Building Better Schools

Indianapolis Public Schools is closing high schools. Here are the biggest questions facing district leaders.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Students at the Career Technology Center at Arsenal Technical High School in Indianapolis.

This much is certain — Indianapolis Public Schools will be closing high schools. But what precisely the future holds for the district’s secondary students is still uncertain.

The district expects to have more than twice as many high school seats as students by next fall. High school enrollment has been shrinking for decades, but the problem will be even more stark because the administration plans to remove middle school students from high schools.

As Chalkbeat revealed last summer, low enrollment at schools can dramatically push up costs, draining money from classrooms. But closing high schools can put a steep burden on some families, leaving empty buildings where schools once anchored neighborhoods and forcing students to travel further for school.

The district tentatively aims to approve a plan for reconfiguring schools by this fall and to close schools in 2018-2019. A district facilities committee is expected to present recommendations in March.

Here are some of the biggest questions facing district leaders as they plan a new future for high schools:

Should they be neighborhood or magnet schools?

When IPS leaders first started talking about reconfiguring high schools last summer, the administration floated a surprising new idea — converting all of the district high schools to career academies. Modeled on a similar program in Nashville, each school would have one or several areas of focus, such as technology, teaching or the military. Students would choose their high school based on focus area, even if that meant taking a bus across the city.

Last week, however, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee told the board that switching to a system where students could choose any school in the city had practical challenges, including potentially high transportation costs.

If district leaders decide not to switch to career academies, they could eliminate magnet high schools altogether or have a blended approach similar to the current strategy, with some magnet programs and some traditional neighborhood high schools or schools that have both magnet and neighborhood programs.

What high school size is best?

IPS currently has seven high schools, and they vary significantly in size. Crispus Attucks High School can educate 1,375 students, while the Arsenal Technical High School campus has room for 3,000 students. With so many extra buildings, the district has a lot of options when it comes to deciding whether to aim for large or small high schools.

For years, districts across the country experimented with creating smaller high schools, in part as a result of a massive influx of funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. But research didn’t show a significant improvement in graduation rates and more recently, the idea has become less popular. Smaller schools also typically have higher administrative overhead.

It can be harder for staff to build strong relationships with students in large high schools. But if the district had larger schools, they could likely offer more specialized and advanced placement courses.

Will the strategy attract and retain students?

The district is faced with the prospect of closing high schools following years of declining enrollment as students leave for charter, private and township districts. That means there are families who might be attracted to IPS if they like the school options.

Over the last decade, IPS  high schools lost nearly 40 percent of their enrollment, while elementary schools lost just 13 percent of their students. If the district can retain families from elementary through secondary grades, that will help sustain high schools.

Shortridge High School, for example, is less than a quarter full. But district leaders might decide to keep the school open because it has an International Baccalaureate program that follows the district’s popular Center for Inquiry magnet elementary schools.

How much will it save?

The primary aim of closing high schools is to cut overhead costs, so district leaders will likely take the cost of running each building into consideration when they decide which schools to keep open. In a presentation to the board last week, district staff outlined the monthly operating expenses at each building as well as the cost of transportation. There are other practical considerations as well, such as the year each building was built and whether they need significant maintenance.

IPS High School Enrollment Projections 2017-2018
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Two for one

Schools in Pueblo, Greeley up next as state sorts out struggling schools

Charlotte Macaluso, right, speaks with Pueblo City Schools spokesman Dalton Sprouse on July 22, 2016. (Pueblo Chieftain file photo)

The Colorado Department of Education is expected Monday to suggest that five of the state’s lowest-performing schools, including one that was once considered a reform miracle, hire outsiders to help right the course.

The department’s recommendations for the schools — three in Pueblo and two in Greeley — are the latest the State Board of Education are considering this spring. The state board, under Colorado law, is required to intervene after the schools have failed to boost test scores during the last six years.

Like all the schools facing state intervention, the five before the state board Monday serve large populations of poor and Latino students.

A year ago, Pueblo City Schools was expected to pose the biggest test of the state’s school accountability system. A dozen of the city’s schools were on the state’s watch list for chronic poor performance on state standardized tests. However, most of the city’s schools came off that list last year.

Among the schools still on the list and facing state intervention is the storied Bessemer Elementary, where barely 9 percent of third graders passed the state’s English test last spring.

The school, which sits in the shadow of the city’s downsized steel mill, has been in a similar situation before.

After the state first introduced standardized tests in 1997, Bessemer was flagged as the lowest performing school in the state. District and city officials rallied and flushed the school with resources for students and teachers. Soon, students and teachers at the Pueblo school were being recognized by President George W. Bush for boosting scores.

But a series of leadership changes, budget cuts and shifts in what’s taught eroded the school’s progress.

Pueblo City Schools officials declined to be interviewed for this article.

The 17,000-student school district was preparing to make slightly more dramatic changes to improve things at Bessemer. Officials were going consolidate the school into just three grades, preschool through second, and send the older students to a nearby elementary school that is also on the state’s watch list. That school, Minnequa Elementary, is expected to face sanctions next year if conditions don’t improve.

