GARY | Indiana's top educator intends to collaborate with Gary's new mayor and school superintendent to make sure Gary students are ready to enter college and embark on careers.
But he's not afraid to make tough decisions, which has been evidenced by the state takeover of the failing Roosevelt Career and Technical Academy in Gary.
"We want to make sure our students graduate college and are career-ready," state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett said. "We have embarked on a real transition period in Indiana. Never before has education been as debated as it is now."
Bennett said people across the country are watching what happens at renamed Roosevelt College and Career Academy and six Indianapolis Public Schools facilities that were taken over by the state because of failing test scores.
"I don't just care about Roosevelt, I care about all of the Gary schools," Bennett said.
Bennett was the guest speaker at the Gary Chamber of Commerce Education Committee meeting Thursday at Ivy Tech Community College Northwest.
"For years, we all agreed that something had to change in education but there was no action taken," he said. "We are at a place now in the United States where reform is actually taking place. Education results are at an all-time high."
Bennett pointed to ISTEP-Plus results, released Tuesday, that showed 71 percent of all students passed both the English/language arts and math portions of the test.
For the first time, Bennett said, 80 percent of students who took the test demonstrated proficiency on at least one of the four subjects tested. The percentage of students passing the math portion of the test reached 81 percent, a 2 percent increase over the previous school year and a 9 percent uptick since the 2008-09 school year.
Students recorded a pass rate of 79 percent on the English/language arts portion of the test, 71 percent on the science section and 69 percent on the social studies segment.
However, the scores at Gary Roosevelt were low, with only 10.4 percent of all seventh- and eighth-graders passing the English and language arts and math portions of the test, compared with 12.9 percent last year.
After a short speech, Bennett answered nearly a dozen questions from more than 100 people who came to hear him speak.
He said he believes the funding formula will be revised. He said there has been discussion about providing incentives to schools that grow, increase graduation rates and improve third-grade reading scores.
"There needs to be more flexibility with the Title I program," Bennett said. "We need funding flexibility and we need to be able to drive resources to where they need to be."
To questions about whether New York-based EdisonLearning was the right company to take over managing Roosevelt, Bennett acknowledged the company has had successes and failures.
"We know about that and we took it under consideration, but there is no perfect recipe," he said, adding state officials will monitor the company and its work in Gary.
Joe Arredondo, Ivy Tech's director of K-through-12 initiatives and academic affairs, said he thinks it's great Bennett takes the time to come to Northwest Indiana and inform people about what's going on in education.
State Sen. Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago, said Bennett firmly believes in what he says and the program he is putting forth.
"If someone feels that his direction is wrong, Bennett is willing to sit down and listen and get some input from others," Randolph said.