Community of Opportunity THE REALITIES OF GARY'S PUBLIC SCHOOLS
Staff slowly file in through the front doors. If they notice the leak, they don’t acknowledge it. But a puddle has begun to form on the floor...and it’s growing bigger. A custodian eventually appears, sops up the puddle with an old rag, and slips a bucket carefully underneath the hole in the ceiling. As the hour passes, more staff pour in, and they easily sidestep the bucket – plus the two others custodians have added as the leak has multiplied. The sound of the leak is muffled by conversations and squeals of delight exchanged between coworkers reuniting for the first time since school broke for summer.
It’s a weird sort of metaphor for what’s going on in the district housing the building: the Gary Community School Corporation. There are plenty of holes – financial, physical, in some cases even instructional – and although community members are aware, they seem immune to the problems.
Unless you live in Northwest Indiana – or even if you do – what you hear about the city of Gary usually comes in the form of news reports about crime, dwindling industry, or most recently the failing schools.
But the perception of Gary and the reality appear to be in a sort of disconnect: many residents really see the school community as one with a lot of promise – they seem to have faith in what district administration, teachers, parents and students are trying to do to lift up the city around them.
Here's the perception...
Driving through the neighborhoods surrounding Gary Community schools, you pass a fair share of homes with boarded-up windows. If you've ever driven through the Skyway to exit Indiana on the way to Chicago, you might be familiar with the worn down smokestacks. The blight undoubtedly gives off a certain impression. Gary’s appearance – like many headlines coming out of the city – contributes to the reputation that precedes its name for outsiders. You may have even heard people affectionately refer to Gary as the “armpit of America” before...ouch.
Like most urban centers, Gary deals with its fair share of social issues – violence, crime, poverty. What makes this city’s situation seem so much worse can basically be summed up in one word: economics.
Gary used to thrive. Back in the heyday of U.S. Steel, people flocked to Gary in droves for manufacturing jobs – the population in 1970 sat at just about 175,000. Almost half of Hoosiers living in Northwest Indiana made their living in the manufacturing sector. Those who didn’t found jobs in retail, education, and healthcare.
Getting to Work: Administration
To understand everything that’s going on in the Gary Community School Corporation, just spend a day with Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt.
On the first day of the new academic year, Pruitt is in the car, making the rounds to each of her district’s schools. It’s something she says she’s tried to do in the past, and wants to do more.
"I may just go in to see if they need anything, and try to touch the teachers in case they need something I don’t know about, and also to build that relationship where they feel like they can come and talk to me," Pruitt says.
Already on this first day, her to-do list is filling up.
Transportation is an issue – Pruitt has to call the district’s contracted bus company to find out why busses did not show up to take kids to school. She also has to contact the IT team to address an online parent portal that’s not yet up-and-running, and deal with the lack of adequate security detail to screen students as they entered the high school buildings.
The word ‘busy’ doesn’t even begin to describe Pruitt’s schedule. Her head appears to be on a constant swivel, answering phone calls and emails, greeting teachers, and interacting with students in the school building.
"Is there ever a day when you’re not getting a text message or a call?" I ask, as her cell phone rings for the third time before 9 a.m.
"Never!" Pruitt laughs. "Not even on Saturdays or Sundays!"
As superintendent, Pruitt oversees Gary's 16 academic buildings. She says each has its own successes – and its own challenges. Last winter, kids from two schools had to be squeezed into one building when the pipes burst in one of the old structures. This year, due to a vote by Indiana’s State Board of Education, one area middle school has closed, and Gary has configured other buildings to accommodate those kids.
Changing the Mindset
It's a sunny afternoon in late August. Gary students are not back in school yet, but teachers are returning from their own summer break. Adults drift in through the doors at Gary's West Side Leadership Academy, spot their friends and colleagues and rush in for a hug – just like it probably was when they were in high school. Small groups start to form, congregating around folding tables stacked with snacks and bottled water.
One young woman leans against a wall by herself, looking over a sheet of paper with her weekly schedule written on it. There are a handful of people just like her dotting the outskirts of the room, singles not joining in the hugs & the "welcome back's" around the coffee table: the new teachers.
The young woman's name is Lauren Moore – this will be her first year teaching in the Gary Community School Corporation. It will also be her first year teaching. She will head a class of kindergarteners at the Bethune Early Childhood Development Center.
"My aunt taught in Gary for 37 years and my uncle, he subbed for Gary for 12 years, and they both retired last year," Moore explains. "When I went to their retirement banquet, they announced, ‘hey we have a lot of job positions opening. If you know anybody who can fill those positions let them know.’ So I started moving in this direction."
"My aunt always says really nice things about it," Moore relays. "If she stayed there for 37 years, it must be a pretty good place to work!"
Moore’s aunt fits what’s been the typical profile for Gary’s teaching force: they stick around.
GCSC Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt says she’s excited about adding members of the next generation of teachers.
"We did have an aged teaching staff – I think that because Gary was on top so long, they forgot to plan and keep moving," Pruitt says. "You got to get out of what you think and what you been doing for 40 years and we gotta move over here, or else you need to go home."
So, like many things in the Gary Community School Corporation, the district's teaching force is changing. For the first time in 20 or 30 years, a big group of Gary’s teachers are moving on, creating openings for new blood. While the rest of the state struggles with a teacher shortage, we don’t know what that will look like in Gary. One has to wonder: with the way the district and its city have been struggling, how much talent will they actually be able to recruit?
Pruitt is encouraging people to move on – and if they don’t, she’s training them to be better. And she’s bringing in a nationally recognized development group, the International Center for Leadership in Education, to help those remaining come up with new strategies, to get out of the habits they may have been stuck in for years.