Bleak Future Looms for Jackson Family Alma Mater in Gary

Bleak Future Looms for Jackson Family Alma Mater in Gary

Roosevelt High School has educated Gary's Black residents for decades. The school's future is now in jeopardy. (Erick Johnson/Chicago Crusader)
Roosevelt High School has educated Gary’s Black residents for decades. The school’s future is now in jeopardy. (Erick Johnson/Chicago Crusader)

By Erick Johnson
Special to the NNPA News Wire from the Chicago Crusader

For nearly a century a school stood on West 25th Avenue in Gary Ind., producing a distinguished crop of prominent, Black alumni that included members of the Jackson family and a Who’s Who in politics, business, music, sports and entertainment. When members of the legendary Jackson entertainment family went there, it was known as Roosevelt High School.

Today, the school is known as Roosevelt College and Career Academy. But by next year, the most famous Black institution in Gary, Indiana could be history after years of failing grades and the state’s failed efforts to turn the school’s academic problems around. The historic school is not closing, but this latest failed effort may have been the last hope for Roosevelt. Its future looks bleak.

Most Blacks in Gary attended Roosevelt or knew someone who graduated from there. It sits behind the boyhood home of the “King of Pop” Michael Jackson. Before she returned to her hometown with two degrees from Harvard, Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson graduated from Roosevelt at the top of her class. Roosevelt D. Allen Jr., who recently died, received his diploma there before he was a household name with his family-owned business in Gary, Guy & Allen Funeral Directors.

Another famous alumni, Charles Adkins, defeated boxers from all over the world and became an Olympic gold medalist in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, and siblings from the royal family of pop music, the Jacksons, graduated from Roosevelt, as did basketball star Dick Barnett, actor Avery Brooks and scores of Black doctors, lawyers and professionals.

Since it opened nearly 93 years ago, Roosevelt, one of Gary’s oldest Black institutions, has built a rich history that started with Gary’s oppressed Blacks trying to achieve the American dream during the tumultuous Jim Crow era. Over time, the school’s legacy became a beaming symbol of pride for many generations of Blacks.

FAILING GRADES

But in recent times, the school that was the bedrock of Gary’s Black community is no longer the pride of the community. Every year in the past decade, the Indiana Department of Education has received an “F” grade for its low academic achievement and test scores. Roosevelt hasn’t had a passing grade since George W. Bush was president of the United States.

Indiana released the 2015 grades on Jan. 26. Roosevelt was among three percent of schools in the state that received a failing grade, which is based on the state’s streamlined ISTEP standardized exam. The results came after the state switched from Common Core to the newly developed ISTEP, leaving educators little time to prepare for the exam.

And according to recent figures, Roosevelt’s 44 percent graduation rate is the lowest in the county and far below the state average of 90 percent. Roosevelt’s handsome Colonial Revival edifice is only half utilized with only 670 students enrolled as opposed to 1,600 students who were attended Roosevelt during its glory days.

In the past two weeks, Roosevelt has been in the spotlight after one of the boilers in the school’s building broke leaving classrooms cold and students frustrated. Similar maintenance problems have plagued the aging school in recent years. On Jan. 25, students returned to school after a group of them led a protest demanding school officials to correct the school’s lingering infrastructure problems, but Roosevelt’s infrastructure problems are the least of the school’s worries. Roosevelt’s string of failing grades has left the school with an uncertain future.

Despite its problems, there may be hope for Roosevelt. After public pleas that persuaded state officials to keep open another school in Gary, the West Side Leadership, the school improved from an “F” to a “C” after five years of failing grades. Like most public schools in Gary, the Gary Community School Corporation (GCSC) operates West Side Leadership.

“I can’t speak about what’s going on at Roosevelt because we don’t manage that school, but our focus has been making sure these kids graduate. I’m proud that we’ve done this with West Side Leadership,” said Cheryl Pruitt, superintendent of GCSC.

