Officials urge control be returned to Gary school district

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STATE REPRESENTATIVE VERNON G. SMITH argues before the State Board of Education meeting in Indianapolis on Wednesday, November 6.

By Erick Johnson

Local control should be returned to the Gary school district after a state takeover failed for nearly a decade to turn around Roosevelt College and Career Academy, a state official and State Representative Vernon Smith said at the Indiana State Board of Education (SBOE) meeting on Wednesday, November 6.

It was the first of several SBOE community meetings, where blame for Roosevelt’s lingering academic problems shifted toward state officials who took over the storied school with EdisonLearning in 2012 after years of F grades on the state report cards.

Since then, little academic progress has been made as students continue to underperform on state assessment tests. Many believe the takeover made the crisis worse with graduation and dropout rates still worse than the state average.

Tony Walker, a member of Indiana’s Distressed Unit Appeals Board said the state should “give back control” to the Gary school district after the eight-year takeover. He said the state’s takeover model was set up to fail, to begin with.

Walker called the takeover “flawed” and EdisonLearning’s metrics for achievement “misleading.”

In 2018 Roosevelt, under EdisonLearning, scored an A on the state report card, but the achievement was not due to academics. Officials believe that progress was being made towards growth in attendance and enrollment.

Representative Smith drew applause from alumni from Roosevelt and West Side Leadership Academy. They traveled to the meeting in Indianapolis to voice concerns about the condition of both schools. However, Roosevelt was a bigger concern, as its historic building remains closed. Its displaced students continue to struggle academically at the Gary Area Career Center as EdisonLearning came under fire last month for having classes in a garage bay space.

Smith believes the blame really lies with the IBOE, which awarded two multi-million dollar contracts to EdisonLearning after it failed to meet  their academic expectations.

“You are the ones who authorized them to take over the school,” Smith said. “That was the most foolish and most irresponsible contract.”

During his speech, Smith reminded the board of Roosevelt’s rich history and significance to Gary. He recalled how his mother, along with 18 other students were removed from Emerson during segregation in Gary and were among the first students enrolled at Roosevelt when the school was built in the 1920s.

Today, the building remains closed while its future remains uncertain.

“I’m here because Roosevelt has a great significance to our community…I don’t want that building closed and that building demolished,” Smith said.

Smith urged the IBOE to work towards returning Roosevelt to local control and to forgive the Gary school district debts, which total at least 90 million. With declining property values and dwindling enrollment Smith argued that the cash-strapped district has no chance of recovering without help from the state. Smith called the takeover the greatest example of inequity and injustice and that the state under the takeover “made the burden worse.”

EDISONLEARNING CEO THOM JACKSON speaks during a State Board of Education meeting on Roosevelt in Indianapolis on Wednesday, November 6.

To improve learning conditions for Roosevelt students at the Gary Area Career Center, EdisonLearning’s CEO Thom Jackson proposed converting the garage bay space into several classrooms separated by partitions. Walker suggested moving the students temporarily to the Thea Bowman Leadership Academy, but Jackson said he didn’t want the students to move during the school year.

There was also talk of moving students to West Side Leadership Academy, but Jackson said, “In many instances, West Side has even more problems than Roosevelt.”

About 420 Roosevelt students are at the Gary Area Career Center in grades seven through 12. The SBOE released a report that outlines a four-month timeline to determine the future of Roosevelt.

Last year, the school had a 55 percent attendance rate among teachers and an 84 percent attendance rate for students. Roosevelt had a graduation rate of 63 percent, which was 10 percent below the goal of the school’s innovation agreement.

On the state’s new ILEARN exam, none of Roosevelt’s seventh and eighth grade students passed.

Jackson defended EdisonLearning’s performance at Roosevelt, saying from “an achievement perspective, we’ve made great progress.”

With the learning conditions and displacement, Jackson said the difficult learning conditions and limited facilities should be taken into consideration to explain the students’ low academic performance.

“We’re asking these kids to perform under the worst of circumstances. We can’t divorce that.”

The next IBOE meeting that will discuss Roosevelt’s future will be December 4.

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