IPS board to consider closing Key Learning Community among school shifts

Key Learning Academy, a Indianapolis school world-famous for being the first built on a modern psychological theory of Multiple Intelligences, appears poised to meet its end in 2016.

The Indianapolis Public School Board still must vote on a recommendation to shut it down, but board members seemed to share administrators’ views that Key was no longer working.

Instead, the district’s academic chief, Wanda Legrand, proposed moving the arts magnet school from School 70, located on the city’s North side at 510 E. 46th St., to the building that houses Key at 777 S. White River Parkway Drive West, near the Indianapolis Zoo downtown.

Closing Key was first recommended last year. This year it’s part of a wider plan that also affects Broad Ripple High School and will add a new Center For Inquiry elementary school at School 70.

The plan adds the district-invented CFI program, which is built on the International Baccalaureate curriculum, to a fourth school.

Unlike the other three CFI schools, which accept students from across the city but offer preference for those who live in the north, central or south parts of the city, School 70 would be designed to accept up to 500 students from across the city.

By design, that should wipe out the 310 students on the waiting lists for the other three CFI schools, all of whom will be invited to attend School 70. Busing to the new CFI school will be provided.

“This gives you an opportunity to have one open option that could attract students from all across the district,” Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said.

Legrand’s recommendation would shift students interested in the arts in grades K-8 to the Key Learning Community building. Broad Ripple High School would then scale back to grades 9-12, dropping middle school grades. Current Broad Ripple students could stay, but new middle school students wanting arts instruction would be directed to Key.

Arts magnet students, Ferebee said, will have the option of an arts-themed track from elementary school at Key to Broad Ripple for high school.

But the moves could mean the end of Key, a school that has been widely studied for its experiments in applying the Multiple Intelligence theory to school curriculum.

In 1984, a group of IPS teachers drove to Pennsylvania to hear a speech by Howard Gardner, the Harvard University psychologist who devised the theory.

Gardner had written an instantly famous book that attempted to categorize human behaviors that he felt qualified as “intelligence.” He originally identified seven: visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical-rhythmic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, linguistic and logical-mathematical. Every person, he theorized, possessed a unique mix of strengths and weaknesses in each category.

By 1987, Key made international news when it opened with a Multiple Intelligence-inspired curriculum. It initially performed well, attracting more children from wealthy and well-connected families than the average IPS school and posting strong test scores.

But by the early 2000s, the school’s poverty was on the rise, and test scores began to slide until it was rated an F by the state for several years in a row, placing it in danger of state takeover.

In 2012, IPS hired Sheila Dollaske as principal with the difficult assignment of trying to turn around test performance. Dollaske was a believer in Multiple Intelligences and hoped to try to alter the program to keep its principles while shifting to a more academic focus.

The initial results were good. In 2013, the elementary school’s ISTEP made a 20 percentage point jump and posted an A-grade. But scores fell back by 11 percentage points in 2014, and Dollaske left earlier this year to accept a fellowship from The Mind Trust to develop a middle school program for IPS.

Legrand said poor test scores and a lack of demand for Key’s program led to the recommendation to shut it down.

Board member Mary Ann Sullivan, whose children attended Key in the past, said the Multiple Intelligences program was scaled back over time, making the program less attractive.

“It hasn’t been a full implementation of the original concept for years,” she said. “This happened for a variety of reasons.”

Most board members said they would back the plan, but board member Gayle Cosby said she would be disappointed to lose the Key program entirely.

“If this program has faltered it becomes known in the community, and parents may not exercise that as a choice,” she said. “I know a lot of strong graduates of that program. In the interest of offering true choice, this is still a valuable choice many families benefit from.”

Sullivan suggested IPS educators who are interested could propose a new Multiple Intelligences-themed school as the district moves toward more autonomy and innovation-oriented schools.

“If someone can come back with a stronger more authentic version of that program in the future,” she said, “I’d be in favor of that.”