Big lead contamination issues require big partnerships
The issue of lead contamination in water was thrust into the national conversation during the Flint Michigan water crisis. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), “Lead exposure can affect nearly every system in the body and is associated with numerous behavioral and learning problems (e.g. reduced IQ, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, juvenile delinquency, and criminal behavior).
Research indicates that even low levels of lead in a child’s blood can affect IQ, the ability to pay attention, and academic achievement.” The effects of lead on a child’s academic performance and mental health are truly devastating. The overarching effect of lead exposure on entire communities is also overwhelming because it drowns the promise and hope of the children in that community, overwhelms schools, and silently devastates families with young children. Finally, after decades without interventions the criminal justice systems in these communities become overwhelmed.
Not just Michigan
While the Flint crisis started in 2014, the problem of lead contamination was identified in this region several years before. According to the EPA the USS Lead Superfund site was located in East Chicago Indiana. It included part of the former USS Lead facility along with nearby commercial, municipal and residential areas. The primary contaminants of concern are lead and arsenic.
The USS Lead site was listed on the National Priorities List of the worst contaminated sites in the country in 2009. In 2017 the EPA announced that 90% of the homes in East Chicago should be filtering their water for lead.
Rep. Carolyn Jackson of Hammond, a Democrat, was a probation officer in this region prior to serving in the general assembly. She has been a passionate advocate for legislation that directly addresses the lead contamination issue. She shares, “As a probation officer I worked with people everyday who would have been contributing to society, but they had clearly been exposed to lead earlier in their development. This manifested itself into an over worked justice system and devastating losses for families. We have to find ways to be more proactive and protect children in these communities before they experience cognitive issues due to toxic water.”
Indiana has made a name for itself as being a hotbed of educational innovation. Our landscape is fertile to try new things and explore new ways to support student achievement. In 2017 one charter school and their authorizer decided that they had no choice but to tackle the lead issue directly to truly serve their students and families effectively.
Northwest Indiana Lighthouse Charter School (NWILCS) serves the East Chicago community and is authorized by Ball State University (BSU). According to the Indiana Department of Education, 99.8% of NWILCS students live below the federal poverty line, 13.4% are identified as having a learning disability, and during the 21-22 school year 81 students engaged in behaviors incidents tracked by the IDOE.
According to Jessica Beasley, NWILCS Executive Director and Superintendent shared, “We knew we had to do something different. This was so much bigger than our little charter school. As a school we don’t have the resources to take on a crisis like this on our own, so we went to our authorizer and asked for help.”
Georgette Davis is the New School Development Coordinator for Ball State University’s Office of Charter School. “When Jessica approached me about the lead issue in Northwest Indiana I was flabbergasted that people knew this was happening, there was hard data and no one was doing anything to help these schools. Charter schools and authorizers are partners serving communities. I mean we expect the same achievement from our students in northwest Indiana drinking toxic water as we do affluent children living in wealthy communities with clean water. We decided we had to offer tangible support, so we included this information in their renewal process and reduced our fees so they could put that money toward providing water filters for the homes of their students and families.”
By including health data in the renewal process and reducing their fees, BSU’s Office of Charter Schools is the first authorizer in the country to offer tangible supports to a school navigating the manifestations of the lead crisis. In the fall of 2023, NWILCS will be working with the Paramount Health Data Project to begin implementing health data in their MTSS processes to ensure their students are receiving the appropriate academic supports given the health crisis they have been navigating for more than a decade.