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Jerry Davich: Merrillville aims to celebrate its diversity, not fear it

Fernando Macias Valparaiso sets out placemats touting success Merrillville schools diversity Maxim Restaurant Thursday afternoon.  | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times

Fernando Macias of Valparaiso sets out placemats touting the success of Merrillville schools diversity at Maxim Restaurant Thursday afternoon. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: June 4, 2013 6:27AM



In late March, the shooting death of 14-year-old Depree Mims shook the Merrillville community and its school district.

The promising Pierce Middle School student was shot in the head in his own home, allegedly by thugs during a misguided gang initiation. Soon after his death, the whispers of misguided fear, prejudice, and racism riddled through the town and our region.

“That’s Merrillville for you,” outsiders hissed to each other.

“We need to leave Merrillville,” a few town residents wrote on online chat rooms.

Danny Lackey, among others, has heard enough of the unfair and unwarranted remarks.

“You can imagine the grief of our community and our schools that were touched by this child. But our loss was being framed and tainted by sweeping generalizations, stereotypes and prejudicial thinking. It really disturbed me,” said Lackey, coordinator of Diversity Programming for Merrillville Community School Corp.

“You didn’t hear that sort of talk after the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. It’s just another example of how Merrillville is viewed through a different lens. It puts extra added stress on our kids that is undeserving,” said Lackey, a former guidance counselor at Pierce Middle School and Merrillville High School.

On Wednesday, I met with Lackey at MHS, along with other committee members of the Thriving Neighborhood Program. The group was formed three years ago as a result of a study circle to address diversity and race relations in the town.

“Our purpose is to assist neighbors in identifying, developing and sustaining strong community values that embrace the richness of diversity,” Lackey said.

Few schools in Northwest Indiana, if any, exemplify successful diversity-driven education better than Merrillville High School, which was the only large minority-majority Indiana school to recently receive an “A” grade from the state.

Boasting a graduation rate of 90 percent, the school also has been identified as a model school by the International Center for Leadership in Education. In addition, MHS and Salk Elementary School are among just five nationwide to receive the Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color award.

Yet who knows all this besides the school corporation, its proud parents, and educators?

“All it takes is one unfortunate incident like that shooting death and all this good work, positive data and state honors get forgotten,” said Linda Jonaitis, a school board member, former principal, and TNP committee member.

‘Merrillville Advantage’

Over the past 15 years, MHS has experienced a dramatic demographic shift in its student population — from 14 percent minority students to 84 percent. As a result of this shift — and a serious racial incident back in 1995 — parents, school leaders and community members came together for a dialogue about diversity.

The conclusion was a bold one, flying in the face of fear-based prejudices: The schools’ diversity was determined to be its strength and dubbed “The Merrillville Advantage.”

(To watch a video illustrating “The Merrillville Advantage,” highlighting its students, teachers, parents, academics and diversity-driven academics, visit merrillville.schoolwires.net.)

“It was no secret to us regarding the comments that were made about Merrillville schools, which eventually filtered back to us,” said School Superintendent Tony Lux, whose 29-year tenure in the school district spans the students’ demographic shift.

Some Realtors would tell incoming homebuyers that Merrillville schools have “gone down” through the years, only adding fuel to a fire that shouldn’t exist, Lux recalled. Instead, he wonders, why don’t Realtors and other business leaders fan the flames of a positive message to potential residents, one that boasts data-proven facts, not fear-based fiction?

“The data clearly shows that as our demographics have changed our academic performance has gone up, drug use has gone down and we don’t have any gang graffiti,” Lux told me. “Merrillville is an example of successful diversity in action.”

“Just spend some time with our students and people will learn this fact,” added Nancy Fleming, a school social worker and committee member.

What we’re dealing with here, as with most other race-related issues in this region, is perception versus reality. And Merrillville schools’ reality has been pirated by prejudicial perception, said committee member Sharla Williams.

Committee member Todd Benkert, a parent of four Merrillville students, added, “When I talk to anyone outside of our schools, I hear negative stereotypes about Merrillville and what it’s becoming, none of which is based on fact.”

“But I want my kids to be in Merrillville schools,” said Benkert, a pastor at Harvest Baptist Fellowship Church in town. “I came here intentionally. We want to be here.”

Media also plays a role with this issue, with crime, homicide and other sensationalized news often grabbing front-page attention versus aforementioned accolades getting lost in the back of local newspapers, the group said.

This issue beckons an admittedly “uncomfortable” race-related, diversity-driven dialogue, committee members agree. But it’s one that’s badly needed in this region.

“What’s at stake if we don’t have these uncomfortable conversations? Who’s going to pay the price here?” Lackey asked. “Our children, that’s who.”

White, black, Hispanic, whatever — parents from every race ultimately want the same thing for their children: A strong education, safe schools and hope for their kids. Yet school officials have had more issues with parents and grandparents than with the students.

The committee is determined to “call out” such prejudices and stereotypes while acting on its mission statement to spread the word about such academics-based hope. One way to do so is by delivering 10,000 dining placemats to local restaurants, reminding patrons about “The Merrillville Advantage,” boasting statistics, not stereotypes.

For example, in 2012, Merrillville students received the highest ISTEP scores in the history of the district.

“Maybe when diversity comes to other communities, residents there won’t be so fearful,” Lux said. “The future of Northwest Indiana, and its diversity, is something not to be feared. It should be celebrated, and here is an example to help lead the way. We have evidence to prove it.”

Listen to Jerry’s “Casual Fridays” radio show today at noon on WLPR, 89.1-FM, streaming at lakeshorepublic media.org.



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