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Raven Hall and Brianna Smith (at microphone) and Dr. Hinckley

Wirt-Emerson community responds to possible closure

Contributed By:The 411 News

First public forum for emergency manager since decision to shutter one of 2 high schools

A new high school campus for Gary and the return of Roosevelt to the Gary school corporation were some of the old and new talking points that came out of the Gary Teachers Union forum this week that featured the school district’s emergency manager Peggy Hinckley and Indiana State Senator Eddie Melton.

This was also the first chance for the public to respond to the emergency manager’s announcement early in November that either West Side or Wirt Emerson would not reopen at the end of the 2017-18 school year. Dr. Hinckley said then, the school district does not have enough students to operate two high schools.

Old talking points included the legislation that brought about the takeover of Gary schools, the state’s part in the district’s financial distress, the school corporation’s debt, poor condition of school buildings, and property taxes.

Sen. Melton said Gary is in a unique place. “We are the only district with 2 separate takeover groups.” EdisonLearning manages Roosevelt and Hinckley and her team from MGT Consulting Group are managing the Gary school corporation.

Hinckley didn’t have to describe or defend her role as emergency manager as she’s done in many of the forums and even school board meetings since arriving in August.

She was talking to her core constituents about the needs to increase graduation rates, increase student scores on state tests, and increase the district’s number of students. “I’m not here to close Gary schools. In a year from now, I want us to be in a better place than we are in now.”

The emergency manager heard from Wirt-Emerson students and parents, some indicating those student numbers so important to Dr. Hinckley may keep falling.

“Most of my friends say they’re going to Portage and Merrillville,” said Brianna Smith, in the 8th grade at Wirt-Emerson. She pointed to technology, books, bathrooms, and the way classrooms look. “What are you doing different to keep students here? Why are we using only one part of the school?”

Dr. Hinckley was surprised to learn Wirt middle-school students, now in their 15th week of school, hadn’t received books after the district spent $1.5 million to buy new books for all students at the start of the school year.

Bathroom repairs were done before school started, Hinckley said, and she is now working on fixing leaky roofs. “We don’t generate enough money for the extra piece, like technology,” she said, adding Portage and Merrillville can use more of their tax revenues for capital projects that can be used for building improvements. Also, those school districts don’t have high amounts of debt like Gary.

Classrooms are empty at Wirt-Emerson because of concerns about air quality and mold, Hinckley said.

Raven Hall, Brianna’s sister and a Wirt-Emerson 10th grader, is concerned about students’ academic achievement and morale. “We need mentors, a tutoring program, and a buddy system. Our students do nothing but tear each other down. They’re not talking to each other as much as they should and doing nothing to build each other up.”

There is a need for leadership and support from adults at the school, Hall said. “I talked to my principal about starting a mentoring program. The principal was concerned but never took any action.” And when we’re told to go to a trusted adult, Hall said, “In my opinion, the adults don’t like to sit there and actually listen to what we’re saying.”

Hinckley asked Hall to make those suggestions to the school’s student council. “The best ideas come from students. You have to get enough students in your student council to want and ask for those things. Mentoring programs should be organized by the school. This is a complicated issue and there are privacy concerns.”

LeBarron Burton said he switched his 3 children from a charter school to Wirt-Emerson because the charter lacked the arts programs that Wirt-Emerson has. “If this program doesn’t exist, you have lost three children.”

Which school to close is still undetermined, Hinckley said. “Come January, we’ll have conversations about our facilities, not just high schools but the number of buildings we need. We have to look at the best configuration. We will find out what parents and the community wants.”

Sen. Melton asked his audience to keep being engaged and to organize collectively “… to let the state know what we want to do as a community. At a certain point, if we don’t organize, they’re going to try to tell us what they want us to do.”

Raven Hall and Brianna Smith (at microphone) and Dr. Hinckley: What are you doing to keep students here?

LeBarron Burton: “If this program doesn’t exist, you have lost three children.”

Sen. Eddie Melton, Peggy Hinckley, GlenEva Dunham (seated): Keep being engaged and organize collectively.

Story Posted:11/25/2017

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