New Harmony School was opened more than 200 years ago as part of an experiment to create a utopian community. At the center of that experiment was the idea that quality education is part of happiness. In some ways, that grand test has finally ended. Following a 30 percent cut in state funding, one of Indiana’s oldest districts will cease operation by the end of the school year.
Superintendent Fran Theole watched as the school board voted earlier this year to remove what little life support could be found in New Harmony School’s coffers. If she had to be witness to an execution, Theole says, at least it was swift. No waiting around while the school slowly bleeds dollars.
“It was one huge cut and in a way that was probably good for us,” Theole says.
Fred Freyser has been living in New Harmony since his childhood. For the last 38 years, he’s been teaching at New Harmony School, his alma mater.
This isn’t the future he wants, but he doesn’t have much choice. Freyser says he doesn’t think he’ll be able to find another job teaching children, so he’ll probably end up in corporate training.
“I find that the clients are very similar to students,” Freyser says. “Some are there to learn because the want be, some are reluctant, and some you have to drag in out of the hall and make them.”
His classroom on the building’s eastside is cluttered with more than 6700 books which for years he’s used to help educate class after class of 6th graders.
What happens to all of those books after the school closes?
Theole says everything- books, desk, chairs, computers, the knives and forks in the kitchen- everything is catalogued and ownership is transferred to the new district. The building is placed on a registry of empty school buildings for two years, which is distributed among charter school operators. After that time, if no charter school operators decide to purchase it, it ends up in the hands of the Metropolitan Schools of North Posey County, which may sell it.
Kendal Morris is a junior and in spite of the fact that she attended kindergarten through 11thgrade in one building in New Harmony; she’ll be graduating from another — North Posey High School in nearby Poseyville.
“People can go back to their high school and see where they came from,” Morris says. “We’re not going to be able to do that.”
It’s a basic question of identity. One of Morris’s biggest concerns? Which high school reunion will she attend? She says it’s hard to imagine she’ll feel the same connection to her new school.
This kind of confusion is systemic. There is something broken about the way people talk about the school. Remember Fred Freyser, the sixth grade teacher? He talks proudly of the way the community united to update the old building about 25 years ago.
“Our community fought for it for ten years for the right to do this and were willing to pay for it,” says Freyser. “It seems that whatever our task the community steps up.”
But when asked if there was anything the community could have done to prevent the school from closing, Frazier turns his wrath toward outsiders and politicians in Indianapolis.
Frazier is near retirement, as are many of the other teachers and staff in the building, but the future of many of the younger teachers remains uncertain. With students being divided between several schools, it’s more likely that classes get larger than it is many of the New Harmony staff find jobs in the new consolidated district.