“When ceiling tiles need to be changed once a week, it’s hard for students to feel like they’re here for serious business,” said LaTanza Boarden, principal of Lew Wallace Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics Academy, during a visit by Peter Cunningham, ED’s assistant secretary of communications and outreach as he visited Boarden’s school in Gary, Indiana last week.
Boarden’s school — a high school –was one of four Gary Community School Corporation facilities that Cunningham toured, each with visibly leaking ceilings. The American Jobs Act proposed by the President would provide an estimated $13 million that Dr. Myrtle Campbell, GCSC’s superintendent, said is “desperately needed” to help the district begin to address an array of unfunded infrastructure problems:
- The crumbling roof at Brunswick Elementary School has caused ceiling problems that forced Principal Gloria Terry to relocate kindergartners to a school on the other side of town.
- The student body president of Westside Leadership Academy — also a high school – told the assistant secretary that she loves school but is frequently absent because of the building’s mold problems, which trigger her asthma.
- Other Westside students complained that their school locker rooms have no hot water — causing most students to forego showers after PE classes and after-school sports activities. Their swimming pool has been unusable for three years.
- Technological infrastructure — critical for preparing students to compete in the global economy — is lacking throughout most Gary schools. Even educators at schools that have computers and other equipment need to routinely shift them to areas safe from water damage.
Like many school districts throughout the nation, Gary has serious budget problems that have caused it to delay facility needs and to lay off teachers and cut programs, including summer enrichment programs and a Saturday academy. With downtown filled with boarded up storefronts and the once-booming local steel industry mostly gone, local funding for GCSC is dwindling. More than 82 percent of the district’s students qualify for free or reduced rate lunches.
There are some hopeful signs in Gary. Secretary Duncan recently named Benjamin Banneker Achievement Center – a Gary elementary school — a 2011-2012 Blue Ribbon School. There has been some upward movement in the district’s overall assessment scores, which GCSC Communications Director Sarita Stevens attributes to a new focus on differentiated learning. Two Gary schools — including Lew Collins — are implementing dramatic changes through federal School Improvement Grants.
“We do have barriers, but we also have students who are engaged in learning every day and exceeding standards,” said Campbell.
However, Cunningham heard one overwhelming message throughout the day:
“I hear you saying ‘we need help to have better schools,” he said, inspiring enthusiastic nods and replies from educators, parents and community leaders at the end of the visit.
Julie Ewart, Office of Communications and Outreach, Great Lakes Region