IPS middle schools under scrutiny

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is considering an overhaul of Indianapolis Public Schools’ middle school program that could reverse the district’s recent strategy of combining middle and high school students in one building.

Called “community high schools,” the creation of buildings serving grades 7 to 12 was a major initiative of Ferebee’s predecessor, Eugene White. Along with magnet high schools serving grades 6 to 12, White pushed for the combined approach as a way to limit dropouts.

But at Tuesday’s IPS school board meeting, Ferebee questioned whether the many variations of grade configurations across IPS was more helpful or harmful students.

“We are constantly assessing our grade configuration,” he said. “We may come back and say the community high school model isn’t working for us or the junior high school model isn’t working for us.”

Ferebee said middle school students have higher performance in the district’s K to 8 elementary schools. While acknowledging that six of the nine K to 8 schools are magnet schools, which generally perform higher than neighborhood schools in IPS, Ferebee argued the difference in test scores was noticeable enough to merit further study.

“I would say that is our most significant distinction,” he said.

The non-magnet K to 8 schools — School 31, School 43 and School 46 — all were rated a D last year by the state for low test scores, although each had a grade of C or better the year before.

Prior to Ferebee’s arrival in IPS last year, White had cited research that showed students are most likely to drop out of school during transitions between middle and high school. The combined schools, White said, were aimed at making that transition smoother, with students staying in the same building throughout middle and high school. IPS argued the combination helped IPS make a dramatic gain in graduation rate during White’s tenure.

Some of the graduation rate gains were fueled by the use of waivers, by which schools allow students to graduate even if they haven’t passed state tests. Combined middle and high schools have helped reduce dropouts some, Ferebee said, but perhaps not enough to justify the strategy.

“The principles behind it are noble,” Ferebee said. “I don’t believe we have data points to support it.”

During a discussion of school test scores, board President Annie Roof noted that many of the district’s stand alone middle schools and community high schools were identified as needing extra help because of low grades. She asked if grade configuration could be a factor in the poor performance.

Low student scores at those grades resulted from a combination of factors, Ferebee said, but said more standard grade configurations could help.

Ferebee noted that middle school students may be served in schools for grades 7 and 8, magnet schools beginning at grade 6, elementary schools that serve grades K to 8 or  community high schools for grades 7 to 12. All those options can create confusion for families and cause problems when students who move from one part of the city to another change schools, he said.

“It’s a challenge that we have so many different models,” Ferebee said. “When you have those inconsistencies, and the mobility you have in our district, you create challenges to our students for being successful.”

Board member Sam Odle asked if IPS could soon face a choice as to whether to move the district toward one approach for middle school students, such as all 7 to 12 high schools or all K to 8 elementary schools.

“We could be,” Ferebee said.

Ferebee said he was not close to making a decision about whether changes to grade configuration yet. But Ferebee said he was willing to stick with different school designs if they are working.

“We will be looking at what is in the best interest of our students,” he said. “That may not equate to what is most efficient.”