GARY | The eight charter schools in Gary have had a dramatic effect on decreased enrollment in the Gary Community School Corp., more than in any other urban area of the state.
Gary has lost more than 32 percent of its student body, mostly to charter schools, which have been in the city for a decade. School officials estimate the 2012-13 school year at 8,130 students. Five years ago, kindergarten-through-12th-grade enrollment in the Gary Community School Corp. was 12,058.
The charter schools in Gary have a combined enrollment of 4,932 students.
But charter schools may not be the sole reason Gary schools are seeing a decline, said Terry Spradlin, associate director for the Center of Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University at Bloomington.
Spradlin said it could be that people are leaving the community altogether.
"Charter schools are an urban phenomenon," he said. "They have been targeted in Gary and Indianapolis mostly. They are intended to siphon off students and provide an alternative form of education service delivery. Each charter is unique and different. Maybe the charter has a more enticing curriculum and that's directly connected to the school corporation. Maybe there was a job loss and families moved. It's a complex web of issues that have to be considered in total."
There has been a downward trend in population and school enrollment for many years in Gary. The decline in Gary's population began in the late 1960s with white and middle-class flight from the city, which is now largely African-American.
At its peak in the 1970s, Gary schools had a population of more than 40,000 students. By 1990, that population dropped to 27,890 and has declined ever since.
Of the 465 students attending the 21st Century Charter School, most are from Gary, said Principal Angela West. The school has students from kindergarten through 12th grade. West said a handful of students -- about 10 -- are from out-of-state. However, she said 65 percent of their students started with them as kindergarteners.
Parent Shauna Nelson said she transferred her son from Gary's Glen Park Academy for Excellence to 21st Century Charter School a couple of years ago.
"I had heard many good things about the school," she said. "I did some research and I looked at their test scores. My son has always done well and he did very well at 21st Century. I was willing to get up and take my children to school every day. I had heard that this was a much better school, and it has worked out well for us."
Christine Pepa, principal at Charter School of the Dunes in Gary, said about half of its 460 students in kindergarten through 10th grade are from Gary and others are move-ins from Illinois. She said many students come to the schools because of its special education program, with 85 students in that program.
"Our entire school is based on individual goal-setting. We meet the standards of each child based on their individual strengths and weaknesses," Pepa said.
Gary schools spokeswoman Sarita Stevens said another reason for the growth of charter schools in Gary was because they were opposed in nearby communities but it was like "a free for-all enterprise" in Gary.
Stevens said charter schools took the position that they could offer better, safer schools that would increase student achievement.
"It's been 10 years and we need to evaluate whether the promise has been fulfilled," she said. "I have nothing against charter schools. I just believe they need to be held to the same standards that traditional public schools are held to."
For the past decade, charter schools, which are public schools created to provide innovative and creative education choices, have had more freedom in hiring teachers as well as not being held to the same limitations and requirements as other public schools. However, state law last year was changed to hold charters to at least the same academic standards as public schools.
Ben Clement, vice president of the Drexel Foundation, which operates Thea Bowman Leadership Academy in Gary, said he believes there are several factors contributing to the move of students from the Gary Community School Corp. Thea Bowman is the largest Gary charter school with 1,478 students in K-through-12 and a waiting list of nearly 1,000 students.
"First and foremost, parents are dissatisfied with the performance of all schools, not just the Gary Community Schools," he said. "With the advent of charter schools, school vouchers and other innovations, parents are exercising freedom of choice in seeking the best educational opportunities for their children. Economic opportunities also force families out of Gary and other urban centers in search of employment. This outmigration also reduces enrollment."
Clement said it's difficult to measure the exact impact, but empirical evidence in Gary's population loss indicates the city population dropped to approximately 80,000 residents today from 102,746 in the 2000 census.
"The bottom line is that Thea Bowman Leadership Academy and all schools have to redouble efforts to improve educational services and outcomes to maintain enrollment levels," he said.
New Gary school Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt said the school corporation has lost students but she said it is moving in the right direction.
"We have an opportunity to enrich our students and provide choices to them. I believe it makes all educators do better, and it's time for us to do better," she said.
Charters have differing effects in other urban areas
Krista Stockman, spokeswoman for the Fort Wayne Community Schools, said it has not seen decreased enrollment to the degree seen by the Gary Community School Corp. In 2007-08, Fort Wayne had an enrollment of 31,606. Last year, the enrollment was 30,992. Today, it hovers around 31,000.
"Our enrollment remains pretty stable," Stockman said. "We have five charter schools in our area, so we don't have as many as Gary has. We have not had dramatic drops in enrollment. There's a loss, then we get some of those students back."
Stockman said they lost more students to vouchers last year than anything else. She said 392 Fort Wayne students used the vouchers to attend private schools. It looks like Fort Wayne may lose 100 to 150 students to charters but "we have at least that many who have returned to our system from charters," Stockman said.
John Althardt, spokesman for the Indianapolis Public Schools, said it is difficult to track the number of students who may have left IPS to attend a charter school.
"While charters are part of the educational marketplace in Marion County, I can tell you that we are experiencing fewer losses than other urban districts because of the variety of schools that we offer through IPS," he said. "Parents and students have choices and there is a general belief that among parents and students that we do a good job of educating our students."
IPS operates 63 elementary, middle and high schools with a student population this year at 29,000.
IU's Spradlin said Fort Wayne has been cited as a district that is doing things right, and Superintendent Wendy Robinson provides "strong leadership." Spradlin also said IPS has some of the highest-performing schools in the state. He said there are "pockets of excellence" that need to be replicated.
Representative Vernon Smith, D-Gary said the charter school effort was supposed to be part of a study.
"We were looking for best practices," he said.
"Nothing has come out of them, yet we continue to expand the number of charter schools," he added. "The real reason we are doing this is because the state is privatizing education. That's the Republican administration's real purpose -- to privatize education."
There are 291 traditional public school systems and 72 charter schools around the state. Each charter is considered a separate school corporation.
Smith said Gary schools are not as bad as people think but unfortunately the schools get a lot of negative press. "Our employees need to tell the story of what they are doing," he said.
Smith also believes that Cheryl Pruitt, a Gary native and 1981 Roosevelt High School graduate who has been on the job as superintendent since July 1, will be able to make some changes "if allowed and with the cooperation of the employees."
Linda Woloshansky, president and CEO of the Center of Workforce Innovations, agrees with Smith. The Center oversees the administration of unemployment benefits and other workforce services in Lake, Porter, LaPorte, Newton, Jasper, Starke and Pulaski counties.
"I think that with the new Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and Dr. Pruitt and all of the good people who have rallied around them, there is a lot of promise for the city," she said. "The more the school can do to ensure that students are college- and career-ready, the more opportunities for students."
She said local businesses and educators want all students, whether from traditional public schools, charters or private schools, to be to do well in college or succeed in a job.
"Businesses in Gary are looking for the same things that all other region businesses are looking for. They want students in Gary to be successful just as they want students from across the region to do well. I believe there is a sense of hope that the new leadership in Gary can help make that happen," Woloshansky said.