Uncertain Hoop Dreams for Indiana Prep Standout

It’s mid-afternoon in a quiet neighborhood in Gary, Ind. Only a few cars line this one-way street. The homeowners, busy at their 9-to-5s. Their children are seated at desks at one of the 19 city schools or five charters.

This is the time of day when Polk Street seems like a deserted block, but activity buzzes inside one home.

After rummaging through his bedroom, 17-year-old Rondell Gardner returns and spreads his most coveted keepsakes on a glass table. They are letters, lots of them. Letters from in-state basketball coaches who could use a 6-foot-6 power forward like him on their team. These are coaches who like his toughness and heart and his 10-rebound-per-game average.

“They just send letters sometimes,” Gardner says without a hint of boasting. “Assistant coaches come to the games.”

Gardner, a senior at Roosevelt Career and Technical High School — a school located in the heart of a city that’s on life support — has a way out of Gary. To him, it’s an orange leather ball. Ancilla College (Indiana) has offered a scholarship; Indiana University Northwest has him on its radar; and Northern Michigan has expressed an interest.

Gardner has what these coaches want. However, much like the rest of his Roosevelt Panther basketball teammates, Gardner may not have what he needs to accept their scholarships — and that’s the academic foundation from high school to succeed in college.

Gardner, the oldest of Lisa Heath’s four children, now pulls a 2.0 grade point average but there was a time when he could not get the grades to even step on a basketball court as an eligible player. Gardner has been enrolled at two schools during the past three years; he found trouble too often and was classified with “anger management.” Roosevelt became his only option as well as his greatest challenge.

“Roosevelt, something needs to happen to that real fast,” Heath says. “Roosevelt is a mess.”

Last March, when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called for strict reform in NCAA Division I basketball, suggesting that programs that are failing to graduate at least 50 percent of their players should not be welcomed into the March Madness tournament, the spotlight did not focus on whether these big-time recruits were even academically prepared before arriving on campus.

The charge of accountability resounds when considering the prospective recruits who hail from failing inner-city public schools — it is the opinion of one scholar that it is “almost impossible” for those students to succeed at the next level.

“If you talk to the academic advisers on our college campuses they would affirm it,” says Dr. Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida.

Lapchick cites poor modern technology in classrooms and heavy teacher turnover as some of the reasons why students from urban schools might face steeper challenges in college.

“It’s an uphill climb,” he says.

Being Prepared

Gardner shares the same hoop dreams of many tall teenagers with a decent jump shot. He thinks he can cut it at a big-time college basketball program. He’s not so sure about the college classroom, however.

“In academics, I’ll probably need a little help, but I can get ready for it,” says Gardner, who struggles in the subject of math. “Because Roosevelt, they teach you, but they don’t teach you to the next level, to get you prepared for it.”

Gardner attends a high school with a proud tradition. Once known as Theodore Roosevelt High, the school, nestled at 25th Avenue and Harrison Street, educated the city’s Black children, transforming many into scholars — Karen Freeman-Wilson, Gary’s newest mayor, earned her law degree from Harvard after graduating from Roosevelt as a valedictorian.

Others became superior athletes — Roosevelt nurtured Dick “Skull” Barnett, who led his Tennessee State University team as the first historically Black college to win an integrated national basketball championship.

Those days are part of Roosevelt’s glorious past.

“It wasn’t unusual for a student to attend Harvard or Princeton,” says Oliva Willis, who graduated from Roosevelt and works at her alma mater as a school counselor. “And now I worry about my top students being successful at the state schools.”

The basketball program has not produced a Division I player since 2005. Even more troubling, it’s been that long since the school has made Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP — a measurement set forth by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. In August, the Indiana Department of Education recommended that control of Roosevelt, which has been on academic probation by the state for the past six years, be assumed by an outside for-profit organization. EdisonLearning, the New York-based firm appointed by the state, has spent the 2011-2012 school year observing Roosevelt with the expectation that it will take a greater role over the school next year.

“The mentality at Roosevelt was that people didn’t seem to believe that this could happen,” Roosevelt Dean of Students John Williamson says. “They didn’t seem to believe that the state would actually come.”

“But now it’s here, and nobody knows what to do,” he adds.

A Bygone Era

Ron Broome taught and coached at Roosevelt during a different era. He can remember the high standard held for the student athletes. From his time as an assistant varsity basketball coach in the early 1970s until the time Broome led the program into the 21st century, he said the team would average three to four Division I recruits a year. From Roosevelt, the young basketball dreamers matriculated just fine to the next level and earned degrees.

“Every kid that wanted to go to college, we found a way to get him to school whether it was Division I, Division II, junior college,” says Broome, who coached at Roosevelt for three decades before retiring in 2004. “If he wanted to go to school, we got him in school.”

In the 1990s, there were signs of the school slipping with the emergence of its most renowned basketball player, Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson. After tearing up the Northwest Indiana prep scene, Robinson infamously had to sit out his freshman season at Purdue because of low grades.

At this point, Broome started noticing a change simply because the school had changed.

Over time, Gary high schools adopted an academy personality — where students were separated by skill, not district lines, and sent to specific schools. While gifted and bright students were bused to rival West Side, Roosevelt became the hub for “special needs” students—any child who deviates from the normal curriculum and may not be able to perform in the traditional classroom setting whether due to physical, emotional or mental issues.

“Before I retired, I could see a change in the students,” Broome says. “Back then, in 2004, what’s going on there now had not really taken as big of an effect. (Roosevelt) wasn’t on probation and people, especially alumni, they still wanted their kids to come to Roosevelt. I’d say, a year or two years later, all this stuff started hitting the fan.”

Academic Alternatives

Gardner missed half of his junior basketball season, his first with Roosevelt, because he was academically ineligible. When Heath noticed her son falling behind in school — spending way too much time in the dean’s office rather than math class — she pulled him out of a full-day school schedule at Roosevelt. Gardner is now a “home-bound” student; he attends Roosevelt from 8:30 a.m. until noon then returns to the house on the quiet one-way street for one-on-one lessons with a teacher.

With that setup, Gardner’s grades have improved. Although he’s an average student in his classes held at Roosevelt, Gardner has pulled B’s in his English 12 and Algebra 2 courses taught at home. Every weekday, Heath takes off from work, picks up her son and drives him home for more school, but it’s a sacrifice she’s willing to make to ensure Gardner’s future success.

“I come to school, check on him, make sure his credits (are) up,” Heath says. “Some parents feel like they don’t have to, but, if you love your child, you have to.”

These days, Roosevelt struggles to keep its best student-athletes eligible and graduates less than half of the senior student body. However, for the first time in his varsity basketball career, Gardner has remained academically on track and has plans of walking across the stage in June. He has taken the SAT, and, although he has not squeezed in prep courses, Gardner plans to take another swing at the standardized test this spring. Gardner has yet to decide on a college destination and has considered the options of attending a prep school for one year before enrolling in a four-year university.

Make no mistake, fans probably will not hear Rondell Gardner’s name during the madness of NCAA playoff basketball next season — his recruiting status is modest compared to the true blue-chippers — but he hopes that one day he’ll play on the big stage. And it will be a hard-bound book, not an orange leather basketball, that can get him there.

“Everybody always blames the schools. I don’t blame the schools,” says Heath, who thinks parents and students should also share in the responsibility of preparing for academic success. “Like I tell Rondell, ‘The ball is in your hands. It’s on you what you want to do with it.’ I don’t care what school a kid goes to, the kid’s got to focus for (himself).”