School closings

At painful meeting, Indianapolis superintendent makes case for closing high schools: ‘The status quo is not good enough’

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

Emotions were running high at Indianapolis Public Schools headquarters Thursday as the administration laid out plans for closing three of the district’s seven high schools. There were pleas for other ideas from frustrated community members. At least one board member cried at the prospect of closing a beloved school.

But in the end, there was little indication that the plan to close Northwest, Arlington and Broad Ripple high schools would change. The board will vote on the proposal this September.

The room was crowded with alumni, families and staff from the schools facing closure and skeptics of the district’s collaboration with charter schools.

Community members understand that the district faces a weighty decision, said Yvette Coleman-Foreste, an alumni of Arlington and member of Delta Sigma Theta, a sorority that supports Northwest.

“But we want to also ask the question,” she continued, “Was this not purposed by design? Couldn’t there have been something that could’ve (been) done before we reached this point in time?”

Despite that criticism, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration focused on not only showing the necessity of change, but also laying out an optimistic vision for the future.

With fewer high schools, the district would be able to invest in specialized career academies that prepare students for college and help them develop in-demand, marketable skills, Ferebee said. That’s essential, he argued, because economic mobility is low in the city — poor children in Indianapolis have a far lower chance of achieving prosperity than in other metro areas.

“The status quo is not good enough,” he said. “We’re not doing our job preparing our students to take care of themselves and their families. … I refuse to continue to shortchange our students the best experience possible that will prepare them for the next phase of their lives.”

The administration also suggested that redesigning IPS high schools would help attract students who are currently choosing private, charter or township schools.

But in a mark of the distrust between some community members and the district leadership, IPS parent Chrissy Smith questioned whether the administration would use the money saved by closing high schools wisely.

“How is this board and administration going to guarantee students, parents and taxpayers that the savings from closing buildings and disrupting our students education will actually go back to the classrooms?” she asked.

Closing high schools is always painful for communities, but the issue is particularly controversial in Indianapolis because the district is adding a growing number of charter schools to its innovation network.

Innovation schools have the flexibility of charter schools but can receive district services such as transportation. IPS gets credit from the state for their results on tests and other measures, but it has little control over innovation schools’ daily operation — and their teachers work for the charter or nonprofit managers.

Like other community members and parents who spoke out at the board meeting, Smith is a frequent critic of the administration’s collaboration with charter schools. The decision to approve three innovation high schools earlier this year seemed to rub salt in the wound left by possible high school closures.

“Why are we supporting innovation and charter schools, while closing IPS schools?” Smith asked. “If IPS doesn’t have enough money to operate the high schools we have, why are we paying for three … new charter innovation high schools?”

The board members who spoke Thursday were supportive of the proposal for adding career academies to high schools, but some were emotional at the prospect of closing beloved high schools.

Board member Kelly Bentley, who graduated from Broad Ripple, was choked with tears as she spoke about the school.

“I do not minimize at all, not for one minute, your love of the school and the memories you hold so dear,” she said. But “emotions and memories aside, there is simply no way that our district can continue to grow and fund critical needs … while maintaining a 37 percent occupancy rate at our high school level.”

They also appeared keenly aware of the wave of criticism they have drawn in the weeks since the district revealed plans to close schools.

Board member Venita Moore, who graduated from Arlington, said that she has heard many times that the board is not listening, does not hear and does not care.

“I stand here to say before you today that I did hear, we are listening and we do care,” Moore said. “We will find a way to ensure … that you have an opportunity to help shape the district, but we all know that the district must change.”

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.