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Harding’s final bell rings

High school to become EACS magnet school

The usual excitement associated with the last day of school will be mixed with sadness Friday as Harding High School staff and students bid farewell to their 38-year-old high school.

Although the school will eventually become the Paul Harding College and Career Academy, a magnet school, it will cease to be known as Paul Harding High School. The academy will begin adding grades, starting with freshmen, in 2012, which means no current Harding students will return to the school.

Students, parents and staff have mixed feelings about the school’s transformation, which was a part of the East Allen County Schools larger redesign plan. While some lobbied to keep the school open and pushed for it to become a charter school, many eventually made peace with the decision.

“There’s some sadness involved, but it’s like anything else, you look back on it and it was such a great experience that nothing can take away those memories,” said former Harding English teacher Sondra Mergenthal, who taught from Harding’s opening until 1998.

“I still have so many friendships over the years that came from teaching there. Those are things that last a lifetime.”

The district’s redesign plan was approved in October as a means to curb expenses, enhance academic offerings and address decreasing enrollment. The plan maintains all five high school buildings, converting Harding into a magnet school. Eventually, the district plans to close seven elementary schools.

As a result of the plan, current Harding students will attend East Allen’s other high schools next fall. Meanwhile, the building will house seventh- and eighth-graders currently attending Prince Chapman Academy.

Freshmen will move to the building in the fall of 2012, when it will reopen as a magnet school. The district will continue to add classes until the building holds grades 7 through 12.

Harding, built in 1973 and named after the district’s first superintendent, has undergone significant demographic changes but few structural changes throughout the years.

The 247,335-square-foot building was built with movable walls, which gave leaders the ability to create and remove classrooms to suit their needs. It cost the district about $6 million to build the school, which has undergone no significant renovations over the years.

Originally, Harding served 1,137 students. Today it serves about 600. The school had its highest enrollment in 1974-75, when it reached 1,235.

Until recently, Harding had only three principals in its history: Mike Bonahoom, Bill Griffith and Neal Brown. Kent Hoffman, who started at the beginning of the year, was placed on leave this spring and has announced plans to resign at the end of the school year. District officials have not commented on the reasons for his departure.

In recent years, Harding has struggled with test scores, graduation rates and other marks of academic achievement. This year was the school’s fifth year on state academic probation. Had the school not closed, it could have faced state intervention, including a possible takeover, if assessment scores did not improve.

District officials acknowledge closing schools can be hard on the community.

“When schools close, it’s very emotional for families and community members,” EACS Superintendent Karyle Green said. “Connections at a high school are even stronger. It’s a difficult, emotional thing when a high school closes.”

To make transitions as smooth as possible for Harding students, the administration has been arranging for Harding students to visit their new schools, planning activities for students to meet their new peers and forming committees and task forces to ensure students’ voices are heard.

“I think we have had a tremendous opportunity in the last several months to prepare all students for the change,” Green said. “We’ve had incredible comments from students across our district about how much they’re looking forward to changes next year.”

District officials are still in the process of making decisions about the new school, including what kind of academic programs will be offered and how much the final renovations will cost. All Harding memorabilia, including trophies and student pictures, will be kept inside the school.

Jabar Ray, a sophomore heading to Heritage next year, said he’s both sad to leave Harding and looking forward to the change.

“I’ll just miss the school,” he said. “There were a lot of cool things we did and the teachers are all nice. But it’s going to be exciting, too, because we’re moving on to a new school and we get to meet new people.”

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