Last day: Some Gary schools close for good
By Carole Carlson email@example.com/302-0949 June 12, 2014 8:28PM
Webster Elementary third grade teacher Stephanie Billups receives helping packing supplies Thursday from her student, Jhavonte Thompson, 9. | Carole Carlson~Sun-Times Media
Gary school closings:
Dunbar-Pulaski Middle School
Lew Wallace STEM Academy
Lincoln Achievement Center
Watson Academy for Boys
Updated: July 14, 2014 6:29AM
GARY — Webster Elementary staff members were resigned to their fate Thursday, on the final day their school would be open.
Webster and possibly five other schools closed their doors for the final time in the wake of the Gary Community School Corp.’s shrinking enrollment and growing budget deficit.
“We do understand that we have to make changes to show we’re more fiscally sound,” said Principal Gina Watts-Ellison of the struggling school district. “It’s bittersweet.”
Teachers finish the school year Friday and many will be packing up and wondering where they’ll be in August, or if they still have a job.
The district has until July 1 to notify teachers if they’re losing their jobs, said Joseph Zimmerman, president of the Gary Teachers Union.
“There are so many moving parts and the window of opportunity is closing quick,” said Zimmerman who is meeting Friday with administrators to smooth the transition.
Four school buildings — Brunswick and Webster elementaries, the Watson Boys Academy, and the Lincoln Achievement Center will be shuttered. The Watson gender-based program will continue at another school, still not named.
The school board also voted June 3 to close the Lew Wallace STEM Academy and the Dunbar-Pulaski Middle School, but left the door ajar to reopen one of them as a citywide middle school. No decision has been made yet, leaving those teachers and staff in limbo.
Zimmerman estimated about 130 teachers were retiring, leaving hope that many displaced teachers can retain their jobs. “We’ll lose some, but I don’t know the numbers.”
At Webster on Thursday, they knew their number was up.
“Webster is an awesome school, but sometimes we have to make tough decisions,” said third-grade teacher Stephanie Billups. “It’s all about doing what’s best for kids.”
Yolanda Burpo, the mother of third-grader Erica Burpo, has been a parent volunteer who helps out in the cafeteria and on the playground.
“I’m going to miss it and miss the kids, too,” she said. Burpo isn’t sure what school her daughter will attend next year. Many of Webster’s enrollment of about 300 students walk to school. With the closing, most of the Webster students will be bused to the Glen Park Academy or the Bailly Preparatory Academy. The district runs the risk that some disgruntled parents will send their children to charter schools. The Gary Lighthouse Charter School, for example, is five blocks from Webster on the same street.
The school board waited late in the year to vote on the closings, angering many parents who felt plans should have been made much earlier to avoid uncertainty. Now, with school opening again in two months, many parents aren’t sure what school their children will attend.
In 2005, Gary had 30 schools and 16,800 students. The advent of charter schools has siphoned off students from the school district. Today, nearly 4,000 students are enrolled in six charter schools in the city, while the district’s enrollment is at 7,647 students.
Webster, which opened in 1951, has been plagued by a leaky roof and balky boilers, the maladies most aging schools in Gary share.
In 2003, enrollment in Glen Park schools soared, leading the district to spend $400,000 on portable classrooms at Webster and Riley. Two years later, Webster and Riley appeared on a list of 13 schools slated for closure. Riley did close, but Webster gained a reprieve.
Now, there’s no pardon on the horizon.
“I’m saddened about it,” Webster parent assistant Martha Miller said. “The school is right in the middle of the neighborhood.”