A Gary Crusader Investigation

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Five Gary schools earned F grades for two straight years under MGT. One school had 49 dropouts in one year as the firm made millions. Now the firm wants an extended contract after failing to academically turn around Gary’s struggling schools.

By Erick Johnson

Eric Parish

Three years ago, MGT Consulting set out to change Gary’s schools as part of a state takeover. With Eric Parish as its vice president, the firm had a big job to do. Gary’s schools were lagging academically behind the state.

Fast forward to 2020. Many schools in the district are getting F and D grades while MGT is collecting millions. As the district’s debt problem lessens, an academic crisis is spiraling out of control.

With MGT’s contract set to expire in June, Parish on May 14 presented to the DUAB Board a new, three-year plan to bring Gary’s schools out of its distressed status and become a locally-controlled, solvent institution once again.

But its plans to save Gary’s students from academic failure haven’t worked. With its unimpressive performance in raising the academic achievement, MGT is working harder to win the trust of parents and critics with new promises to deliver with results. Whether the latest blueprints will work remains to be seen.

As Parish explained, it was a presentation that was more about the district’s future instead of its past. While Parish talked about Phase 2 of his grand plan, many parents and leaders still wondered what happened to Gary’s schools during Phase 1.

Those were the first three years MGT and two emergency managers ruled over Gary’s state-controlled school district. The academic results were worse, but MGT was ready for another three years.

In his pep talk, Parish said looking at Phase 1 was like “climbing the Empire State Building” and getting to the 45th floor of the 102 story New York landmark.

Then Parish said this: “We made a lot of progress, we have momentum, we got the rhythm going. We know where we are going, but we’re not there.”

However, a Crusader review of the latest data from the Indiana Department of Education paints a more sobering and disturbing reality about the status of Gary’s school system.

The Crusader has learned that for the past three years under MGT, there was little to no academic progress among Gary’s students. During this period, suspensions soared, F grades on the state’s accountability test were the norm and many students couldn’t pass a state reading test.

The Crusader also found that under MGT’s leadership, the Gary school district is in worse shape academically now than in 2015 when many Gary schools had higher test scores, graduation rates and less suspensions and unexcused absences.

Today, as students continue to fall behind, little to nothing has been done to hold MGT accountable for raising the district’s academic standards and stopping the bleeding.

It’s a familiar tale that may remind some of the failed takeover of Roosevelt College and Career Academy, where for nine years students made little to no academic progress while the state spent $31 million with EdisonLearning for a turnaround that never happened.

With similar academic failures, MGT is following in EdisonLearning’s footsteps as it builds its own fortune while controlling Gary’s entire school district.

It was time for MGT to go in June, but the firm wants to stick around for another three years under a plan that will provide another financial bonanza for the company.

However, MGT’s track record in managing Gary’s academic progress since 2017 raises serious questions about its ability to turn around the district’s academic performance as the firm earns praises for reducing the district’s debts.

But state data show that MGT isn’t making the grade in other areas.

Under MGT’s leadership from 2017 to 2019, five out seven Gary schools received F grades for two consecutive years on the state’s accountability tests, state data show. They include Banneker Elementary, Beveridge Elementary, Daniel Hale Williams Elementary, Frankie Woods McCullough Academy and Glen Park Academy for Excellence. Under MGT’s leadership, these schools never achieved a state grade higher than an F.

Before MGT and the takeover, Frankie Woods McCullough earned an A grade on the state accountability test in the 2015-2016 school year, state records show.

Out of 14 state accountability grades from seven schools in the past two years, there were 11 Fs, 1 D, and 2 Bs. No school earned an A.

For the 2018-2019 school year, only two of the seven schools earned grades higher than an F. They include West Side Leadership Academy, which appealed its grade and got a B, and Bailly Middle School, which earned a D on the state accountability test.

Overall, the district earned two Ds for the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 academic school years, state data show.

The Crusader also found that passing rates on the state’s IREAD tests were lower in all six schools under MGT’s leadership than before the takeover.

The most dramatic drop was Beveridge Elementary, where 81 percent of the test takers passed the exam in the 2015-2016 school year. After MGT’s takeover, only 46 percent of Beveridge’s students who took the IREAD test passed in the 2017-2018 school year. The following year was even worse as only 27.6 percent of Beveridge’s students who took the test passed.

