The basics of township schools: Successes and challenges are often overlooked

(This story is one in a series exploring the basics of key issues in education in Indiana. For a list of the issues and links to the other stories in the series, go here.)
Most of the attention on education in Indianapolis is focused on Indianapolis Public Schools, but far more of the city’s children attend one of eight township school districts.

It’s an unusual and sometimes confusing situation that resulted from a merger of city and county governments in the 1980s. While all of Marion County’s municipalities are now part of the city of Indianapolis, separate school districts remained so. Besides IPS and the eight townships — Decatur, Franklin, Lawrence, Perry, Pike, Warren, Washington and Wayne — the city is also home to two smaller “town” school districts — Beech Grove and Speedway. So the city has 11 school districts in all.

The city’s townships tend to score better and have higher A-to-F grades than IPS, which is by far the city’s largest school district. But most township schools face the same sorts of problems that plague IPS: lots of students from poor families, kids who move frequently, students who are learning English as a new language and a high percentage of children in special education.

The largest township school district, Wayne, has about half the number of students as IPS at 16,000 as of 2015. The smallest township district is Decatur, with about 6,000 students in 2015. But all together, the eight townships enroll more than four times as many students as IPS.

Here’s some background on the township school districts:

Decatur Township

Decatur Township is located in the southwest corner of Marion County, near the Indianapolis International Airport, and is the city’s smallest school district with about 6,000 students. It has nine schools.

The district’s state letter grade moved up to a “C” in for the 2013-14 school year after receiving the equivalent of a “D” four years in a row. The district has a small percentage of minority students: about 75 percent of its students are white. About 66 percent of its students come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

Decatur made news when the Challenger Learning Center, a program designed to help kids be inspired to learn science by simulating space missions for Indianapolis children, closed for good in 2015. Decatur was one of two local districts who established Challenger centers. Both have now closed.

Franklin Township

Franklin Township, located in the southeast corner of Marion County just east of Southport, is the highest performing township school district, having received an “A” letter grade from the state for five straight years as of for the 2013-14 school year – something no other township has accomplished. The district touted a 97 percent graduation rate that year, which is higher than any other district in the city.

Of its 8,700 students, 78 percent were white, seven percent were Hispanic and six percent were black in 2015. Fewer than 40 percent of its students received free or reduced-price meals. The district has nine schools.

Franklin, the city’s wealthiest township district, saw an increase in state funding in 2015, while IPS, the city’s poorest, saw a decrease. The district also received a $100,000 increase in federal poverty aid while other Indianapolis districts took a cut.

But the district was under fire for financial decisions as recently as 2011 whenn it cut busing because of financial struggles, requiring students to find their own rides to school. When Franklin brought in an outside company to provide busing at a charge to families, some parents filed a lawsuit asking for reimbursements. But the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that school districts do not have to provide bus service to students. Franklin reinstated bus service in 2012 after just one year without it.

Lawrence Township

Lawrence Township, which is located on the northeast side of Marion County in and around the city of Lawrence, enrolled just more than 15,000 students in 2015, making it one of the largest school districts in Indianapolis.

The district has seen its test scores improve in recent years. It’s state grade improved to an “A” in for the 2013-14 school year from the equivalent of a “D” in 2009-10. The district has 16 schools including two high schools — Lawrence Central and Lawrence North.

It’s a diverse school district. In 2015, nearly 43 percent of its students were black, 29 percent were white and 20 percent were Hispanic. More than 60 percent of Lawrence students received free or reduced-price meals.

Lawrence Township is a model for Spanish language immersion, which the state wants to see more of. Legislators passed Senate Bill 267 in 2015, which Gov. Mike Pence signed into law in May. The new law makes it possible for more schools throughout the state to do what Forest Glen Elementary in Lawrence has done for two decades now.

Perry Township

Perry Township, located on the south side of the city – including Southport – enrolled nearly 15,000 students in 2015 in its two high schools, two middle schools, two sixth grade academies and 11 elementary schools.

