Steel City Academy seeks to redefine education in Gary

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By Dezimon Alicea, Gary Crusader

America was introduced to its first public school in 1635. Since that introduction to what a school should look like, not much has changed. Over the centuries, the educational system has remained the same, although the students within the system have changed drastically.

There are eight charter schools in Gary, Indiana; Steel City Academy is the newest kid on the block. When one enters the school, one can feel the leftover energy from the day. As I spoke with Katie Kirley, School Director, she was excited to showcase her kids. Almost ceremoniously, she pulled out her phone to show pictures of science projects, basketball games, and other highlights of the newly enrolled students at Steel City Academy.

Her boasting comes with good reason, seeing that the school is still a startup. Steel City Academy just opened in August, 2016; so far they have served 140 students. Incredible, right? Even more incredible is the story of how Katie and the other founding members of the charter school reached their promised land.

Kirley is originally from Minnesota, and had aspirations of becoming a doctor when she moved to Chicago some years ago. But as she puts it, “It was a beautiful accident” that brought her to Indiana.

She began her teaching career as part of Teach For America, as a 7th grade math and science teacher. She then moved into a Director of Instruction role and eventually served as Assistant Principal of Lighthouse College Prep Academy. She received her B.S. in Psychology and Women’s Studies from Loyola University Chicago, and her Master’s of Educational Leadership from Columbia University in New York.

Kirley recalls asking herself and a group of people in the educational field this question: “What could be possible if a group of people who know and love Gary created a school that was in partnership with the community?” Answering that question led this group on a very long journey that was met with some resistance.

According to Kirley, the support for creation of a new school was great from people within the community. Listening tours were set up to hear from those in the community that the proposed school would serve, to ensure everything was done with purpose and care.

But as far as those who Kirley and the other founding members had to go through to secure a location and determine other logistical needs, support was stiff. Given the current tense relationship between charter schools and the city of Gary, that tension was understandable.

Steel City Academy and Gary public schools find their funding through the same source, state and federal dollars. That may leave a lot of residents with reservations towards the charter school and others in the area. But Kirley, along with the rest of the people on the team was determined, and possessed enough grit to get the task done, of serving an identifiable need.

Fast forward to today, Steel City Academy owns nine acres of land on the city’s west side and owns the building which sits on those nine acres. When asked the difference between Steel City and other charter schools in the area, Kirley says, “We believe in educating the whole child.”

This philosophy is evident through the many partnerships Steel City Academy has secured with organizations like New Horizons, a nonprofit that provides counseling services to students. The school curriculum also focuses on college prep. The school’s administration reviews data daily, relative to each student’s learning ability, and are able to adaptively change how the student learns. This practice ensures the students’ short term and long term success.

This is not the typical school for seventh through ninth graders, and Kirley is not the typical principal. Her desk is centrally located in the hallway so as to greet students and to be easily accessible to them. Most of her time is spent in classrooms, connecting the bridge between student and faculty. Every morning, Ms. Kirley is the first person students see, greeting them with a handshake once they get off the bus, and many days she is the last face they see upon exiting school.

Steel City Academy is not just in the business of creating academic scholars. Kirley says her staff is dedicated to “recreating education models,” and “empowering kids to come back and give to the city.” With a staff of 12 teachers, Kirley is fully aware this number will double in the next year or so.

The staff is working diligently to meet the needs of their current roster of students, as well as preparing themselves to meet the needs of the students to come. In three to five years, Kirley hopes that Steel City Academy will be a “Proof point of what is possible for schools in Gary, Indiana.”

Steel City Academy is located at 2660 W. 35th Avenue in Gary, IN. For more information on the school, enrollment, and any of their activities you can reach Katie Kirley, Founding School Director at 312-720-7708, or katie.kirley@steelcityacademy.org.

 

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