GARY, Indiana -- Two starkly different plans emerged Monday about the future of Theodore Roosevelt College & Career Academy, a high school under state takeover since 2012 for chronic academic failure. Students were also displaced earlier this year after the building was shuttered due to millions of dollars in weather-related damages.
A State Board of Education member says it’s time to end the state's intervention of the long-struggling school and return it to its home district, Gary Community School Corporation.
The private company running Roosevelt’s academic program under a state intervention wants to invest $25 million in private funds to overhaul the historic building and remake it into an environmental studies K-12 charter school.
On Monday dozens of community members who attended the State Board of Education’s public hearing about Roosevelt’s future were frustrated and demanded faster action to improve the learning of the school's 400 students and revive its reputation.
The two different plans offered few details on timelines for when students would be in a permanent location to learn.
“I want what is best for the kids,” said Mary Cossey, a 1984 alumna of the school. “And at this point, neither one of these options will serve our kids best. We need one school and we need excellence in academics.”
In 2011 the State Board of Education approved a takeover of Roosevelt High School after seven years of chronic academic failure. The school was severed from the Gary Community School Corp., and the private for-profit company Edison Learning Inc. was given a contract to improve school culture and student outcomes at the school.
Classes have not been held in the building since March, when water pipes burst during a subzero winter storm and caused more than $10 million in damages. Roosevelt students now attend class in the Gary Area Career Center, a technical education school run by the Gary school district. That location won’t be available for Roosevelt students after this academic year.
At the Monday hearing Tony Walker, a Gary member of the State Board of Education, said he will ask the board in January to immediately end intervention and return Roosevelt to Gary Community School Corporation and let it decide what happens next.
Walker said local control is needed for the school.
“It is hurting those kids, from our perspective. It is hurting the school corporation,” Walker said of Roosevelt’s intervention. “So the best thing to do is release it from SBOE takeover.”
Walker said he and others want a “brand new, state of the art high school” to be developed in Gary in partnership with a regional university campus, such as Purdue or Indiana universities.
But that is far from what Thom Jackson, CEO of Edison Learning, said should be done.
Jackson wants to repair the Roosevelt building with $25 million in private funds, from a yet-to-be-named Atlanta-based investment firm, and transform it into a K-12 environmental studies charter school. The remodel would take 12-18 months.
The school would be called the Roosevelt R.I.S.E. Academy, with a “Renewable Industries for Sustainable Energy” focus.
“A lot of this work has already happened and begun and well underway,” said Joshua Batchelor, Roosevelt principal, about the private capital.
Batchelor said the Gary school district and community would be part of the school’s oversight board. The campus, he said, would be leased from the district in a “long-term lease” and eventually returned back to the district.
But the excitement Jackson and Batchelor tried to incite was tempered by an overview of Roosevelt’s academics.
Academic improvements have fluctuated since the Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based company began managing Roosevelt in mid-2012. But gains appear to have vanished during the past two years, according to state data. In that time, scores on state standardized tests plummeted and the graduation rate dropped to 40 percent last year compared to a high of 57 percent in 2016.
Enrollment is at an all-time low of 416 students in grades 7-12 -- that’s a 60 percent decrease from the year before Edison Learning took control of the school.
During the meeting, State Rep. Vernon Smith (D-Gary) criticized Edison Learning for proposing a charter school concept instead of focusing on how to improve student’s learning conditions at the career center.
“They have not proven themselves to be worthy of any praise,” he said of Edison Learning, standing near Jackson, the company CEO.
In April of 2016, the State Board of Education signed a one-year contract extension with Edison Learning to continue the takeover. A year later the company signed a joint operating agreement with Gary Schools. The so-called “innovation partnership” returned Roosevelt to the district and allowed the company to share costs and services with the district. Edison Learning remains in charge of academics and programs for students.
The State Board of Education retains the authority to impose intervention on Roosevelt.
In 2017 state lawmakers approved the takeover of the entire Gary Community School District due to massive debt. The state gave MGT Consulting Group, based in Tallahassee, Florida, a $6.2 million contract to serve as Gary's emergency manager. The entire district is overseen by the state's Distressed Unit Appeal Board.
The emergency manager does not have the power to make decisions about how Edison Learning manages the staff, curriculum or other academic aspects of Roosevelt.