TAKEOVER BY THE STATE

For many of Roosevelt’s alumni, getting an “F” grade has become a sad tradition and a stain on the school’s legacy. After six consecutive years of “F” grades, in 2012, the state took Roosevelt away from the GCSC and placed the school under EdisonLearning, Inc., a for-profit education management corporation. EdisonLearning renamed the school Roosevelt College and Career Academy and hope to turn the school around. But even while under state control and EdisonLearning, Roosevelt still earned “F” grades for four more years. Now, the failed turnaround has placed state officials in an embarrassing spotlight, years after it blamed GCSC for Roosevelt’s academic problems.

Questions remain about the state’s efforts to improve Roosevelt’s academic achievement or if enough was done to turn the school’s fortune around.

For this story, the Crusader reached out to State Superintendent Glenda Ritz. A spokesperson from her office issued this statement.

“Superintendent Ritz formed a Division of Outreach for School Improvement in 2013 that works directly with schools, including Roosevelt, to provide them with support and resources to create equitable and high quality learning opportunities for all Indiana students. The Superintendent is committed to continuing to work with Roosevelt moving forward.”

Now, many wonder whether Roosevelt can be saved. One fact that remains clear is that it would take a massive effort or a miracle to turn the school around.

Complicating Roosevelt’s problem is the growth of charter schools in Gary. As more students seek better academic opportunities in charter schools, boosting enrollment at Roosevelt may be difficult.

With EdisonLearning’s contract set to expire at the end of this school year, the School Board must decide on whether to return a failing Roosevelt back to the school district. State officials remain mum on the subject. In one news report, Pruitt said the GCSC hasn’t decided whether to keep Roosevelt open if the school is given back to the local school system.

“I’m hopeful that Roosevelt would be turned back over to the Gary Community Corporation,” said Roosevelt alumni Reverend Jerry Protho. “I think effective leadership is needed to help Roosevelt get back on its feet. It’s going to take a lot of great minds to come together and take a hardcore look at where Roosevelt is at.”

FEW OPTIONS

GCSC is already overwhelmed with crumbling schools, dwindling enrollment and a $95 million debt. Roosevelt, a 400,000 square foot building, would be an expensive liability for the GCSC, which has been unable to pay all of its vendors. Despite GCSC progress in improving West Side Leadership, there are questions whether the state would return Roosevelt to a cash-strapped, overburdened school system.

In October, the state granted the GCSC a $15 million loan, but school officials say that amount is just enough to keep schools open for the rest of the year. Last year, Dunbar-Pulaski Middle School was forced to close after years of academic and financial problems. Recently, School Board President Antuwan Clemons said on a radio show that the district would likely close more schools this year.

If the same fate happens to Roosevelt, it would be the end of an era for the first and only school built exclusively for Blacks.

A few schools, including Froebel High School in Gary, admitted Black students, but treated them like second-class citizens and barred them from participating in extracurricular activities. Roosevelt was opened in 1923 after 600 White students led a four-day strike to protest the transfer of 18 Black students to the all-White Emerson High School. To settle the strike, the School Board approved $600,000 to build Roosevelt, after much heated debate.

Calumet historian and author James B. Lane wrote, “With the institution of segregation in the public schools (established), Gary’s Black people were forced to make the best of a bad situation. They took pride in Roosevelt High School. Roosevelt became a key center for the African-American citizens in Gary.”

While many students excelled academically, Roosevelt athletes won two city football championships in 1947 and 1948 and five National Negro Basketball championships in the 1930s. Named after Theodore Roosevelt, the nation’s 26th president, the school was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The school has an active alumni association who continue to boast about their alma mater. One Roosevelt alumni, Lloyd Fisher, an attorney, said the school is victim of charter schools and changing trends in the public school system across the country. He also said racism is part of the reason for Roosevelt’s decline.

“It’s interesting how Roosevelt got to this point,” he said. “It’s going on all over the country. Anytime we have an important Black institution, it becomes a target of those who want to tear it down.”