Deal would give IPS more control over Donnan Middle School

Indianapolis Public Schools tonight took a step toward getting back a measure of control over Donnan Middle School after more than two years of the school being run by an outside group.

A majority of the IPS school board gave its informal blessing on a plan from Superintendent Lewis Ferebee to get the school back — sort of.

Charter Schools USA, the Florida-based company that has managed Donnan for more than two years, would still run the daily operations of the school but going forward its contract would be with both the state and the school district. If the Indiana State Board of Education agrees to the idea next week, the IPS board signaled it was likely formally complete the deal soon after.

That could mean IPS in 2015-16 would have a role leading two of the four IPS schools taken over by the state for poor test performance in 2012 and formally severed from the district’s oversight. Late last year the state board agreed to a plan by which Arlington High School will transition back to district control next fall.

As part of the plan, Donnan would be classified as an “innovation school” under a law created last year by House Bill 1321, which gave IPS special authority to create autonomous, charter-like schools under the district’s authority.

Ferebee called the deal a fair compromise. Another option CSUSA considered was seeking permission to open charter elementary schools to create a feeder system for Donnan and Manual and Howe high schools, other former IPS schools the company runs under contract with the state.

Instead, CSUSA will expand Donnan to serve elementary and middle school students as an IPS school run autonomously but under both state and district oversight.

“What’s different is we would be the individuals that have the authority and take the lead,” Ferebee said. “That’s different from a mandate to (expand), which is something that we’re interested in. That’s a different twist to what is being discussed now.”

The deal allows IPS to count Donnan students as part of its enrollment and include its test scores in district averages. Emma Donnan would become a K-8 school. Up to 300 students would be recruited from within IPS, and 300 others would be recruited by CSUSA from outside the district. The middle school students would remain at the school.

Ferebee said he thinks working with CSUSA will lead to increased autonomy for the district moving forward, and puts Emma Donnan on a path to transitioning back into the district. The state recently extended the company’s contract by just two years rather than the five years it requested.

Several IPS board members said they were cautiously optimistic about the idea, but want to see more details fleshed out about how it would work.

“In some ways, we only have a certain amount of control of those schools,” board member Caitlin Hannon said. “I am slightly hesitant and look forward to a more formal proposal. I’m hopeful that we’re able to articulate a clear strategy around this. It’s easier to think about where we’re going next if we have a strategy to rely on rather than (making) a one-off (decision).”

Board member Gayle Cosby said she was hesitant about the idea because it would involve IPS partnering with a for-profit entity.

“I have a moral dilemma with creating an institution that is a for-profit institution when we’re dealing with the education of kids,” Cosby said. “I would prefer to not engage them.”