Growing pains for Gary LEAD charter
by Michael Gonzalez Post-Tribune correspondent September 1, 2012 7:30PM
Principal Nehemiah Thomas (center) talks with fifth, sixth and eighth grade language arts teacher Erinie Grinder (right) as students pass between classes at LEAD College Prep Academy in Gary, Ind. Thursday August 30, 2012. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 3, 2012 6:28AM
GARY — Mike Suggs said he has no doubt LEAD College Prep can become the premiere educational institution in Northwest Indiana, and maybe the state, with up to 100 percent of graduates going on to college and boosting the Tolleston neighborhood.
“I think we have a good story,” said Suggs, president of LEAD’s school board. “I think we can create an environment where the whole neighborhood sees increases in property values with a school that is a well managed and active part of the neighborhood.”
Getting charter school officials from Ball State University to agree will be his next step in the process. There’s also the issue of getting a federal court to turn over the former Ernie Pyle Elementary, an unused building in the Gary Community School Corp., over to LEAD.
The Office of Charter Schools of Ball State, one of the state’s top licensing bodies, will begin reviewing LEAD and its performance compared with its charter on Thursday, with a ruling on renewing, rejecting or adapting that charter due next March.
Leaders of the charter school, which originally was contracted to run from fifth grade through 11th grade, have said they’re making significant changes in the school’s structure and operations, despite sizable challenges.
The most significant change may be starting LEAD students with pre-school and keeping them through 12th grade. maybe as early as the 2013-2012 school year.
“I think we’re creating a well-rounded system, and parents will like it because all of their kids can attend one school,” said new LEAD principal Nehemiah Thomas.
Thomas joined LEAD, which is now managed by American Quality Schools, after four years as principal of the Derrick Thomas Academy in Kansas City, Mo.
“We did a lot of good changes in Kansas City ... like we’re doing here,” at LEAD said Thomas.
LEAD had its beginnings in rented rooms at the Gary YWCA, when the KIPP corporation landed a charter. The school grew, becoming one of eight charter schools in the city, and the board soon found a spot for it at 6070 Miller Ave. in the Miller.
The original charter for then KIPP LEAD called for taking in students beginning in fifth grade, but that soon posed problems, Suggs said. Children were coming to LEAD unprepared, setting up teachers to spend significant time and resources remediating kids to get them up to speed, he said.
“Unfortunately, it was a situation where our kids were coming to us with some barriers to learning and advancing,” Suggs claimed. “It wasn’t until the kids were in the ninth and 10th grade they were really starting to move the needle” upwards on test scores.
The shaky test scores were exacerbated when KIPP and LEAD parted ways in 2010. LEAD board members last year voted to hire American Quality Schools to operate LEAD, but students saw their math scores on the state-mandated ISTEP standardized exams drop 20 percent from 2010 and 2011. English scores also took a fall, too, and the school is still rebuilding, Suggs said.
“We are just not scoring in the percentiles we would like to be in,” he said. “It’s an expensive, painful struggle for the school, staff and, especially, the children.”
The school also has outgrown its site, which is costing the school about $10,000 a month. That led school officials to look at the shuttered Ernie Pyle building, especially after the state legislature made it possible for charter schools to buy an unused public school building for a dollar.
But, Gary schools balked at the idea, not willing to turn the building over for the token dollar amount. The case is in federal court.
Whatever happens to its physical structure, LEAD will have to prove to Ball State officials it can live up to its charter and more. The university’s team will begin evaluating LEAD Thursday, said spokeswoman Joan Todd, and test scores will be only one of the factors it considers.
“Test scores are important, but they’re not everything,” she said. “This all has to be done with the well-being of affected students first and foremost, so we’ll be looking at other options the students have, individual student plans and performance.
“We’re not driving the car for LEAD, but we’re looking to give them guidelines as to where they want to go.”
The school has taken tangible steps to improve the learning experience, Thomas said, including hiring math and English specialists, offering tutoring and building solid, individual learning plans for each student.
“What’s most important is we have a new direction in how we’re going to do things, and for all the deficits, we have remedies,” Thomas said. “We’re making sure our students have more, not less.”