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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School closings

IPS plan to keep students interested in school? Give them career training

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
The IPS administration is proposing adding more career training programs to high schools.

Indianapolis Public Schools leaders have a new vision for the district’s high schools: converting each campus to a career academy.

The plan unveiled today would be part of dramatic reshaping of the district’s high schools, including closing several of the existing buildings. The new model would replace traditional neighborhood high schools, which draw students based on their addresses, with magnet schools that house several career or academic focus areas.

The academies are designed to keep students interested in school and give them the skills to find well-paying jobs or succeed in college after graduation. The focus areas were chosen because there is student interest and good jobs are available in Indianapolis.

The proposal is the first detailed outline of a vision revealed last summer by Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. It would preserve the existing magnet programs in the district, such as the performing arts program at Broad Ripple High School, the medical program at Crispus Attucks High School and the International Baccalaureate at Shortridge High School. But it would also create seven additional focus areas based on student interest and the Indianapolis job market.

“Everything that we currently offer now will be on the table, but we will also be adding … career academies,” Ferebee said.

The proposed career academy focus areas are:

  • Health sciences;
  • Manufacturing, engineering and logistics;
  • Education;
  • Construction, engineering and design;
  • Business and finance;
  • Information technology; and
  • Military.

The administration has not announced where each academy will be housed, but Ferebee said the locations would be chosen based in part on how long bus rides would be.

The proposal is not guaranteed to become reality. When Ferebee floated the idea of career academies last August it received mixed feedback from school board members, who must approve the plan. The administration is expected to make a recommendation for which high schools to close and what academic programs to offer in June. The board plans to vote on a final plan in September.

Career academies are reminiscent of similar efforts in Indianapolis and across the nation. In 2005, IPS converted its high schools to small theme-based academies with the help of millions of dollars in funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but soon abandoned the plans.

Career and technical education, or vocational schools, have a long history but they have been getting more attention in recent years. Nashville won national praise for converting its schools to career academies a decade ago, an example Ferebee cited as a model for Indianapolis last summer.

future funding

Trump’s education budget could be bad news for New York City’s ‘community schools’ expansion

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post

The Trump administration has proposed eliminating the sole source of funding for New York City’s dramatic expansion of its community schools program, according to budget documents released Tuesday.

Less than two weeks ago, city officials announced its community schools program would expand to 69 new schools this fall, financed entirely by $25.5 million per year of funding earmarked for 21st Century Community Learning Centers — a $1.2 billion federal program which Trump is again proposing to eliminate.

The community schools program is a central feature of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s strategy for high-need schools — a model he called a “game-changer” earlier this month. It is designed to help schools address the physical health and emotional issues that can impede student learning, in part by pairing them with nonprofit organizations that offer a range of services, such as mental health counseling, vision screenings, or dental checkups.

City officials downplayed the threat of the cuts, noting the Republican-controlled congress increased funding for the program in a recent spending agreement and that similar funding cuts have been threatened in the past.

“This program has bipartisan support and has fought back the threat of cuts for over a decade,” a city education official wrote in an email.

Still, some nonprofit providers are nervous this time will be different.

“I’m not confident that the funding will continue given the federal political climate,” said Jeremy Kaplan, director of community education at Phipps Neighborhoods, an organization that will offer services in three of the city’s new community schools this fall. Even though the first year of funding is guaranteed, he said, the future of the program is unclear.

“It’s not clear to [community-based] providers what the outlook would be after year one.”

City officials did not respond to a question about whether they have contingency plans to ensure the 69 new community schools would not lose the additional support, equivalent to roughly $350,000 per school each year.

“Community schools are an essential part of Equity and Excellence and we will do everything on our power to ensure continuation of funding,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in an email.

New York state receives over $88 million in 21st Century funding, which it distributes to local school districts. State education officials did not immediately respond to questions about how they would react if the funding is ultimately cut.

“President Trump’s proposed budget includes a sweeping and irresponsible slashing of the U.S. Department of Education’s budget,” state officials wrote in a press release. “If these proposed cuts become reality, gaps and inequity in education will grow.”