GARY — A Wirt/Emerson senior was among more than a dozen people who passionately urged the Gary schools emergency manager to reconsider her recommendation to close the high school.

While another Gary resident told the public not to waste their time, the decision has been made.

The Gary schools emergency manager Peggy Hinckley met with the Distressed Unit Appeals Board on Feb. 16 and recommended Wirt-Emerson School for the Visual and Performing Arts in the Miller neighborhood be closed at the end of the current academic year. Those students and programs would be consolidated into West Side Leadership Academy on the city's far west side.

She also proposed that Bailly Preparatory Academy be converted into a middle school serving all Gary students in grades six through eight and the Lincoln Achievement Center, a former school that houses the district's administrative offices, be closed and administrators move into space at West Side.

Members of the community had an opportunity to talk about the closure recommendations at a Gary school board meeting Wednesday night. DUAB said it will vote on the recommendations at its March 2 meeting.

Along with Hinckley and Gary's new Chief Financial Officer Leonard Moody, DUAB executive director Courtney Schaafsma was on hand to hear the comments.

Wirt/Emerson senior Xeryus Johnson said he and many of his classmates oppose the closing of their school. He said he went to Indianapolis last week and heard the recommendations firsthand.

He said the teachers at Wirt/Emerson are amazing, and there is a wonderful, solid program at the high school. He said students have performed in China, at the White House and at Disney World. 

"I'm a vocal major. I want to know Dr. Hinckley, what happens to our performing arts program?" he asked from the podium.

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"It won't be the same when we go to West Side. West Side doesn't have the same passion for the arts that we have. Not once since the recommendation was made last Friday, have you come over and asked our students how they feel about going to West Side,"  the teen said.

Markael Watkins, who graduated from Wirt High School and has no children in the building, said, "they don't care, the decision has already been made.

"We are wasting our time. It's a wrap. This is just a formality. They came here just to say they gave us an opportunity to speak," he said.

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"The board doesn't have a say so. We don't have a say so. The mayor doesn't have a say so. People who don't have a vested interest, who don't have any children in the schools, who don't live in the city and who don't have a vested interest are going to make the decision," he said.

Retired Gary teacher and administrator DeLynne Exum said she accepts the Gary school district has too many buildings and financial problems but she doesn't understand why Wirt/Emerson can't be used as the middle school as opposed to Bailly Preparatory Academy.

Retired Gary school teacher Carolyn McCrady said she has no problem with West Side as long as the Wirt/Emerson program remains intact. "I have yet to see a meaningful transition approach to make sure the Emerson Visual and Performing Arts program remains intact," she said.

Gary parent Larida Burnett, who has three students in Gary schools, none at Wirt/Emerson, said she is concerned that school leaders recognize that, "we are people, not just numbers."

Hinkley has told DUAB it doesn't make financial or academic sense for the cash-strapped Gary Community School Corp. to continue operating two high schools when a single, comprehensive facility will reduce expenses and potentially increase revenue by growing enrollment.

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Southlake County Reporter

Carmen is an award-winning journalist who has worked at The Times newspaper for 20 years. Before that she also had stints at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., The Post-Tribune and The News Dispatch in Michigan City.