Is basketball a canary in the coal mine for Indiana's public schools? | WBEZ
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As Gary charter wins basketball titles, public schools fall farther behind

Hoosier Hysteria will hit a fever pitch this weekend in Indianapolis.

Not only is the city hosting the Midwest Regional for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, but the boys state high school basketball title games as well.

Northwest Indiana will be well represented in the tournament with three region teams heading downstate looking for a crown in their respective classes. They include traditional programs like Lake Central in St. John and Michigan City Marquette, as well as relative newcomer Bowman Academy in Gary.

Bowman is a charter school trying to repeat as state champions and win its third title in four years.– unheard of even in this basketball-crazed corner of Indiana. This from a school that started competing only six years ago.

But neither success nor acceptance has come easy for Bowman, a non-religious school named for African-American Roman Catholic nun Thea Bowman.

“A couple of years, didn’t nobody know who Bowman was. We couldn’t play a good team for nothing,” says Bowman’s star guard, 6’5 Davon Dillard, a junior who is already being pursued by the likes of Purdue, Indiana and Michigan State.

Dillard and his teammates chowed down on pizza and chicken wings before boarding two white vans early Thursday afternoon to make the two-hour trek south to practice at Bankers Life Fieldhouse – home of the NBA’s Indianapolis Pacers.

“We’ve gained a lot of respect by proving it on the court, you know. Coming to Bowman, I’ve been playing in some of the biggest championship games I’ve ever played in,” Dillard said. “Being able to go down to state every year, that’s a good feeling.”

But Bowman’s quick rise also reveals just how far some of the other Gary schools have fallen – and not just in basketball.

“We get a lot of criticism but we just stay humble you know. We focus; we play hard, you know, we’ve got a good coach in Marvin Rae. He gets the job done,” Dillard said.

Head coach Marvin Rae agrees.

“You know, when we first started, there was some animosity, actually we didn’t play the Gary schools, they opted not to play us,” Rae told WBEZ. “When we first started, we had to travel to Rushville, Illinois to get games. We had to travel around. Our first year, we literally only had eight games.”

Suburban schools in Northwest Indiana didn’t want to play Bowman because of its small size. And – rightly or wrongly – because of Gary’s reputation as an unsafe place to visit.

But the city schools didn’t want to play Bowman either.

“I was not going to play Bowman because I knew right away what charter schools were built for: They are built to destroy public school systems,” said John Boyd, a former teacher and coach at Gary’s West Side High School, a basketball powerhouse and state champion in 2003.

Despite being a much larger school than Bowman, Boyd agreed to play one game against them in 2009.

“I had gotten sick of people telling me I was afraid to play Bowman when I had some of the best talent in the state of Indiana,” Body said. “So, we ended up playing them and there was a situation that occurred.”

What occurred, according to Boyd, was a fight that ended any further games between Bowman and Gary schools.

But now, because of dwindling finances and declining enrollment – Gary public education struggling to keep its public high schools open. Of its five public high schools, only two still have basketball teams.

Bowman’s success – in the classroom and on the court – is now luring most of Gary’s top talent in basketball and academics.

And with other charter schools having varying success in Gary, Boyd says it’s only going to get tougher for the Steel City.

“These charter schools are taking away students from the Gary public schools. Gary is actually a case study in how charter schools can come in and absolutely take over a school corporation which means that yes, Gary will have to close schools until they only have one high school,” Boyd said.

Gary’s charter schools are often criticized for shifting resources away from public schools. Bowman’s Rae says while he understands that criticism, “we just kind of keep to ourselves and do what we do best and focus on each other,” he said.

Bowman’s success now attracts top teams from all over the region that flock to Gary to play them, with most games attracting the attention of college recruiters. Because of their packed scheduled, Marvin Rae says there’s no room to play Gary schools now even if they wanted to.

“It’s not a matter of do we want to play, at this point our schedule is full,” Rae said.

Rae insists he’s not gloating. As someone who used to play at Gary Roosevelt High School – a one time powerhouse – he knows Gary’s public schools are stressed.
“If we can sit down and help the Gary community schools and anyone else, we’re always open to help anyone with suggestions and ideas,” Rae said.

Even rival coach John Boyd has come to terms with Bowman’s unmatched success and called Rae recently to wish him luck in Indy this weekend.

“They are probably the premier basketball program in Northwest Indiana right now. When you are winning championships you have to be revered,” Boyd said. “The Bowmans of the world bring attention to Gary, Indiana. We need to want Bowman to be successful.”

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