The district improved its test scores in recent years. It touted an “A” letter grade for the 2013-14 school year, up from a “C” the previous year. More than 54 percent of its students received free or reduced-price meals in 2015. About 58 percent of the students were white in 2015, 17 percent were Asian, 13 percent were Hispanic and 6 percent were black.

In interviews with Chalkbeat in 2014, two of the district’s three school board incumbents said they worried about overcrowding, a big chunk of that enrollment growth coming from a rapidly growing number of Burmese refugees moving to the district.

Perry Township schools have been focused on improving strategies for serving its English language learners. Perry Township, along with IPS, saw the biggest spike in English language learners since 2001.

Elly Mawi, a Burmese refugee and Southport High School graduate, told her story to Chalkbeat in 2015 for a series of stories about English language learners. More than 800 Perry teachers received training to work with English language learners.

Pike Township

Pike Township, located on the northwest side of the city, encompassing Eagle Creek Park, is one of the lowest scoring townships in Marion County when it comes to passing state tests, but has seen gains lately. The district earned a “C” letter grade from the state for the 2013-14 school year and the prior after getting a “D” in 2011-12. Pike Township, however, has a 94 percent graduation rate.

Pike Township served about 11,300 students in 2015. The majority of its students were black (59 percent). About 22 percent of students were Hispanic and 11 percent were white. Nearly 70 percent of its students received free or reduced-price meals. The district has 13 schools.

Pike Township made news in 2014 when the Mind Trust, a local education advocacy group, named one of its elementary school principals, Mariama Carson, an Education Entrepreneur Fellow, which awarded her the opportunity to start a preschool to eighth grade Spanish immersion charter school. She got the green light to open the 220-student school in the Lafayette Square neighborhood in 2016.

Warren Township

Warren Township, located on the east side of Indianapolis including parts of Cumberland, has remained steady in its performance on state tests over five years, receiving a “C” letter grade each year.

About half of the district’s 12,100 students were black in 2015, 30 percent were white and 13 percent were Hispanic. More than 70 percent of its students received free or reduced-price meals. It has 17 schools.

Warren Township schools vary considerably when it comes to passing state tests. Some schools performed extremely well in 2015, including many of the elementary schools that received “A” letter grades from the state. But some, like Sunny Heights Elementary School, have seen their scores slide downward in recent years.

Warren made news in 2015 when its assistant superintendent for school improvement, Lee Ann Kwiatkowski, was appointed by Gov. Mike Pence to the Indiana State Board of Education.

Washington Township

Washington Township encompasses the north side of Indianapolis, from the Wynnedale neighborhood and East 38th Street up to the Nora neighborhood and East 96th Street.

The district, which served about 11,300 students in 2015, has seen its test scores rise and fall in recent years. But it improved by one letter grade for three straight years – reaching a “B” for the 2013-14 school year. It has 12 schools.

Washington is a diverse school district – about one-third of the students were white in 2015 and about one-third were black. Hispanic students made up 18 percent of the school’s population.

The district made news in 2014 by becoming the only district in the state to offer an International Baccalaureate program to every student in every school – one of only six in the world.

Wayne Township

Wayne Township is the largest township school district in Marion County, served nearly 16,000 students on the west side of Indianapolis in 2015. It saw one of the biggest test score gains recently, jumping to a “B” from a “D” in the 2013-14 school year. Student ISTEP scores jumped to a 64 percent passing rate in both English and math from a 59 percent the prior year in the 2013-14 school year. Wayne had a 94 percent graduation rate in 2015.

It is the most evenly balanced of the townships when it comes to race and ethnicity – about one-third of the students were white, about one-third were black and nearly one-third were Hispanic in 2015. It also had the most students of any township district receiving free or reduced-price meals at 78 percent in 2015. It has 17 schools.

Wayne Township was one of three Indianapolis school districts that asked voters to approve a tax hike in 2014 seeking to avoid cuts. Superintendent Jeff Butts said the district operated in a deficit for five years and did not want to go to the taxpayers until it had exhausted all other options.

-Updated December 2015