INDIANAPOLIS — State Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, is concerned that the Gary Community School Corp. is not effectively reaching out to parents and persuading them to enroll their children in the city's public schools.

Smith on Friday told the Indiana Distressed Unit Appeals Board, which oversees the emergency manager leading the financially distressed district, that charter and religious schools seem to be putting more effort into recruiting Gary students, and sapping the public schools of desperately needed revenue.

"People are contacting me with questions, and there's been concern about the visibility of the marketing compared to the charter schools," said Smith, an advisory DUAB member. "They've been going on the whole entire summer."

Deputy Superintendent Nakia Douglas said Gary schools also have been recruiting new students all summer through a variety of targeted channels, including parent meetings, robocalls, outreach to faith and community groups and letters to public agencies.

She said the district next week is set to begin a more public marketing campaign, reminding students that the school year begins August 13 and encouraging parents to enroll their children in Gary schools as soon as possible. 

"You will definitely start seeing more," Douglas said. "We are definitely trying to get the message out."

Enrollment growth is vital to reviving the fortunes of the school district that prior to a 2017 state takeover repeatedly failed to balance its budget and racked up more than $100 million in debt.

Emergency Manager Peggy Hinckley said it's impossible for the district to cut its way to prosperity, so it must work to attract new students as each new student in a traditional classroom brings the district approximately $8,800 in additional state funding.

To that end, DUAB on Friday approved a district contract with K12 Classroom LLC to provide a blended learning program for former Gary students and any of the 200 other Lake County children enrolled in online-only education services.

Participants in the new K12 Gary program will attend in-person classes two days a week at the Gary Career Center and participate in online instruction three days a week, with the district receiving $1,622 in revenue per student, according to the contract.

DUAB also blessed a contract between the school district and The Crossing to establish a dropout recovery program for about 20 former Gary students currently completing their high school diplomas at The Crossing's East Chicago facility.

Then and Now: Gary high schools