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
Create bar charts

uncertain future

Could Carmen Fariña be ousted if mayoral control expires? We asked the borough presidents, who may control her fate

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña (center) unveils a new evaluation agreement with teachers union chief Michael Mulgrew (left)

When state lawmakers left the capitol Wednesday night without a deal on mayoral control of New York City schools, several questions went unresolved. One of them is whether Chancellor Carmen Fariña would retain her post if mayoral control lapses on July 1.

While no one is predicting her ouster, it’s one of many strange outcomes that could result if the education system’s governance structure is upended. With the session now over, legislators have until the end of the month to renew Mayor Bill de Blasio’s control of the nation’s largest school system.

With the state Senate and Assembly still at odds, it remains possible that the law could expire — setting off a chain of events briefly initiated the last time it lapsed, in 2009.

If that happens again, the city will resurrect the city’s Board of Education, which consists of five members selected by each of the borough presidents and two appointed by the mayor. That board, in turn, has the power to select the chancellor. (In 2009, this went off without incident and the board unanimously decided to reappoint the sitting chancellor, Joel Klein.)

Yet, there’s no guarantee that would happen again. So we reached out to each of the five borough presidents to see if they would commit to backing Fariña. One borough president said “yes,” the others did not commit. The borough presidents spoke Thursday and requested a meeting with the mayor, according to Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

Still, it is early to make predictions — especially since the law has not even expired yet.

“In the immediate, there’s still time on the clock for Albany to act,” said education department spokeswoman Toya Holness in an email. “If mayoral control is to lapse, that could be a legitimate concern.”

For each borough president, we asked the question: If mayoral control lapses, would you commit to keeping Carmen Fariña as chancellor? Here’s what they said:

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams

(Photo courtesy of Flickr)

Adams sent the most extensive statement, saying that although he strongly supports mayoral control, he has serious critiques of the education department’s leadership.

“I have repeatedly expressed my frustration with leadership at the DOE [Department of Education], who I do not believe are effectively carrying out Mayor de Blasio’s vision for improving our schools. Outstanding issues include underinvestment in school technology infrastructure, significant inequities in allocation of Fair Student Funding dollars, disparities in gifted and talented education, resistance to training and support for new learning devices like tablets, inaction on liberalizing school space usage policy for community-based organizations, and poor community notification on significant changes to school utilization. Regardless of who is in charge at Tweed, it is critical that impactful issues like these are addressed.

Ensuring that these issues are addressed is the only pledge or commitment I am comfortable making today.”

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer

Brewer’s office gave the most direct answer. “The answer is yes,” wrote Jon Houston, her director of communications, in an email. But with Brewer’s vote and, assuming the mayor’s appointees all select Fariña, the board will still be one vote short of keeping the current chancellor.

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz

Katz’s office said she would not fully commit to keeping Fariña, but her stance suggests she is not looking for a permanent shake-up.

“Borough President Katz is a firm believer in mayoral control, and has been throughout her entire tenure in public service,” said her spokeswoman in a statement. “She has worked very closely with Mayor de Blasio on the great work he’s done on education, and, as always, believes the mayor should remain responsible for the schools under mayoral control. Any app‎ointment she may have to make to a reconstituted Board of Education‎ would be temporary until mayoral control is re-extended.”

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.

Reached Thursday morning, officials from Diaz’s office did not have a comment. But the last time this happened, he was the only borough president who refused to back the chancellor prior to the vote, though he did vote to retain him.

Staten Island Borough President James Oddo

(Photo courtesy of Flickr)

Reached Thursday morning, officials from Oddo’s office did not have a comment. We’ll update this post if that changes.

tailoring transformation

How a Memphis school that missed the turnaround tide plans to catch up under Hopson’s budget

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Principal Antonio Harvey shows kindergarteners how to blow bubbles during a graduation celebration at Hawkins Mill Elementary School in the Frayser community of Memphis.

Located in one of the most concentrated neighborhoods of school turnaround work in America, Hawkins Mill Elementary School is in many ways a throwback to Memphis public education before the city became a battleground for school improvement efforts.

It’s one of the few schools in the city’s Frayser community that hasn’t undergone a major intervention plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter and Innovation Zone schools that surround it.

But that’s about to change.

As part of his initiative to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson picked Hawkins Mill to join more than a dozen other Memphis schools that will receive new resources under next year’s budget for Shelby County Schools. (You can see the full list here.)

Dubbed “critical focus schools,” the schools were chosen for reasons that range from poor test scores to low enrollment to aging buildings — all criteria that district leaders have used in recent years to close more than 20 schools.

Now, about $5.9 million in new investments soon will be spread across the schools based on transformation plans developed this spring with school administrators, teachers and parents in partnership with district leaders.

Principal Antonio Harvey says the process has inspired a climate of hope at Hawkins Mill, which has been among the state’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools since 2012.

“We’re getting the message out there that we’re invested in this community, we’re not giving up on this community, we support you,” said Harvey, who just completed his fourth year at the elementary school.

For years, the school’s leaders have tried to turn around academics in a zip code where about half the households live on less than $25,000 per year. But there’s never been a significant influx of resources, making progress negligible.

As part of Hopson’s budget, Hawkins Mill will receive an extra $300,000, mostly for staff hires that include a science teacher, teacher assistants, an instructional facilitator and an interventionist. The school also will require more team projects in classrooms; add a STEM specialty for science, technology, engineering and math; and host a dance academy under Watoto Memphis, an Afro-centric performing arts program.

“We were able to sit down and put a lot of energy into the plan because the thinking process was already there,” Harvey said of the new strategy.

Most of the needs had been identified in previous years but were a pipe dream without additional investments, according to Janet Rutherford, the school’s professional learning coach.

“Now we can make this happen,” she said.

 

Teams for other critical focus schools also have been developing transformation plans, each tailored to meet their individual needs and challenges.

Some are borrowing components from Shelby County Schools’ flagship turnaround program called the iZone. Those include an hour tacked onto the school day, retention bonuses for top teachers, and more teacher coaches.

Like other schools in the newest initiative, Hawkins Mill will have to meet benchmarks within three years if it wants to avoid closure. Those benchmarks are still being identified, but school leaders at Hawkins Mill are already figuring out how to address other challenges with enrollment, attendance and behavior. The plan includes home visits for chronically absent students and launching Hawks Buck Store, a weekly incentive program in which students can win prizes for good behavior.

Note: 2013-14 science and 2014-15 social studies test scores were not listed in the state report card. Elementary students did not take TNReady in 2015-16.

Community leaders are welcoming the investments in a school that was eyed for takeover in 2015 by Tennessee’s Achievement School District. At the time, Hawkins Mill was being considered for operation by the ASD’s direct-run Achievement Schools, which includes five Frayser schools already in turnaround mode.

Charlie Caswell, a longtime community leader and pastor at Union Grove Baptist Church, said he hopes Shelby County Schools will use the Achievement Schools’ community engagement model as it implements the transformation plans.

“Our hope is that it will be a game-changer for schools to have the autonomy based on what they know their needs are in the community,” he said.