Think for a second about what first comes to mind when you hear mention of Gary, an idea? Most likely, the image you have in mind is not a positive one.

My first impression? I entered Gary's West Side Leadership Academy – one of the area's three public high schools – one morning in late August. Like any other school, the walls reflect the students. Murals line the hallways, artwork is plastered all over individual classrooms, banners hang proudly in the gym, displaying dates of championships past. But none of these are the first thing I notice when I enter the building: just steps from the parking lot, through two sets of doors, I cross under a single metal detector – and that’s when I feel the drop.

Something is leaking, causing a slow drizzle from the ceiling tiles above. It starts small.

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.

At one time, Gary Works – situated on the south shores of Lake Michigan – was the United States Steel Corporation's largest manufacturing plant. (Photo Credits: Paul Sequeira via Wikimedia Commons,,
(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons,

The same can’t be said today. The steel industry isn’t booming as it once was. People have simply moved out, taking with them valuable tax dollars and leaving behind about 9000 abandoned buildings. And the population has been slashed by more than half. If you think that’s bad, the city’s employment rate is down 70 percent from 1970. Gary now accounts for one-quarter of Northwest Indiana’s unemployed.

Local business leader Eddie Melton says as a result, the area has suffered financially – the city doesn’t have the dollars it once had to maintain property and streets, and to do the things that government would typically do.

"When you have almost half the population that you once had, that’s a significant impact," Melton explains. "When you have your number one employer shifting and changing and not hiring like they once were, you have to figure out what’s going to be your new economic base, and I think Gary is still trying to figure that out."

But Melton – also northwest Indiana's representative on the State Board of Education – adds that no matter their city's situation, there's a pride in Gary that’s never going to change.

"I think historically, Gary and the residents had this pride about their schools, where they grew up, where they graduated from," Melton says. "Everyone loves their alma mater."

...Here’s the reality

But many of Gary’s lifelong residents will tell you differently, pushing the old adage: “you can’t judge a book by its cover." One of them is state Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary. She says the district she represents is deeply misunderstood.

"I think people don’t understand Gary," Rogers says. "There is just a renewed hope that I’ve seen in the community, in terms of everybody wanting to pitch in to make things better. And I don’t think that enough people have seen that change in attitude, and I think that change in attitude is what, more than anything else, is what’s going to lead to the rejuvenation that all of us are looking forward to."

Community leaders, including Melton and his colleagues, Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, and Rogers are constantly trying to coordinate efforts and develop action plans to improve the city – including maintenance, crime and industry. But when you have an area that has been neglected for as long as Gary has, it’s a tall order.

Sen. Rogers says she thinks it all starts with the schools.

"Schools mirror the community," Rogers states simply. "We’re working on making changes as a community, and as the community gets better then hopefully the schools get better."

Another reality: the Gary Community School Corporation does need to get better. Student test scores are low, schools are closing. The district is in debt to the tune of roughly $20 million dollars. In addition, the growth of the state’s voucher program and proliferation of the charter school movement have hit the public school district hard. At one time, Gary had a greater percentage of charter schools than any other district in the nation. District leaders estimate about 3,000 kids have left GCSC for other local schools in the past two or three years. To top it all off, many of the statewide policies put in place in Indianapolis in recent years don’t play out so favorably for Gary. The General Assembly approved a new school funding formula that will short GCSC $9 million over the next two years.

Gary school board president Antuwan Clemons says it’s time to stop using that as an excuse – and this school year is a great time to start.

Clemons is excited about GCSC. You can hear it in his voice. He’s young, he’s energetic, and he wants to keep things positive. In front of a group of district teachers and staff, he acknowledges that problems exist, but he says it’s time to focus on solutions.

"I don’t see a financially strapped school district, I don’t see a failing school corporation, I see opportunity!" Clemons exclaims, to roaring applause. "This will be the year that the Gary Community School Corporation change their future!"

And Gary schools are taking some steps to improve their own situation. They’ve been working with an outreach coordinator from the state Department of Education to assist with academic turnaround plans, and a financial specialist out of Detroit on its money problems.