At Daniel Hale Williams Elementary, 89.6 percent of students who took the IREAD test passed. That was before the takeover. Under MGT, only 56.1 percent passed in 2017-2018 school year and 66.7 percent of test takers passed the following year.

Out of the seven schools, the Crusader learned that none had consistently higher enrollment under MGT than before the takeover. The student enrollment at Daniel Hale Williams Elementary, Frankie Woods McCullough Academy, Bailly Middle School and Glen Park Academy for Excellence were all far below the student enrollment before the takeover.

However, under MGT, West Side Leadership Academy achieved its highest enrollment in recent memory, with 1,043 students attending in the 2018-2019 school year. Before the takeover, the enrollment was 756. But Gary has fewer high schools than other grade schools, allowing West Side Leadership Academy to benefit from the students completing junior high school.

It should also be noted that Gary’s overall student enrollment in its public schools had been declining for years. However, MGT is a professional management consulting firm that’s being paid millions to use its skills to boost enrollment in Gary’s schools. In doing so, the district will draw more funding from the state.

But the district’s academic problems have made it less attractive than charter schools, which have drawn more students over the years because of a commitment to help students excel in the classroom.

In six Gary schools, the Crusader found that attendance rates remain high in the 90 percentile, but those percentages still remain slightly lower than the attendance rates that were achieved before the takeover.

One of the most disturbing problems plaguing the district are soaring out-of-school suspensions in all seven of the schools. Before the takeover, there were 1,0111 out of school suspensions in the 2015-2016 school year. That figure jumped to 2,446 by the 2018-2019 school year, an increase of nearly 150 percent.

When viewing most of the schools individually, the percentages are much higher.

Suspensions tripled at Banneker Elementary and Beveridge Elementary under MGT’s leadership. At Frankie Woods McCullough Academy, there was only one out of school suspension before the takeover. By the end of the 2018-2019 school year, that number had jumped to 29, a 2,800 percent increase.

West Side Leadership Academy has had the highest number of suspensions than any school under MGT. In the 2017-2018 school year, the school had 285 suspensions. The next year, the school had 254. Before the takeover, the school had 170. And for the first time in recent memory, under MGT’s leadership, the graduation rate at West Side Leadership Academy plummeted to 58.5 percent after two years of steady decline. Before the takeover, the school’s graduation rate was 87.2 percent. In another disturbing problem under MGT, West Side Leadership Academy had 49 dropouts in the 2018-2019 academic year.

And out of the seven schools, five schools had higher rates of 10 or more unexcused absences in the 2018-2019 school year than before the takeover.

Under MGT, fewer students from elementary and middle schools are passing the state’s ISTEP tests, which measure students’ skills in various subjects. When it comes to state’s ISTEP tests in six of seven Gary schools the passing rates under MGT were lower than those earned before takeover. At Banneker Elementary, Frankie Woods Academy and Daniel Hale Williams Elementary, all the ISTEP passing rates were lower than those earned before the takeover.

For this story, Gary Middle School remains a separate study as performance data is available from the 2018-2019 school year. That year, the passing rate among students taking the ISTEP tests was no higher than 14.1 percent. Some 515 students were given out of school suspensions; 585 students had 10 or more unexcused absences and seven were expelled.

MGT and some school officials say more time is needed to turn around Gary schools academically. But critics say the dramatic decline in state test scores, failing accountability grades, soaring suspensions and unimpressive enrollment figures are ominous signs that the takeover is failing Gary schools and its students.

When MGT took over in 2017, it signed a three-year contract worth at least $9 million. If MGT gets a contract extension with similar performance bonuses, it would earn $18 million for its work in the Gary school district. But questions remain whether MGT will deliver academically to make that huge payout worth it.

Academic achievement was promised after the school district received an overall F grade on the state accountability test. Now there’s growing concern that the state-controlled district is focused more on reducing Gary’s massive debts, which is now at $84 million from $104 million three years ago. While there’s some improvement in the district’s finances, there’s nothing to boast about with Gary’s academic situation.

Parish, MGT’s vice president said the district’s operating deficit has dropped from $22 million to six million. For this achievement, the DUAB Board earlier this year voted unanimously to give MGT a $150,000 performance incentive. To some, it was a sign of many more greener days to come for MGT.

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