School closings

Does closing high schools change student outcomes? It depends on where students go next.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

If Indianapolis Public Schools leaders follow through on their plan to close high schools, it will be painful for families, alumni and neighborhoods. But the impact on current and future students is uncertain.

District leaders have attempted to lessen the pain of high school closures with a promise: The new schools will be better for students, with more advanced classes and more opportunities for students to get specialized career training.

In contrast, alumni, parents and teachers have warned that closing high schools will lead to long bus rides, conflict among students and spikes in dropout rates.

But it’s unclear which vision is more likely. The research on whether closing and combining schools leads to better results for students is mixed. Student outcomes depend on how well the closures are executed and whether the newly consolidated schools offer students a better education.

“The details really do matter and context really matters a lot,” said James Kemple of the Research Alliance for New York City Schools.

Kemple led a study that demonstrates the potential benefits of closing high schools. He found that when New York City closed dozens of low-performing high schools, current students who went through the closures were no better or worse off when it came to data points like their graduation rate. More promisingly, future students — who likely would’ve gone to the schools if they had not closed — were better off, with higher attendance and graduation rates.

But the New York example is different from Indianapolis in a number of ways. The schools were all closed for low-performance, rather than low enrollment, and they were phased out, so current students were not displaced. They also were replaced with new, small high schools that were led by dedicated principals chosen through an application process that required a clear mission and plans for managing staff, curriculum and community partnerships, said Kemple.

“They were really trying to create very strong options for kids in the wake of the school closures,” he said. “That was really important.”

But other research shows potential the downside of closing high schools. One of the most recent studies is a 2016 paper from the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, which looked at the impact of high school closures and charter takeovers in both New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The researchers found that in New Orleans, high schoolers whose schools were closed or taken over had higher graduation rates. In contrast, students in Baton Rouge were less likely to graduate.

The researchers offered a fairly simple theory to explain the divide: The New Orleans students ended up in better schools after their schools closed while the Baton Rouge students actually ended up in lower quality schools. “In short, the key to making closures and takeovers work is to ensure that directly affected students end up in better schools after the intervention,” they wrote.

Another useful study comes out of Milwaukee. Like Indianapolis, families in Wisconsin’s largest city can easily choose charter schools or private schools that accept vouchers, and declining enrollment has pushed the district to close dozens of high schools.

Matthew Larsen, an assistant professor at Lafayette College, looked at the effects of high school closures on current — but not future — students in Milwaukee high schools that were closed based on criteria including enrollment and academic performance. For the students enrolled in the high schools when they closed, the impact was detrimental. Despite enrolling in schools that were on average better than the schools that closed, high schoolers had lower GPAs and lower attendance rates, and ultimately, they are less likely to graduate.

School closures are less problematic for elementary students because they eventually bounce back, Larsen said, “but for high school, it’s sort of more of an issue because they don’t have that long to recover, and some of them might be on the margin of dropping out anyway.”

School closings

Marshall closing meeting draws tiny crowd, just two speakers

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Fewer than 20 people filled the seats of the John Marshall auditorium Thursday.

There was little sign of interest from the community at a public forum Thursday about closing John Marshall Middle School. Fewer than 20 people filled the seats of the auditorium of the beleaguered school, and the meeting ended less than seven minutes after it began.

“Seeing no one here, I think we are going to go ahead and adjoin to our regular business meeting,” said Indianapolis Public Schools board President Mary Ann Sullivan.

The board typically requires people to sign up to speak in advance, but for the second meeting in a row, Sullivan opened the floor to anyone.

There was just one speaker: Jerry Coverstone, who ran an unsuccessful independent campaign for state senate in 2016. Coverstone, who grew up in the neighborhood but attended a township high school, focused on Indiana’s private school voucher program.

“I look and see how the school voucher program is providing tax-funded money to private, religious-based schools, and then I turn around and I see our public schools closing down,” Coverstone said. “That bothers me.”

The meeting was one of several public forums the board is holding about a proposal to close Marshall and Broad Ripple High School and convert two other high schools to middle schools. The district voted last summer to convert Marshall, which had served grades 7-12, to a dedicated middle school this year. If the board approves the plan to close the school, the students will relocate to the Arlington campus.

The board will hold forums at 5:30 p.m. August 29 at Arlington High School and August 31 at Northwest High School.

One other commenter, Nathan Harris, arrived after the public forum ended but spoke during the regular board meeting. Harris, who graduated from Arsenal Technical High School, also spoke Tuesday at the meeting at Broad Ripple High School. That meeting drew close to 200 people and lasted about an hour and half, in stark contrast with the forum at Marshall.

Sullivan speculated that the meeting may have been smaller because the campus is already scheduled to convert to a middle school.

“It makes me sad,” she said. “I would like to think that all of our schools have been special places for someone.”

School closings

After years of academic woes, John Marshall will probably close next year. Here’s why.

PHOTO: Hafsa Razi
IPS leaders are considering a plan to close three high schools.

The past several years have been tough for families at John Marshall: Amid dismal test scores and declining graduation rates, it fended off stake takeover, was converted to a middle school and was nearly restarted with an outside manager.

Now, the school is likely to close.

The school, which is on the far eastside of Indianapolis Public Schools, would close under a plan released by Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee last month. The students at Marshall would be transferred to Arlington, which the administration wants to convert to a middle school. The IPS board is expected to vote in September.

The board will have a meeting about the plan 5:30 p.m. Thursday at Marshall, which will begin with 90 minutes for public comment. The deadline to sign up online to speak is noon Thursday. It follows a meeting Tuesday at Broad Ripple High School, where dozens of people spoke out against closing the school.

Whether the Marshall community will be as outspoken remains to be seen, but it is clear that the board has many competing interests as it decides whether to close the school.

Here are some reasons to keep Marshall open:

  • The far eastside neighborhood around Marshall has its fair share of challenges. About 29 percent of residents live in poverty, and the median household income is $35,800. But the area has strong support from the Glick foundation, which has invested heavily at nearby School 103, the district’s first attempt to turnaround a failing school by partnering with a charter network to create an innovation school.
  • Closing Marshall could leave a gap in the neighborhood that would be hard to fill, and the district does not have a clear proposal for reusing or selling the 342,062 square foot campus. It can fit 1,650 students but just 498 middle and high schoolers were enrolled last year.
  • Marshall will convert to a middle school this fall as part of a district plan to eliminate schools that serve grades 7-12. By closing the school immediately after having restructured it as a middle school, IPS would add more instability, which research shows is bad for student outcomes.

Here are some reasons Marshall is facing closure:

  • The school has academic challenges. The 2017 graduation rate is expected to be 54.7 percent (the lowest in the district) and test scores are rock bottom. IPS leaders have struggled to come up with a plan for improving the school, despite pressure from the neighborhood.
  • Marshall is on the far eastside of the district, and it would be hard to get students from other neighborhoods to travel there for a magnet high school. The four high schools the administration recommended keeping are all near the center of the district, where officials say it will be easier to bus students from across IPS.
  • The Marshall campus is in worse shape than any other high school, according to the IPS school closing report. The district says the school needs nearly $45 million in repairs, and it needs significant asbestos remediation.