"If the body is unified, then we can focus on supporting the superintendent, supporting the building-level administrators," Clemons says. "I’m telling you, with the new financial specialist, with this new administration, with this now energized faculty this is going to be a great school corporation!"

Like Clemons, many of they city's leaders have a vested interest in the schools' well-being. Sen. Rogers grew up in Gary and matriculated through its school system. The same can be said for many of the district’s parents, teachers and administrators, as well as Gary’s Mayor, Karen Freeman-Wilson.

"I firmly believe – I believe this about the city, I believe this about the school corporation – that there is nothing that is wrong with our city that what is right with our city cannot fix," Freeman-Wilson says. "The members of the school board, the students – they represent what is right in our city."

Getting to Work: Administration

Dr. Cheryl Pruitt stands out for many Gary residents – even among the city's famous children and benefactors, including Oprah Winfrey, the Jackson 5 and Magic Johnson. (Photo Credit: Rachel Morello/StateImpact Indiana)

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.

Scenes from a few of Gary's existing – and vacant – community school buildings. (Photo Credit: Rachel Morello/StateImpact Indiana)

And Pruitt admits the district as a whole faces problems, too. She says sees finances as the district’s biggest weakness.

"We do have to begin to live within our means," Pruitt says. "It’s an figure out public education and private and public partnerships."

Despite the struggles, Pruitt has seen successes since she took the helm as district superintendent four years ago. Her administration has reduced Gary’s failing schools by 58 percent over the last three years. District-wide ISTEP+ passing rates – while still relatively low – have improved steadily since 2009.

Percent of K-8 students who passed basic English skills tests, 2013-14 school year (Data: Indiana Department of Education)
Percent of K-8 students who passed basic Math skills tests, 2013-14 school year (Data: Indiana Department of Education)
"I’m probably not the traditional superintendent, because I have debt, I have funding, I have education – and then I have the negative publicity, the vouchers, the charters, the takeover," Pruitt lists. "It kind of all just goes together in my head."

During the course of her career, Pruitt has also taught and served as a building-level administrator at several area schools. She said she never planned to become superintendent – it’s one of those things that “just kind of happened.” And, she says, it’s home. Like many of the children whose education she now oversees, Pruitt’s family has roots in Gary. Her mother taught in the district’s schools. Her father was a steel mill worker.

It's obvious that Pruitt is a product of the district she now heads. Without fail, in every building people recognize her. Staff members, students, teachers and parents make a point to smile and say hi. Some even run up to give her a hug.

"She made a way out of no way," says Ellen Young, who’s been a parent in the system for 19 years. "Everybody thought it would be over – they thought Gary Community School Corp [was] about to shut down. It’s still standing."

That’s a common sentiment throughout Gary. Many credit Pruitt with what they see as the beginnings of a real turnaround for the city’s schools. A few colleagues from Pruitt’s former positions believe in her vision so much, they followed her to Gary – including Marianne Fidishin, Gary’s Executive Director of Special Education and Student Services.

"The position was available and I so believe in Dr. Pruitt’s mission and vision of what she’s doing, knowing that working for her and working with her would be a pleasure," Fidishin recounts. "Dr. Pruitt is without a doubt student-centered, unbelievably student-centered."

Pruitt sends the credit right back to the community. She says partnerships with local churches, community groups and even national figures like Magic Johnson and Oprah Winfrey are making a huge difference in how locals perceive the schools themselves.

"People in the media and everybody craft these perceptions as though things are reality," Pruitt says. "When you print things and you tell people that stuff, it becomes their reality."

No doubt Pruitt is working on shaping that perspective. She says she hopes to help improve what people see when they look at the Gary School Corporation – starting with making herself more visible. That’s where these visits come in. Pruitt says she doesn’t remember past superintendents coming into her building when she worked in the district. It’s an example, she says, of how the administration has changed.

"I think sometimes when it’s time, it’s just time," Pruitt says. "It’s time for people to come together and start doing things and thinking about things in a different way. If I can empower people to do stuff, then that’s the main thing."

