INDIANAPOLIS — It's official: Wirt-Emerson School for the Visual and Performing Arts in Gary will close at the end of the current academic year, and its high school programs will be consolidated into the city's West Side Leadership Academy.
The Indiana Distressed Unit Appeals Board on Friday unanimously approved the recommendation of the Gary Community School Corp. emergency manager that the cash-strapped district operate a single high school to reduce expenses following decades of declining enrollment.
"To make a choice like this, to follow a recommendation on a school closure, is a very weighty choice," said Micah Vincent, DUAB chairman and Indiana Office of Management and Budget director.
"(But) it appears pretty clear that doing things in the same way that they've been done is not a viable option, long-term."
He praised Emergency Manager Peggy Hinckley, and her Gary Schools Recovery team, for working over the past several months to make Gary residents aware through community forums, building tours and other engagement activities that a single high school is the best way to stabilize the district's academic offerings and hopefully grow enrollment.
"A lot of discussion and a lot of work has gone into what is ultimately this decision," Vincent said.
"Both from the ability to provide for the long-term financial viability of the school corporation, but also for the academic offerings that could be available, our choices narrow if we're not willing or able to act on this."
Optimistic about future
Hinckley and her team already are preparing to integrate the arts programs currently offered at Wirt-Emerson into the curriculum at West Side, including possibly setting up a school within a school tentatively named "Emerson: The Visual and Performing Arts Academy at West Side."
"We know as a comprehensive high school at West Side Leadership Academy we must maintain that for us to maintain the young people from Wirt-Emerson who are worrying about whether they're going to have those offerings," Hinckley said.
She acknowledged that the programs in orchestra, band, piano, vocals, dance, art and drama necessarily will be somewhat different at the new school.
For example, she said tryouts as a class prerequisite must be limited to advanced courses to comply with federal equal opportunity requirements, which means more students likely will be enrolled in each course.
"It isn't probable to think that we can have classrooms with three or four students in them," Hinckley said. "We simply can't afford that from a logistics standpoint."
But she's confident that West Side, which currently boasts the largest auditorium in Northwest Indiana following the Star Plaza Theater demolition, has the facilities to accommodate the arts programs after some cosmetic improvements to lighting, stages, dance mirrors and other infrastructure are made this summer.
The emergency manager is projecting that about 15 percent of Wirt-Emerson students will enroll at a high school other than West Side next year, be it a charter school, the privately-operated Roosevelt College and Career Academy or a high school outside of Gary.
At the same time, Hinckley is planning a major outreach effort to inform parents who may have previously pulled their children from the school corporation that the era of uncertainty is over, and B-rated West Side has more to offer than many other Region high schools.
"I think that people in Gary wanted to send their children to our schools, but in all the chaos sometimes people just make a different choice," Hinckley said.
Management firm earns bonus
In addition to approving Gary high school consolidation, the state's distressed unit board on Friday awarded a $250,000 performance bonus to the Gary Schools Recovery emergency management firm.
The payment was in recognition of the company's Jan. 31 submission of a viable deficit reduction plan for the school district, a plan that included going to a single district-operated high school in Gary.
It contains 30 additional proposals for reducing costs, increasing revenue or strategic investments that do both in order to balance the budget and begin paying off the more than $100 million in debt racked up by the district's school board, which was sidelined by the emergency manager under a 2017 state law.
Vincent said performance incentives help ensure the state is "paying for progress, and not just paying for presence."