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Gary’s new school chief up for the challenge

Gary Community Schools Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt (right) shares laugh as she ClarThigpen datcoach for Wats(left) talk with sixth-grader Quran Terrell

Gary Community Schools Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt (right) shares a laugh as she and Clara Thigpen, data coach for Watson, (left) talk with sixth-grader Quran Terrell, 12, about his reading comprehension during a focus walk through at Dr. Bernard C. Watson Academy for Boys in Gary, Ind. Wednesday December 12, 2012. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 28, 2012 8:10PM



GARY — Cheryl Pruitt seems more comfortable in a classroom than a board room.

The Gary Community School Corp.’s new superintendent is a frequent visitor in schools. She’s not there to hand out awards at school assemblies, she’s installed herself on the front lines with teachers and administrators to break down achievement barriers.

“If I’m not in schools, I don’t know what they need,” she said.

Pruitt got an earful from a lunch matron complaining of a lack of heat when she entered the cafeteria at the Watson Academy for Boys recently. Pruitt whipped out her cell phone and called a maintenance worker immediately.

Not all issues can be resolved so quickly.

Gary schools have been unable to crack the formula to improve state test scores, especially at the high school level where three of the district’s four high schools received Fs in the most recent state ranking data.

But the School Board has put its trust in Pruitt, hiring her in May to a three-year contract at a salary of $136,000.

Pruitt, 49, faces the Herculean task of steering the Gary schools back on the road to academic recovery after decades of decline. Enrollment has dropped correspondingly with test scores. Gary has about 8,100 students, this year, down 600 from last year.

The enrollment decline is a likely signal that more schools will close.

That’s just the beginning of the challenges confronting Pruitt.

Financial crisis at the forefront

Perhaps the most immediate is a dire financial crisis that’s delayed the payment of bills and made repairs difficult. A $23 million budget hole forced the layoffs of 184 teachers and 22 administrators just before Pruitt came on board.

Pruitt, a Gary native and Roosevelt High graduate returned home after a stint as an administrator in Proviso Township school district near Chicago. She drew some early criticism for filling key spots in her administration with former allies in the Proviso district.

The School Board, however, is pleased with Pruitt’s performance.

“We wanted to hire someone who’s new and innovative,” said outgoing board president Darren Washington. “I believe she’s the person. We give her all A’s.”

Pruitt has already convinced the board to authorize a charter school, a concept previously met with disdain.

Pruitt plans to improve the Career Center and possibly a lab school in conjunction with Indiana University Northwest.

“She still has a major job ahead to close the budget gap and close more schools. She has a lot of great ideas to move the district forward,” Washington said.

Transportation, maintenance issues too

Pruitt inherited a broken special education department that strayed so far from federal requirements that it jeopardized its federal funding. In September, the Indiana Department of Education placed a full-time DOE employee in Gary to correct its deficiencies.

Meanwhile, friction erupted in July as takeover operator EdisonLearning Inc. sued the school district for failing to make maintenance repairs and provide student records at the Roosevelt College and Career Center. The state tapped EdisonLearning to run the school in the wake of years of poor academic performance.

A judge ordered both sides to work out the dispute.

Prior to Pruitt’s arrival, the district sliced its transportation budget, leading to an avalanche of complaints about school bus service. The problems plagued the district for more than a month and a frustrated Pruitt finally boarded a bus herself and rode the route with students.

The crisis subsided in early October, but it left plenty of parents disgruntled.

But on this December day, Pruitt didn’t seem troubled by the challenges ahead as she listened to a Watson student instruct his fellow students in a lesson.

“I’ve seen her a lot and I love it,” said Clara Thigpen, Watson’s data coach. “She talks to teachers, cafeteria workers. She’s touchable.”



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