen County schools honored. That followed designation as an A school last October, reflecting the school's letter grade for the 2016-17 academic year.
And East Allen's grade the previous year? An F, at least before East Allen County Schools officials successfully petitioned for the grade to be nullified.
How did an F-rated school become one of the top-ranked schools in the state over the course of a single academic year?
No mystery there: It was never a failing school. The state's ill-advised grading formula gave the three-year-old East Allen University no credit in a graduation calculation because it had yet to produce its first graduating class. And, ironically, that class was headed to graduation success unusual among all Indiana high schools.
East Allen's early-college focus made for an exemplary school from the start, offering students a rigorous academic program and a strong head start. Beginning with the first graduates in 2016, most of East Allen's students complete Vincennes University courses to earn an associate's degree along with their high school diploma.
The college advantage pays off quickly: Giselle Miller and McKenzie Suggs, both members of East Allen University's first graduating class, earned four-year degrees at Indiana Tech's May 12 commencement. In a span of less than six years, each earned a high school diploma, an associate's degree and a bachelor's degree.
“It was hard work. A lot of time, a lot of studying,” Suggs, 19, said of her high school experience. “Late nights, early mornings – but worth it in the end.”
“Definitely worth it in the end,” added Miller, 20. “It was a big accomplishment in my family. Not too many of my siblings or cousins had gone to college, and here I ended up going to college while I was in high school, and then finishing college after that.”
Just a month out of school, Miller is working in administration for Lutheran Life Villages, while Suggs is hoping to land a position at Micropulse in Columbia City.
The new graduates also are in an enviable financial position, thanks to the college credit they earned – at no cost – in high school. While the average debt for Indiana Tech graduates is just less than $42,000, according to the Institute for College Access and Success, Miller finished debt-free; Suggs finished with less than $10,000 in debt.
The study habits they learned at East Allen University also set them apart. Miller said upperclassmen in their advanced business administration classes sought them out as study partners soon after they started college.
East Allen University Principal Doug Hicks credits students, faculty and the school's partnership with Vincennes for the school's success. But Hicks himself deserves credit for selling the vision – first planted by Karyle Green, a former East Allen County Schools superintendent – to the school board, teachers, students and parents. The plan to close Paul Harding High School and reopen it as an early college program had its detractors.
Bob Nelson, now president of the East Allen school board, counts himself among them.
“When it was first presented to me, I was wondering, quite frankly, why that attendance area? Because I thought it was going to be much more targeted to a higher-degreed student,” he said, “But I learned that was chosen as the attendance area because that's exactly what the mission and dream was – getting a lot of kids from that attendance area the opportunity to get college credits at no charge.”
Nelson said he expects at the end of 10 years the school district will be able to look back and see East Allen University's success in the number of college credits and degrees earned by its graduates.
“I love it,” he said. “We're getting exactly the students we want.”
Hicks, whose job, in part, has been to sell students and their parents on a non-traditional high-school experience, is finding the job easier as its success story becomes known. Where at first it was tough to explain the value of academically tough classes versus marching band or football, the school is now drawing freshmen from throughout the East Allen district and from neighboring school districts.
“When we had the Top 10 breakfast this year, so many of the students from the other (East Allen district) schools were talking about their experience in softball or basketball – everything was about an extracurricular as the thing that stood out to them the most. But these kids ...,” said Hicks, gesturing to students passing in the hallway outside his office, “it's just not about that.”
East Allen University students do college-level work, at times with tutoring assistance from Vincennes instructors whose work is coordinated by Odelet Nance, the university's assistant dean of instruction. Each East Allen University student has a 70-minute study hall each day; some of their college instruction is online. They finish well prepared for higher education.
LilliAnn Hagadorn, who graduated Saturday as part of the class' top 10, exhibits unusual poise and confidence for an 18-year-old. She said she chose East Allen University over New Haven High School at Hicks' urging.
“In middle school, I wasn't really sure what an associate's degree was, but everyone was telling me it was a great opportunity – you are going to save so much money,” she recalled. “So, I just wanted to take on the challenge.
“Last year was the hardest,” Hagadorn said of her junior year. “I took all college classes, except one. It was probably my busiest year, including working and doing extracurricular activities.”
She's a member of the Fort Wayne mayor's youth engagement council and completed an internship with the council's program director.
Hagadorn earned magna cum laude honors with her Vincennes degree and is headed to Indiana University Bloomington, where she's been named a Cox Scholar, with full cost of attendance covered. She plans to study law and public policy through the School of Public and Environmental Affairs.
“I want to go into politics,” Hagadorn said. “I want to make change, whether it's local, state or federal. I really love Indiana and I love government.”
Hser Muh Htah, another member of the top 10, described her experience at the Vincennes commencement as “magical.”
“It was the greatest opportunity I've ever experienced,” she said. “My parents didn't finish middle school, but they raised me in the right way and always supported me even though they couldn't help me with my schoolwork because they can't speak English.”
Born in a refugee camp in Thailand to Burmese-Karen parents, she came to the U.S. at age 3. Her family lived in Georgia before relocating to Fort Wayne. After an internship at a middle school, she said she's torn between studying education or nursing, but expects she'll pursue a four-year nursing degree at Indiana University Fort Wayne.
Both of the new graduates said they made the right decision in choosing East Allen University, and Hagadorn said the school's F rating two years ago never gave her second thoughts.
“We all thought it was funny,” she said. “We were mad, but we also thought it was funny because we knew we were an A school. And when we got the Four Star School, we were all happy for (Hicks) because we knew he deserved it. We knew he was the best principal we've ever had.”
But Hicks said he recognized the stigma the poor letter grade carried when he tried to recruit the next year's freshman class.
“When you get that letter grade of an F published in the newspaper, then you have to go on the offensive and get that cleared,” he said. “But that was five months after the damage was done.”
Now, as principal of an A-rated school, Hicks said he puts stock not in a letter grade or Four Star-recognition, but in the success of his graduates.
“It's the stories of the students who go on to college and get the bachelor's degree; who are debt-free,” he said. “I won't say we did it, because so much of the credit goes to the students, and the parents, but I believe we gave them a nice buffet of options – and they consumed them. The thing I'm most proud of is our graduates who went to college tell us they were prepared for school and their credits transferred. To me, that's why we're doing what we do.”
Karen Francisco is the editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette.