GARY — Roosevelt College and Career Academy staff, students and alumni came together Wednesday afternoon to celebrate what some said the school could never do — earn an A.
“I’m extremely excited about this moment in the history of this great school,” EdisonLearning CEO Thom Jackson said, addressing a mostly full school auditorium.
“I remember all the naysayers. I remember the folks who said it couldn’t be done. I remember the people who said that the students would not rise to the occasion. I remember the people who said Roosevelt should just be torn down.”
Roosevelt, serving students in grades seven through 12, was given its first-ever A marks this year in the state’s annual school accountability grades.
The school had come off of consecutive years of earning failing and near-failing grades when the state took over the school in 2012 and paired the school with educational services provider EdisonLearning to be Roosevelt’s turnaround partner.
After five years of working to bring change in the school learning environment, Roosevelt improved to a D in last year’s assessment. Then, this year, the school jumped to an A.
“This is a long time in the making,” Principal Ian Miller told the auditorium Wednesday. “It’s truly been a community affair to get to where we’re at today.”
Identifying a need for change
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, a Roosevelt alumna, as well as the school’s former principal Donna Henry and Superintendent Marshall Emerson, joined Miller and Jackson in addressing the community.
Henry, who took a new position with a Chicago charter school this year, shared insight into the turnaround process during her time at the school. She said one of her first priorities when she joined the Roosevelt team in 2012 was to collect data to identify individual student learning needs.
Henry said her initial polls of the school showed 75 percent of students were learning below their reading level, and 90 percent felt hopeless about school.
“That reality immediately shifted our focus and became the most important piece of data for me personally as one of the leaders of the school,” she said.
She said it took time bringing students back up to speed, teaching the basics like note-taking and attendance. Miller, the school’s current principal, said he and Henry worked together to set an example for students to lead from the top.
He said they both spoke openly with students about their own education, taking classes in a doctoral program while also working at the Roosevelt school. Miller said the students responded to their administrators’ and teachers’ own dedication in a positive way.
“We just keep showing up,” Miller said. “When they see us show up every day, they know we’re working, too.”
Signs of improvement
With time, Henry said, the school and its students gradually started to show improvement. She said the school regained its Roosevelt pride, and that translated to the classroom. Students grew more involved joining clubs like the National Honor Society, DECA and Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID.
Henry bragged about how in 2016 the community came together to support the Panthers’ basketball season and how the class of 2016 brought in more than $500,000 in student scholarships.
She also shared her memory of talking to students after taking their most recent ISTEP exams. She said coming out of the exams, students told her the ISTEP was easy.
“I didn’t know whether to be worried or really ecstatic,” Henry said with a laugh. “But ecstatic is absolutely the right emotion.”
The transition to an A school hasn’t been without its challenges. Last month citing declining enrollment, EdisonLearning laid off 25 employees affecting both teachers and support staff.
But, with Wednesday’s celebrations of success, many leaders in the school are focused on the future.
“We’re not finished,” Emerson said. “Success in education is a continuous process of improvement, meaning there will be more tough times ahead, more difficult waters to cross, but you all will persevere and continue to be victorious because of your tenacity and your caring.”
Chloe Coleman, an 11th-grader who started at Roosevelt last year, said transferring to the school has allowed her to find a sense of pride. She said she now wants to become a neurosurgeon and had opportunities to transfer out of the school, but decided to stay, because she noticed the school was on the verge of success and wanted to be a part of it.
“We got an A,” Coleman said. “And now I’m addicted to getting As.”