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GARY —  Gary schools Emergency Manager Peggy Hinckley and Benjamin Banneker Achievement Center Principal Sarah Givens presented a united front Thursday evening during a meeting for parents to talk about converting Banneker to a middle school.

Hinckley said she came to "set the record straight."

Hinckley, who was charged with turning Gary schools around academically and financially, has recommended, and the state has approved, closing Wirt/Emerson Visual and Performing Arts high school and re-establishing a middle school at the Banneker building.

The change means that going forward Gary's elementary schools will serve students in kindergarten through fifth grade, while West Side Leadership Academy will educate students in grades nine through 12. The Banneker building will be renamed Banneker Middle School and house students in sixth, seventh and eighth grade.

Several parents complained, with some saying they did not want to see the gifted and talented program at Banneker dismantled. They expressed concern about middle school students coming from all over the city to be housed in one building, and they were concerned about bus times and school start times.

However, Hinckley emphasized repeatedly that the gifted and talented program would not be altered. She said Givens and the elementary students would be relocated to the Jacques Marquette Elementary School, and there would also need to be some redistricting so elementary schools would not be overcrowded.

She also reminded parents that the Banneker building used to be a junior high school.

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"We're down to 5,200 students, just how many buildings do we really need?" she asked. "We've looked at it, and we're losing kids at seventh grade."

Hinckley said science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, programs will be added at the middle school level, along with science, technology, engineering, art and math, or STEAM, extracurricular activities and other athletic programs at the school to interest students. She also said administrators will bring the popular "We the People" civic and constitutional program to the middle school.

Going over some of the financial challenges, Hinckley said the district is losing $1.5 million per month, or $18 million a year, and the deficit has to be erased.

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When one parent asked if the district would be able to sell Wirt/Emerson, Hinckley said there are still IRS liens on all of the school buildings. She told parents the Distressed Unit Appeal Board on Thursday in Indianapolis approved  the district offering a settlement to IRS of $320,000 with 20 percent, or $64,000, due at the time of the offer.

"That still has a long way to go," she said. "It's not a done deal."

Gary grandmother Linda Pointer said people have to realize that Gary schools are in a lot of trouble.

"There is going to have to be changes or else the state is going to come in and close it all down," she said. "Then what are people going to do? Taking them to Marquette, I have no problem with that. Turning Banneker into a middle school, I believe that is a good thing. People acting like kids don't mix. Kids been mixing since the beginning of time, high-ability kids and low-ability kids."

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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.