MEETING ATTENDEES DISCUSS proposal to combine 6th through 8th grades. Pictured (l-r) GCSC Vincent White, Assistant Director GCSC Information Technology, Jackie and Edwin Rivera.
Discussions can get heated at Gary Community School Corporation meetings, as they did Tuesday night when the community gathered at the Gary Career Center to learn more about a proposal to close the district’s two middle schools.
It’s a proposal that many in the room didn’t like. On their minds, putting 7th and 8th graders in with high school students will lead to bullying, gang recruitment, and sexual exploitation.
By closing Bailly Middle School and Gary Middle School, the district would have two tiers – kindergarten through 6th grade elementary schools and West Side would become a junior and senior high school for grades 7-12.
GCSC Manager Mike Raisor called the proposal the best option for the district, financially and academically.
Both middle schools are underutilized. Designed to hold 600-plus students, the student population is less than 400 in each.
Disciplinary actions for middle school students outnumber those for high school although there are nearly twice as many students at West Side.
Middle school academic programs are lagging, especially in math, because the schools are staffed by the greatest percentage of the district’s teachers who have emergency permits.
If we do this, Raisor said, the middle school program would be strengthened. “If an 8th grader wants to take Algebra at West Side, it could happen. But not the way it is now.”
The proposal does not call for a reduction in teachers. “We’re going to need more teachers. More teachers in the building will create more opportunities for learning. And the emergency licensed teachers will be able to learn from the more experienced teachers,” he said.
Closing the middle schools will save the district $4 million a year in operating costs, helping the new school board and superintendent gain financial stability, Raisor said.
Tempers flared early in the meeting with audience interruptions that Raisor and school board attorney Shelice Tolbert tried to tamp down. Some interruptions came from former school board attorney Tracy Coleman. “Public comment will be permitted after the presentation,” Raisor and Tolbert stated.
The outbursts continued until Atty. Tolbert said security would come and speak to those interrupting Raisor’s presentation. Atty. Coleman and a group of attendees walked out of the meeting.
Feedback on the proposal came from a survey and roundtable group discussions.
An age divide appeared over the question whether grades 7-8 should share facilities with senior high school students. Parents in the room with children in the district were not strongly opposed; they wanted to know how it would work. A coach said it’s not easy now scheduling space for afterschool athletics. How will it be better, she asked.
Objections came from older adults, saying ‘today’s 7th and 8th graders are not like the ones when we grew up.’ They identified pressure from older peers and the challenges of going through puberty as reasons not to mix grades 7-8 in the same facility with high school grades.
“If your resounding theme is we’re under financed, how am I to believe you’re going to be able to pay for more teachers to adequately supervise them at West Side,” asked Jackie Rivera during a roundtable discussion.
Two more vacant school buildings is not what the community needs, some responded. “We’re trying to identify possible buyers now,” Raisor said. Over the last two years, the district spent hundreds of thousands of dollars repairing and replacing roofs at Bailly and GMS.
“This is supposed to be a transition year for the district, not a time for new initiatives,” said State Rep. Vernon Smith. “Why not let the new board and superintendent make the decisions.” State management of the district ends in June 2024, when it comes under the control of the advisory board and a new superintendent appointed by the board.