Marianne Fidishin says she has seen a change in the climate and culture of the district under Pruitt’s leadership, .

"When I first got here, there was definitely a darkness kind of feel to it," Fidishin remembers. "Now I don’t feel that at all. It’s bright, people are energetic, students are lovely, they’re polite, they’re bright – they’re wonderful."

Toward the end of Pruitt's first day, on her drive between Beveridge Elementary and West Side Leadership Academy, she picks up a parent she sees on the side of the road, walking toward the school. The woman tells Pruitt she’s headed to the high school, to talk to the principal about a potential part-time position working in the school office. She had to walk because her car was in the shop today.

I don’t ask Pruitt why she bothered to give the woman a ride, and she doesn’t seem to feel the need to explain. She just gets out of the car, smooths her jacket and heads into the next building.

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.

Scenes from GCSC's professional development sessions. (Photo Credit: Rachel Morello/StateImpact Indiana)

The crux of what ICLE preaches is something Pruitt wants every member of her staff to grasp: the teaching mindset. They emphasize growth, over what ICLE founder Bill Daggett calls a “fixed mindset.”

"A fixed mindset is this: ‘I know we need to improve, and what we will do is work really hard at doing a better job of what we used to do,’" Daggett explains. "There is a second mindset, and the second mindset is this. You put a stake in the ground 3 to 5 years out, try to define the best you can what kids will need to know, do and be like to become independent as adults."

On that same sunny afternoon in August, teachers old and new are indoors, crammed together in groups of about five or six in a small classroom at West Side high school. They’re participating in a professional development session designed for school administration teams – principals, deans, assistant principals and the like.

Dr. Irving Jones leads the group in the various reflection exercises, asking questions and encouraging conversation among colleagues. Jones is one of ICLE’s senior educational consultants. This is his third year working with Gary. He and other members of ICLE’s management team will be spending time on and off within various district schools to help staff make some changes in the way they deal with kids – and, Jones says, the way they think about teaching.

Dr. Irving Jones leads a professional development session with GCSC administrative teams. (Photo Credit: Rachel Morello/StateImpact Indiana)
"The reality is, it that it takes work – particularly in areas where you have a lot of social issues as you do here in Gary," Jones explains. "The key idea behind developing a strong school culture is getting buy-in from all the teachers so that they support the needs of all the students and the school."

Jones will help Superintendent Pruitt push a growth mindset with her team. It’s something the district is looking for in making new hires like Lauren Moore

And Moore appears to have the same idea in mind. She says her goal for this first year of teaching is to take everything she learned in college, put it into action, and evaluate what she needs to do to get better.

"I want to see what the book says against how the real world actually works, and see if maybe I can improve and get better and get better," Moore says. "That’s my goal for every year, is just to be better than the person I was last year."

Resources for Progress

At the outset of the new school year in August, it was easy to see the beginnings of change in the Gary Community School Corporation. Instead of teachers taking on the responsibility of welcoming their students, a few kids petitioned Superintendent Pruitt to let them turn the tables. That’s why, during the first week of class, they hosted their own pep rally to get the year started their way.

The students put together a program in the West Side Leadership Academy auditorium that included student dance routines, vocal performances and an address by the mayor. West Side seniors Kayla Warren and Delawrence Nixon served as emcees. They introduced a lineup of new staff – including several rookie teachers and administrators, who appeared a bit timid before their new school community.

Then came onstage a group who could not appear timid if they tried: the district's new security and support staff.

Members of GCSC's security and support staff line up onstage at West Side high school, behind seniors Kayla Warren and Delawrence Nixon. (Photo Credit: Rachel Morello/StateImpact Indiana)

Aside from being a physically intimidating group, the majority-male security team is, as one would expect, a serious crew...until Officer Harris comes up. Towering over Warren, he takes the microphone from her hand and clears his throat.

"I need everyone to stand please," Harris announces over the loudspeaker, to roaring laughter from the teachers and staff in the audience, as well as students lining the stage wings. A smile bursts onto his face: "I’m Officer Nate Harris, I’m the resource officer here at West Side Leadership Academy!"

