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Gary schools snag federal cash, but with strings attached

Wednesday turned out to be a bittersweet day for at least two struggling public schools in Gary, Indiana. Both got news that federal help is on the way to improve student achievement, but that help comes with a cost.

On the plus side, the Indiana Department of Education announced the pair will split $3.1 million through the federal School Improvement Grant program.

The first is Bailly Prep Academy, an elementary school that is struggling to boost state standardized test scores. The second is Lew Wallace Tech, a high schools that’s been dogged by low test scores as well as dismal graduation rates. Barely half of all Lew Wallace seniors graduated in 2009, according to state figures.

Indiana Department of Education spokesman Alex Demron says both Gary schools have demonstrated a sincere attempt at improving, and that counts when it comes to securing federal grants. The U.S. Department of Education requires applicants to adopt one of the following four reform models: turnaround, transformational, restart or closure.

Both Bailly and Lew Wallace chose the turnaround model, which will involve pain for school staff. Demron says both schools have to replace half their teachers and, perhaps, their principals, too.

“When you’re looking at the performance of your school, you’re taking a look at essentially your ability to drive quality instruction to kids,” Demron told WBEZ.  “And you’re trying to create an atmosphere that enables you to do that.”

Roosevelt Career and Technical Academy, another struggling high school in Gary, failed to obtain funds through the program. Roosevelt is currently on academic probation.

When asked why Roosevelt did not receive federal grants as well, Demron would only say the schools that received grants had produced applications that demonstrated firm commitments to improve student achievement.

Gary Public School Corporation is facing a $13 million budget deficit, which has forced it to cut teaching positions and programs. Letting go teachers at both schools could inflame an already tenuous relationship between school officials and the Gary Teachers Union. 

Two schools in Indianapolis and one in Evansville will also receive federal School Improvement Grants.

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