By Erick Johnson, Gary Crusader
The stage is set. The interviews are over and Dr. Peggy Hinckley is the new emergency manager who on August 3, was given full authority over Gary Schools. MGT Consulting, a Florida-based firm will manage the district.
When the new school year begins next week, it will be a new era for the troubled school district as Hinckley embarks on a long road to reduce the school district’s $100 million plus debt and boost academic achievement among Gary’s 5,500 students. That’s the goal, but the plan remains to be seen and teachers and school administrators are on edge about what’s in store for the new year. While there may be new ideas and fresh leadership, old scars and concerns remain.
Hinckley, a Schererville resident who has a track record for turning around school districts in Indiana may face her toughest test in the Gary school district, where changing times and longstanding social and academic problems pose big challenges for the decorated and retired educator.
If there are indicators of how daunting the problem is, one can point to the struggles of the state-authorized EdisonLearning management corporation to turn around Gary’s storied Theodore Roosevelt College and Career Academy.
In 2012, EdisonLearning, a private company, was given a $9 million contract with the state to manage Roosevelt after the state took over the school the year before. The move came after Roosevelt earned an F grade for six consecutive years. Hopes were high when EdisonLearning took over, but during the course of the contract, the organization received pushback, and its ideas for turning the school around fell flat.
While academic achievement among students slightly improved, Roosevelt still received an F grade for four additional years. In 2016 the state gave EdisonLearning a one-year extension during a transition year. Then last February, the state gave EdisonLearning another chance and signed a five-year contract hoping the company would succeed in time in turning Roosevelt’s academic fortunes around.
Critics attribute EdisonLearning’s failure to turn around Roosevelt under its first contract the result of not seeking the input and participation of the Gary Community School Corporation and its superintendent, Cheryl Pruitt.
EdisonLearning also faced pushback from Roosevelt’s teachers, many of whom rebuffed the company’s efforts to change the curriculum.
It was an experience that humbled EdisonLearning and perhaps the state. So when EdisonLearning signed a new five-year contract last February with the state, the new agreement called for both the company and the GCSC to oversee Roosevelt’s academic performance. The lesson learned: Gary schools’ problems are too steep for one company or organization to solve.
That’s the struggles of just turning around one school. Hinckley will be charged with a dozen schools and a district that received an F grade from the state.
Still, EdisonLearning’s experience with Roosevelt may provide Hinckley with some valuable insight and knowledge of how complicated and difficult the problems are facing the Gary school district.
The academic problems facing the city’s schools are perhaps deeper and more critical than those of any of those schools that Hinckley turned around. None of them were under state control. None of them were in a city where unemployment was soaring and there were little options to boost financial revenues and morale among students and parents.
School starts August 17 for Gary students. Last week, Hinckley announced “Operation Smooth Start,” a comprehensive plan to address such areas as student services, facilities, human resources, finances, student safety, school security, transportation and food services.
About 20 MGT representatives are visiting the city’s schools, reviewing finances, meeting with union members and talking to principals and other staff.
For parents and school officials, it’s a period where they must wait and see what happens next.