(Today’s post is base on an interview with LSUS principal, Sheila Nehrenz as she talks about LSUS and the unique school ministry that the teachers, staff and supporters provide in their neighborhood)
“We may not be a public school, but we’re definitely a neighborhood school.”
“For some, we’re the neighborhood school,” says Sheila Nehrenz, principal at Lutheran South Unity School on Fort Wayne’s southeast side.
“Our students look just like our neighborhood community,” she added. “We’re still a Lutheran school, but 90 percent of our students aren’t Lutheran.”
At Nehrenz’s school, 46 percent of students are Black, 19 percent are Hispanic, 13 percent are multiracial, and eight percent are Asian — mostly Burmese and Vietnamese immigrants.
“Lutheran South Unity was formed by a merger consisting of four Lutheran congregations who came together as one. In the past you came here because you were Lutheran and could afford to pay tuition. Attending our school was not an option for all. But when Indiana adopted school choice, all of that changed. Families could now choose where they wanted to send their children to school.”
Nehrenz, who has taught at the school for more than 30 years, has witnessed the change first hand.
“When my four children attended school here, nearly all the students were middle or upper class, white, and Lutheran. Today, only 14 percent of our students are Caucasian, and not all Lutheran. Now our school qualifies to offer 100 percent of our students a free breakfast and lunch. This is who we are today, serving our neighborhood by reaching out into our community.”
“School choice opened our doors to families who wanted something different for their children,” Nehrenz said. “Families who couldn’t afford to enroll their children in a non-public school now have the opportunity to do so right in their own community.”
“Most parents are looking for a better education and a safe school and for their children. Most of the families attending our school do not have the means to choose an alternative school for their children. They simply cannot afford to do it. But parents do know that they want something different for their child, they want a choice. They love their children, they know their children, and they know what will work for their children. “ stated Nehrenz.
Every child is unique and different. One school system for all may not work for all. Parents need to be able to meet the needs of their own individual child. They need to be able to find a school that will meet those needs. They should have a choice to make that happen no matter what their income level is.” Nehrenz said.
“Lutherans have always placed a high value on education. We built schools before we built our churches. That’s who we are. Our faith and education have always been a high priority” Nehrenz added. “When parents come to our school, the first conversation I have with them is about our faith as Lutherans, what it means, and why we exist as a school. We talk about our faith, education and what we can offer as a school for their child. We talk about our expectations and values. Parents are seeking the education we offer. Parents then make a choice. Parents are choosing. They have the choice to send their child to our school.”
“Here, you walk up and down the halls and you know each student. You know who they are, what family they’re from. Our pastor is out greeting students by name each morning. Teachers make personal connections with our families. Students know they are being cared for, loved, and that they matter.”
That’s particularly important at Lutheran South Unity, Nehrenz says, because many students come to school with family struggles and have often faced a degree of trauma in their lives. Feeling safe and loved makes a difference.
“Our students have witnessed violence. Our families have been victims of violence. Some have lost their lives. We’ve significantly invested in our school counseling services to help students deal with the realities they face. They’ve experienced some difficult challenges that could interrupt their learning. We can work with that, we don’t want their learning to be paused as they work through issues, we want to work alongside the families we serve.”
Because of the challenges outside of school, the students who enroll at Lutheran South Unity School have varied levels of academic attainment.
“We don’t pick and choose who we take. Our doors are open to all,” Nehrenz says. “We test our students to see where they are academically to be sure our staffing can meet their needs. Once we have that assurance we take students in, wherever they are — even if we know they may not pass our state standardized testing.”
“If a sixth-grader comes in reading at a third-grade level, we can't fix that in a year. Probably can't fix it in two years. But we will work with that student and focus on growth.”
“We do growth very well,” she said.
She recounted the story of a Burmese student who arrived at Lutheran South Unity with very limited English skills. In the first grade, he could only recognize the word “ox.”
“He faced an enormous challenge, figuring out the language in spoken and written form. His parents also struggled with the language so help at home was limited. But we worked with him, he worked very hard. By the eighth grade, that student won our school spelling bee. Then he won the region, then won state, then went to Washington, D.C. to compete in the National Spelling Bee!”
“How does that happen? He got an education at our school, a school that offered a different approach and educated the whole child, a non-public school that provided for his individual needs, a school his parents were able choose for him.”