Writer // Janelle Morrison Photography // Submitted and JJ Kaplan
Education has always been a vital part of the Carmel community, and the Carmel Clay Schools (CCS) administration has been mindful to stay ahead of the district’s growth over the decades in order to best serve its student body and faculty. Carmel Clay Schools Co-Interim Superintendents Dr. Amy Dudley and Roger McMichael spoke with us about the growth and changes within the school district over the last 20 years and some issues that the administration and board are preparing for now for future generations of students.
McMichael gave an overview of the construction projects that began with a major renovation of Carmel High School (CHS) beginning in 1994 and concluded with the construction of the last new elementary school, West Clay Elementary, in 2006.
In 1995, the ninth-grade freshman students had been moved from the junior highs (where they had been for years) to the high school, and in 2005, the CHS Freshman Center was completed, adding another 182,000 square feet to the overall high school complex. The Carmel High School building currently sits on 55 acres of land and comprises 22 acres of enclosed space.
“When I was hired in 1994, the high school was literally divided in half,” he said. “The west side was not connected to the east side of the building. There had been a major community uprising over the construction of the high school, and the project had been shut down. That was a big controversy of course. On the west side of the high school, roughly where the cafeteria is, the wall had been bricked up, and there were pipes sticking out, going to nowhere. And from the inside, you could go up a set of stairs and run into a brick wall. As students, you had to go outside to get to the other side of the campus.”
McMichael shared that eventually the committee was reconstituted, new board members were elected, a new plan was approved and construction on the CHS resumed. CHS was under construction for nearly 10 years in some form.
“Part of the reconfiguration was putting the ninth grade in CHS,” McMichael explained. “The ninth grade was in the two junior highs. Prior to the renovations on CHS, the natatorium had not existed. It is worth noting that the state championship swim teams were winning championships long before they had this beautiful natatorium. Prior to, they were swimming in a concrete pond that couldn’t host meets because it wasn’t a regulation pool. Having these facilities doesn’t make the athletes swim faster necessarily. They still have to get up at 4 a.m. and practice every morning.”
CCS built its ninth elementary school, Prairie Trace, in 1998. The district had approximately 7,000-8,000 students and was growing. Two years later, CCS built Towne Meadow Elementary. The district was building a school about every couple of years and renovating existing schools. In 2004, CCS built its third middle school, Creekside Middle School. The two former junior high schools, Carmel Junior High and Carmel Clay Junior High, had undergone name changes in the mid-‘90s, according to McMichael, and became Carmel Middle and Carmel Clay Middle Schools. The last new school building, West Clay Elementary, opened in 2006.
“As we approached 2004, our enrollment was growing 300-500 students per year,” McMichael stated. “We built the Freshman Center in 2004, and at that point, we had a high school with 1 million square feet that will accommodate 5,500 students. We are growing into that space, but we are not at capacity. It has taken years to march towards the current 5,000 student enrollment figure.”
According to McMichael, the district completed a 20-year demographic study, which indicates the enrollment that peaked in 2012 at the elementary level would level out and eventually slightly decrease.
“There is a definite anticipation of a declining enrollment at some point,” McMichael affirmed. “The demographic study suggests that by 2026, we’ll be down to approximately 15,200 from 16,000 students.”
Meanwhile, the administrators and school board will continue to focus on providing excellent curriculum and programs as the years move forward. With the support of the Carmel community, CCS has managed to pass its last two referenda that have helped to fill the shortfalls created by the current state funding formula. With the passing of these referenda, CCS has been able to maintain the level of education that Carmel residents have grown accustomed to over the decades.
“One of the things that we learned about our first referendum eight years ago was that we needed to do a better job of educating our community,” Dudley observed. “The people that have children in the schools are very supportive. We have great parental support. We weren’t doing a good enough job of educating people who don’t have children in the schools and don’t necessarily have connections to the schools.”
Dudley explained that they started an expedition program to garner support from people who don’t necessarily have ties to the schools. These folks were brought in to discuss the referendum and then went out into the community where they could talk knowledgeably with their friends and neighbors and answer questions.
“Having a high performing school district helps with property values, which allows people to get much more value for their house,” Dudley emphasized. “Businesses want to come to Carmel because their employees want their families to attend our high performing schools. As a district, we have to make sure that we continue to provide opportunities for our students, K-12, and are constantly reinventing ourselves. As good as we are, things change, and we have to grow with those changes. Our students are changing from being just consumers of knowledge to creators of knowledge, and that is where our focus is moving. In the next decades, we have to make sure that our students are adaptable and are being innovative and creative for the jobs that they will have that don’t even exist yet.”