Racing toward a new type of learning center: Decatur, Panther team up on educational facility

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Mention a career in motorsports to most youngsters and they imagine whizzing around the track like NASCAR’s Tony Stewart or Sam Hornish Jr., points leader of the Indianapolis Racing League.

But a partnership between Indianapolisbased Panther Racing LLC and Decatur Township Schools wants to introduce students to more practical professions within the sport by providing the resources in a hands-on learning environment.

The result is the Panther Education Center, set to open next fall near the racing team’s headquarters at the Ameriplex industrial park on the southeast side, and only minutes from Decatur Central High School.

“When I went to school, I thought, ‘How in the hell am I going to use this algebra class,'” Panther Racing co-owner John Barnes said. “This is a life experience that will bring kids in, and they’ll understand the logistics, communications and mechanics part of the business.”

The education center will provide students in grades 5 through 9 with an interactive motorsports experience featuring a four-part “Race to Victory Lane” curriculum. The half-day program will culminate in a race simulation on an Imax-style theater, where students can learn from the various engineering and car-setup choices they made.

Panther Racing is contemplating whether to locate the learning center in existing space at the industrial park or to build a new facility there. The cost has yet to be determined. Barnes and his wife, Jane, plan to make a personal investment totaling 10 percent of the expense. The remainder will need to be funded by sponsorships and grants or donations, which are being sought, John Barnes said.

Jane Barnes will likely serve as CEO of the education center.

The Indiana Department of Education is not involved, but supports the plan.

“It’s a good example of a business stepping forward and helping kids out in the classroom,” department spokesman Jason Bearce said. “It’s a neat program.”

The facility will be available to other school districts as well. Cost most likely will be tied to the field trips to maintain the program, which is similar to the way visits are conducted at Decatur Township’s Chal- lenger Learning Center.

Mirroring space center

The Challenger center was launched in 2003 and also is at Ameriplex, although Panther Racing is not associated with the endeavor. It’s part of the Alexandria, Va.-based Challenger Center for Space Science Education, whose mission is to give students a realistic look at a space mission.

Family members of the crew that perished in the Challenger space shuttle accident 20 years ago founded the not-forprofit, which has spawned more than 50 of the centers. The only other one in the metropolitan area is in Brownsburg.

Decatur Township charges $600 for fullday field trips and $2,000 for corporate outings. Executives from Eli Lilly and Co. have used the facility, said Donald Stinson, superintendent of Decatur Township Schools.

Stinson, a 1968 graduate of Decatur Central High School, returned to his home district in 2000 after spending the majority of his career at Mill Creek Schools near Plainfield. Coincidently, the Barneses, also Decatur Central grads, moved their race team from Park 100 on the northwest side to Decatur Township the same year Stinson arrived.

Barnes and co-owner Doug Boles founded the Panther team in 1997 and employ Vitor Meira as their lone driver. The Brazilian, fifth in this year’s IRL standings, has notched 10 top-10 finishes, but has yet to win a race.

Stinson and the Barneses, who knew each other in childhood, since have renewed acquaintances. About a year ago, Stinson lamented to John Barnes that he wished something similar to the Challenger Learning Center existed in the motorsports industry.

Barnes looked at Stinson for a moment and said, “Keep talking,” Stinson recalled.

Three months later, the couple unveiled their plan to Stinson, who offered his assistance. He is lending Panther Racing two teachers, Sue Keene and Jon Temple, to develop the curriculum. The two are receiving their own racing education by shadowing the Panther team. They attended the Indianapolis 500 and traveled to races in Kansas City and Kentucky, too. Panther Racing is reimbursing the school district their salary and benefits costs.

“In the city of Indianapolis, where we are the motorsports capital of the world … it just makes a lot of sense,” Stinson said. “It’s exciting to see a rebirth of part of our heritage that needs to happen.”

Innovative curriculum

Stinson’s participation in the project is no surprise to those familiar with his educational philosophy. His willingness to introduce innovative ideas to improve test scores and graduation rates earned him the title of 2005 Indiana Superintendent of the Year by the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents.

Besides bringing the Challenger Learning Center to the district, Stinson was among the first area superintendents to embrace charter schools. He received a Gates Grant from the University of Indianapolis to open the Decatur Discovery Academy in the fall of 2005 to focus on underperforming pupils. The school serves 150 students in grades 9 through 11 and will add 12th grade next year.

For the first time, Stinson said, kids who otherwise would be a sad statistic are having some success in the classroom.

“They are capable of learning, but not in the traditional way,” he said. “[The subject matter] just needs to be presented differently.”

Moreover, Stinson has applied for a grant from the Governor’s Office to launch a program in which he will separate the high school into five learning areas from which students can choose. They will be free to switch areas, if their choice proves uninspiring, but the idea is to match them with their areas of interest. One so-called community will focus on technology, for instance.

The obvious goal is to improve upon the high school’s current graduation rate of 72 percent. Any contribution Panther Racing can make is well worth the investment, said Jane Barnes.

“It’s not in any way going to make Panther win races,” she said, “but it’s a good way to give back to the community.”

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