Gary must make the grade to escape state scrutiny
By Carole Carlson firstname.lastname@example.org/302-0949 March 18, 2014 11:22PM
Bailly Preparatory Academy social worker Terri Miller talks with students as they acclimate to new surroundings at the Watson Academy for Boys. The Gary Community School Corp. was forced to relocate more than 400 Bailly students after a water line in their school was damaged by sub-zero temperatures in December. | Carole Carlson~Sun-Times Media file
Updated: April 20, 2014 6:28AM
GARY — State officials said Tuesday the Gary Community School Corp. is the lone district in Indiana that’s been labeled “high risk.”
The designation, given last month by State Superintendent of Instruction Glenda Ritz, means one of Northwest Indiana’s largest school districts won’t be managing its own federal funds. Instead, the state will take over federal funding for special education, block grants, Title 1 and Title 2 grants and lunch grants.
To escape the designation, the district of about 8,900 students must post two consecutive years of fiscal stability and an accountability grade for two straight years of “C” or better.
“I have significant concerns with the future direction of the district for educating the students of the Gary Community School Corp.,” Ritz wrote in a Feb. 21 letter to Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt.
Ritz said this year marked the third straight year the district has received an “F” rating and 13 of 16 schools are in the D to F category.
Ritz based her ruling on a federal regulation that outlines criteria for the high risk designation. She said Gary’s financial instability and its unsatisfactory academic performance led to the high risk label.
Ritz, a Democrat who garnered substantial support from cities like Gary in the 2012 election, said the Department of Education wants to partner with Gary to set it on a path to improvement.
In her letter, Ritz said she would focus federal funds awarded to Gary on proven turnaround programs. The district can expect a platoon of state employees to complete a needs assessment and to oversee training on new academic reforms.
Ritz also directed a copy of the letter to Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, who plans to launch an education reform agenda of her own next month through the U.S. Department of Education and the National League of Cities.
Gary is one of 14 cities in the new partnership aimed at creating a network of support for K-12 schools that are beset with high poverty and unemployment.
On Monday, Freeman-Wilson likened the district’s “high risk” designation to her decision last year that handed the operation of the Gary Housing Authority to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. When Freeman-Wilson took office in 2012, she found the GHA’s finances in dire shape, unoccupied units and an infestation of bed bugs and other maladies.
“It’s recognition there have been years and years of issues not under the district’s control like the tax reduction, charters and high poverty rate,” she said.
“By working with the other cities, this will give us the opportunity to focus and see what’s out there with these efforts.”