Officer Harris is tall, he’s big, he has a booming voice – but to Gary staff and students, he’s “Officer Friendly.”

"Officer Friendly is a good term – I like it because that means I’m friendly, I smile a lot," Harris says. "I smile all the time, in here and out of here."

He's telling the truth. At Harris' side roaming the hallways at West Side, it's hard not to be affected by his infectious smile. He makes eye contact with everyone he sees, greeting them with a hug, a handshake, or a "how you doin'?"

Officer Harris, aka "Officer Friendly"

Officer Friendly is the perfect example of what the Gary Community School Corporation expects out of its newly configured security staff. The district – and the city surrounding it – has a history of disciplinary issues. It’s perhaps one of the few perceptions of Gary that most of its citizens wouldn’t dispute as reality: the city’s crime rate is two-and-a-half times the national rate. The highest percentage of students referred to the Lake County Juvenile Center come from the Gary School Corporation.

So, in response, at the end of last school year, the district required all of its police officers to reapply for their jobs. If they were asked to come back, they did so with a new title: school resource officer. In announcing the new system, Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt tells community members that it has been tried and tested in other districts.

"If you go into other communities, or to the suburban communities, some of those offenses that our children do here, they may do there, but they don’t end up in jail," Pruitt says.

The new group of 28 officers received training on how to deal specifically with students in the school setting. Officer Harris says this was necessary, because in the past, school officials had been applying the same law enforcement techniques on students that they were on the streets – and it wasn’t very effective.

"I believe that trend went on far too long," Harris says. "One thing I say to them [is] ‘Hey, I’m your resource officer, I’m here to be resourceful for you, I’m here to help you.’ By telling them that, it calms them down, ‘Ok, he’s on my side.’"

The change is reflected in Harris’ office at West Side high school. It's essentially a renovated classroom – but a bright, airy one. Harris says he usually has soft music playing when students come here. A few chairs line the far wall, beneath a bulletin board splattered with posters boasting school rules. Harris set up a few round tables with chairs, presumably space for students to calm down and do homework. He says this is a vast improvement from his old office down the hall.

"It had brown paper all across the wall – the room was just gloom. It looked like you were in trouble," Harris recounts. "They’re in school, they should have a classroom setting. You shouldn’t walk in the room and see a handcuff on a chair. Our initial contact has to be different."

Harris’ new space also puts him closer to the school psychologist and social workers – people he is now expected to coordinate with as a resource officer, as opposed to a policeman.

"That’s what the resource program is about – we’re now part of a process of their education," Harris explains. "Sometimes I feel like a social worker, sometimes I feel like a teacher, sometimes I feel just like, I don’t know what I am today!" he chuckles.

Student art graces the walls in several hallways at West Side Leadership Academy. Officer Harris says this piece is his favorite. (Photo Credit: Rachel Morello/StateImpact Indiana)

Gary has to deal with issues that happen outside school walls. Last summer, within a three-week period, four students were shot and killed within blocks of school. It’s something nobody – especially the officers who had interacted with some of these students in the hallways – wanted to see.

Officer Harris says the program he and his fellow resource officers are starting can actually help City of Gary police force because they can prevent some of the activity from spilling out onto the street.

"[If] officers worked in the school, I believe that half of that battle would be won," Harris says. "I can tell the difference between how I respond to crime in the area, how I respond to a situation that involves young people that know who I am."

And Harris is confident that a turnaround is coming. He acknowledges that the resource program might not solve the entire issue of crime in the school system or community-at-large right now, but it’s the first step in a longer process.

"We have one cause, and that’s to make a brighter future – it’s about the students," Harris says. "We want them to be successful, we want them to be productive. And in return, they’re going to change this community. They’re the ones gonna bring the businesses back. They’re the ones gonna redevelop these homes."

Harris says the students are the future. And, he adds, it’s up to them to write the rest of Gary’s story.

Created By
Rachel Morello
Rachel Morello/StateImpact Indiana; By Sequeira, Paul, Photographer (NARA record: 8464471) (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; By Sequeira, Paul, Photographer (NARA record: 8464471) (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons;

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