But the district and its school board backed down after the community rejected the idea.

“With the input gathered, we determined that, at this time, changes to the grade reconfiguration were not in the best interest of the communities involved,” Pueblo Superintendent Charlotte Macaluso said in a press release announcing the changes. “We realize the sense of urgency and will continue to support our schools while closely monitoring improvement at each location.”

The decision to not reorganize the schools was made earlier this week.

Suzanne Ethridge, president of the Pueblo Education Association, the city’s teachers union, said the last-minute pullback was troubling. The district, she said, has held up staffing the schools until a final decision was made.

“I just hope we can get to a final plan and we can move on and get these schools going in the right direction,” Ethridge said.

According to documents provided to the state, district officials are expected to tell the state board they want to go along with what the state education department is proposing.

But some in the city are wary of involvement by outside groups because the district has been burned by outside groups in the past.

According to a 2012 Denver Post investigation, Pueblo City Schools had a three-year, $7.4 million contract with a New York-based school improvement company. The company was hired to boost learning at six schools. Instead, school performance scores dropped at five of the six schools.

“It wasn’t a lot of fun,” Ethridge said.

Other schools in Pueblo that will appear before the state board are the Heroes Academy, a K-8, and Risley International, a middle school. The state is recommending that Risley maintain a set of waivers from state law. The flexibility for Risley, and two other Pueblo Middle Schools, were granted in 2012.

The hope was the newfound freedom would allow school leaders and teachers to do what was necessary to boost student learning. That happened at Roncalli STEM Academy and the Pueblo Academy of the Arts.

But Risley has lagged behind.

Macaluso was the principal of Risley before being appointed superintendent last fall.

Like Risley, the state is recommending that two Greeley middle schools be granted waivers and hire an external manager to run some of the schools’ operations.

The state’s recommendation in part runs contrary to what a third party review panel suggested last spring. The panel, which visited all of the state’s failing schools, suggested Franklin be converted to a charter school. That’s because the school lacked leadership, according to the panel’s report.

Greeley officials say the school’s administration team, which has not changed, has received training from the state’s school improvement office, which has proven effective.

As part of the shift, Franklin and Prairie Heights middle schools will change the way students are taught. The schools will blend two styles of teaching that are in vogue.

First, students will receive personalized instruction from a teacher, assisted by digital learning software. Second, students will also work either individually or in teams to solve “real-world problems” on a regular basis.

“These schools have students with some important needs,” said Greeley’s deputy superintendent Rhonda Haniford, who helped designed the plan. “It’s more reason to have a personalized curriculum.”

The 21,000-student school district has already contracted with an organization called Summit to provide the digital curriculum and a cache of projects. The organization will also provide training for the school’s principal and teachers.

Haniford acknowledged that when struggling schools make major shifts it can be difficult, and sometimes student learning fall even further behind. But she said Summit is providing regular training for teachers and principals.

“The district made an intentional decision to support the turn around of these schools,” Haniford said, adding that she was hired last year as part of that effort. “This is one of my top priorities.”

chancellor chat

Chancellor Betty Rosa hits back on criticism that New York is abandoning education reform

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York has moved sharply away from innovative education reforms with “bewildering and humbling speed.” That’s what Robert Pondiscio of the conservative-leaning Fordham Institute wrote in an op-ed posted earlier this month on the organization’s website.

Here in New York City, he writes, Mayor Bill de Blasio is ushering in the “bad old days” by pumping money into struggling schools and relaxing school discipline.

At the state level, Governor Andrew Cuomo and other state officials, after trying to pack too many reforms into a short period of time, have largely backed away from education reform. That coupled with the growing opt-out movement and the departure of New York State Chancellor Merryl Tisch, Pondiscio wrote, spurred the end of an “era of high standards and accountability for schools, teachers, and those who train them—an era that never entirely gained traction in New York.”

New York State Chancellor Betty Rosa hit back Thursday with her own piece for the Fordham Institute, saying that she “could not disagree more.” She argues that focusing on high-stakes testing is not synonymous with having high standards — and that while her standards take a different form, they are no less rigorous.

For example, she cites the Board’s decision to jettison the controversial Academic Literacy Skills Test as part of teacher certification. While Pondiscio blasts the move, Rosa says New York’s certification process remains among the country’s most stringent. “We simply eliminated a costly and unnecessary testing requirement that created an unfair obstacle for too many applicants,” she writes.

Her op-ed is part of a broader push by the Board of Regents to articulate a new vision of accountability that moves away from a strong focus on New York state’s much-maligned 3-8 math and English tests. She and the Regents seem eager to convince critics that those changes do not, in the end, represent a watering down of the goals the state sets for its students.

“We need an opposite narrative,” Rosa said in an exclusive interview with Chalkbeat. She sees her job as not simply setting high bars, she said, but more importantly, “building the steps” to help students succeed.