IPS reveals sweeping plans to overhaul schools across Indianapolis

Indianapolis Public Schools leaders revealed radical plans today to overhaul schools across the district, which include converting John Marshall High School to a dedicated middle school.

District leaders offered the proposal, aimed at removing middle school students from combined middle-high schools, at an IPS School Board meeting. The plan faced some criticism from board members, and it could be modified before the final decision.

The board is expected to vote on middle school reconfiguration at its meeting Aug. 25 but might not vote on the plan until September.

“The intensive focus needed to support preteens is so much different than high school,” Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said. “Having one staff that’s focused on both age groups is a tremendous challenge.”

The district has long planned to eliminate combined middle-high schools, but the proposal offers the first window into which schools will educate more than 2,000 middle schoolers who are currently at high schools.

One piece of the puzzle would be converting Marshall to a dedicated middle school. The school has struggled with low test scores, particularly among middle school students, and a group of parents working with Stand for Children, a parent-organizing group that is pressing IPS to intervene more aggressively in low-performing schools, petitioned the district to improve the school.

In addition to converting Marshall to a middle school, the plan calls for adding three new magnet programs modeled on popular existing schools and expanding three K-6 schools to serve seventh and eighth grades.

The district also hinted at plans to close several underused high schools, which have more than twice as many seats as students, but Marshall is the only high school that would close in June. Current Marshall high schoolers would be relocated to Arlington High School. The district abandoned a 2014 proposal to merge Marshall with Arlington amid resistance from community members.

The latest proposal for reconfiguring the district does not call for other high schools to close until the 2019-2020 school year.

Board member Kelly Bentley strongly criticized the proposal to delay high school closings.

“This is painful … but I think waiting until 2019 to even think about closing high schools is negligent,” Bentley said. “Look at the capacity numbers and how much it’s costing to keep these schools open. That’s damaging to our kids. … We are stretching our resources way too thin.”

Some other board members, however, were more supportive of a long timeline for closing schools.

“Because closing schools is a very traumatic experience, you need to be able to have time for the communities to be a part of that process,” said Board President Mary Ann Sullivan. “I do think there are some good reasons … to figure out a solution by involving more people than just this board.”

Another change on the table for middle schools next year is the creation of three new magnet programs.

The district would create its second SUPER school, which focuses on physical activity, at School 43, a struggling school north of downtown where a new principal took the helm this fall. The district would also create two additional magnets that it has not chosen sites for yet, including a middle school with a medical science, technology and engineering focus and a K-8 school following the Reggio Emilia philosophy used at School 60.

The district also would expand four elementary schools to serve middle school kids. The elementary schools that would expand include School 367, School 14, School 63 and School 43, which would add grades 7-8 as well as the magnet program.

If the board approves the plans to transform Marshall to a middle school, there could be one more change on the horizon: The district could hand over daily management of the school to an outside operator, converting it to an “innovation” school. Innovation schools are considered part of IPS when it comes to state accountability but they are managed by outside charter operators or nonprofits. Teachers at innovation schools are not part of the district union.

The Phalen Leadership Academies charter network, which manages two far eastside elementary schools through innovation agreements with the districts, is aiming to open a middle school to serve the students who graduate from School 93 and School 103.

At a meeting last week, Earl Phalen told the Indiana State Charter Board that he hoped to start a charter school in the innovation network to serve those students, and he will seek support from the IPS board.

“It will be on the far east side of Indianapolis, most likely John Marshall,” Phalen said. “[It] will allow us to get our scholars from 93 and 103 to be able to go to a really safe and high-quality middle school.”

Correction (August 16, 2016): This story has been updated to correct Kelly Bentley’s quote.