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Making the Grade - Bailly Preparatory Academy - Brian Andreshak

Brian Andreshak has his first-graders at Bailly Preparatory Academy in Gary work on storytelling.

GARY — Just as students are learning their ABCs, how to read, write, add and subtract, they also are learning about giving and community service in first-grade teacher Brian Andreshak's class at Bailly Preparatory Academy.

Bailly is one of the 13 schools in the Gary Community School Corp. It's no secret the district has been experiencing financial and academic troubles. Teachers have gone on record saying they've purchased school supplies for students, including items like toilet tissue and hand sanitizer. 

The state of Indiana took over the Gary Community School Corp. and the Muncie schools to improve the districts' financial and academic standing. The state appointed longtime educator Peggy Hinckley as the emergency manager in August, along with Gary Schools Recovery LLC, a subsidiary of MGT Consultants, and many educators say the school environment is improving.

However, Andreshak took things into his own hands a few years ago. He set up a Facebook group page called One Love One Heart Children's Charity as well as started a GoFundMe account.

"We, as teachers, take pride in helping children and their families," he said. "We spend much of our own money to provide for our children in the classroom with the resources to help them become future doctors, lawyers, reporters, principals or teachers."

In the first year in 2014, Andreshak asked family, friends and co-workers to donate coats. He said he had a major donation of $1,000 from Community Hospital in Munster as well as donations from other businesses in the community.

Last year, Andreshak raised $500 for Bailly Elementary and $500 for Carrie Gosch Elementary School in East Chicago. He said he chose Carrie Gosch because it's near his home and he's concerned about the hundreds of residents who evacuated because of the lead contamination in the West Calumet community.

This year, he hopes to raise $3,000, giving $1,000 to Bailly, $1,000 to Carrie Gosch and the remainder to other elementary schools in Gary. Bailly, in the Glen Park section of Gary, has a population of 450 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. More than 80 percent of the students receive free and reduced lunch.

Last week, Andreshak asked the students to think about what they'd buy if they had money donated to the school.

There were plenty of ideas — from playground equipment to tablets and school uniforms to puzzles. The youngsters then drew and colored pictures of their favorite suggestion for Andreshak to put it on display around the classroom.

Andreshak said teachers have to be social workers and counselors as well as as doing the normal component of their jobs. "We also have to be compassionate, entertaining and likeable to keep the students' attention," he said.

He said this year will be especially challenging as he works with three students who were homeschooled and are entering public school for the first time. "None of those students are able to read and I'm focusing on teaching them the alphabet right now," he said.

Andreshak has taught in the Gary Community School Corp. 16 years, teaching 10 years at Webster Elementary School, which was closed before he came to Bailly. He said he's been laid off five or six times but has always been recalled.

"It's stressful. From year to year, you don't know what's going to happen," he said.

Andreshak and fellow first-grade teacher Bernadine Turnage, who also helps him with fundraising, said their priority is making sure that every student leaves their classrooms able to read.

Turnage said every year teachers spend money out of their own pockets to make sure that students get what they need.

"This year paper supplies have been better," she said. "We still ask parents to bring in supplies like Kleenex and hand sanitizer and I really appreciate that. I just want to make sure that my children have what they need and if I have to take it out of my pocket, I will."

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Carmen is an award-winning journalist who has worked at The Times newspaper for 20 years. Before that she also had stints at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., The Post-Tribune and The News Dispatch in Michigan City.