The fate of Carrie Gosch Elementary School in East Chicago is tied to the neighborhood and land the various school buildings have been part of. Here is a partial history of the school in all its embodiments over the years.
1950s: Carrie Gosch Elementary School replaces the former James A. Garfield School, which is destroyed by fire on Jan. 6, 1956. The Garfield school originally had been constructed in 1912 to replace the old Lew Wallace School, built in 1902, which was at the southeast corner of 148th and Melville Avenue in East Chicago.
During the interim between the burning of Garfield school and the completion of the first Carrie Gosch school building in 1959, upper elementary students in the Calumet area are housed in the Blaw-Knox office building at 420 E. 151st St. Students in kindergarten and other primary grades have classes at the First Baptist Church at 149th and McCook and in temporary housing at the Garfield site. Other primary classes are housed at the Croation Center at the corner of Carey Street and Chicago Avenue and at Columbia Hall of Holy Trinity Hungarian Parish.
Carrie Gosch is at 455 E. 148th St. Contracts are awarded on May 21, 1958, and ground is broken on June 4, 1958. The site consists of 15 acres formerly owned by the Continental Foundry & Machine Division of Blaw-Knox Co. and purchased by the School City of East Chicago on Sept. 5, 1956, at a cost of $50,000.
The total cost of the new site and building, with the exception of furniture and equipment, is approximately $1.1 million. It is designed for a capacity of 1,050 students. There are 33 classrooms for students in kindergarten through sixth grade.
Classes start in September 1959. An open house and dedication for the school is held on Nov. 8, 1959.
Lead factories in East Chicago’s Calumet neighborhood date back to the early 1900s. Aerial photographs show the former Anaconda Lead Products facility that still existed in 1959 in the area of the present-day West Calumet Housing Complex, about six blocks south of Carrie Gosch.
1960s/1970s/1980s: Marla Spann, 49, remembers growing up in the West Calumet area playing in the dirt, making mud pies and eating the green beans growing in her grandmother’s yard.
“I don’t remember ever hearing any talk about lead,” she says.
The West Calumet homes are built in the early 1970s.
Spann attends Carrie Gosch, starting kindergarten in 1973. She says Nick Serengach is principal then. She well remembers one of her favorite teachers, Sandra Scull, who teaches her in third grade. Spann has Scull again in sixth grade, when Scull teaches art. Scull starts a black history museum within the school.
“She had a group called ‘The young ladies,’ and she did a lot to teach us about how to be young ladies,” Spann says.
“I grew up on Vernon Street and that was right behind Carrie Gosch. My grandmother lived in front of Carrie Gosch, and I spent quite a lot of time over there, eating the food out of her garden and playing in the grass and dirt.”
1990s: By the 1990s, the Carrie Gosch building is old and worn. East Chicago school leaders propose constructing a new building on the same site. The new Carrie Gosch will be built behind the existing school, enabling students to stay in classes at the old school while the new building is constructed.
The proposed cost for the new building is $15.9 million according to reports to the school board. Architects for the project are Bittner & Ditela Inc. The general contractor is Gough Construction.
Spann has worked at the East Chicago Public Library since March 1991. She said she has learned more about the lead contamination in the West Calumet neighborhood and around the school this year more than when she lived there because of news reports, and residents and politicians stopping in to check out the materials she has gathered for their perusal.
“West Calumet has paired duplexes, and there is an apartment building,” Spann says. “It was called the West Calumet Complex rather than the projects. It wasn’t considered a bad area when I was growing up. You didn’t ride through there then and think you were in a low-income area.”
Elaine Kisisel, 76, is on the East Chicago School Board from 1987 to 2007. She says she doesn’t recall any discussion about a lead problem around the school.
Fellow board member Henry Gillis, 84, becomes a school board member sometime after 1991, after he retires as principal of West Side Middle School and is on the board for 14 years, he says. He is the first principal at the middle school and is there 15 years, he adds.
“I don’t remember any talk about lead problems,” he says.
“All those houses were built on the same spot where the lead plant was located. My father worked at the lead plant. If we had known the soil was contaminated out there, we wouldn’t have built a school there.”
2000s/2010s: Between 2005 and 2015, preliminary tests show more than 20 percent of children in the census tract that includes the West Calumet housing complex have elevated blood lead levels, according to the Indiana State Department of Health.
The national average during that decade is fewer than 1 percent of children.
The entire Calumet neighborhood along with the USS Lead facility is listed on the Superfund National Priorities List in April 2009.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maintains it would be safe for residents to continue living at the complex during soil excavation, but the federal agency says it will follow the city’s lead. Digging is on hold in zone 1, which includes the complex, until the city, ECHA and HUD determine a future use for the land.
2016: In May, the EPA tells families in the West Calumet complex that they and their children are living on land severely contaminated by lead and arsenic.
In summer, the city and the ECHA decide to demolish all 346 units at the complex and relocate more than 1,000 residents living there, including more than 600 children enrolled in schools within the School City of East Chicago.
The youngsters and families in the part of West Calumet with homes (zone 2) and East Calumet (zone 3) don’t have to move.
East Chicago schools Superintendent Paige McNulty closes Carrie Gosch Elementary School located at 455 E. 148th St. in the West Calumet area less than a week before school starts in August due to lead and arsenic contamination in the soil.
The EPA rents several classrooms in the building as its headquarters while working on plans regarding the lead problems.
Sen. Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago, says the information about lead and arsenic in the soil was never communicated to residents when the complex was built.
“Someone dropped the ball,” he says. “Was that done because it was built as low-income housing for black folk? It was probably 99 percent black then. Did people just not care? It’s still probably 90 percent black though other races have moved in. There have been lawsuits filed, and there will be additional lawsuits filed.”