Getting to Work Community of Opportunity: Part 2

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.

Created By
Rachel Morello
Rachel Morello/StateImpact Indiana

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