Segregation isn’t just the city’s problem: Why Indianapolis Public Schools can’t integrate on its own

When Emmi Perrin and her family moved from Minnesota to Indianapolis two years ago, they settled in Carmel — an affluent suburban community just north of the city with some of the region’s most coveted schools.

Schools in Carmel routinely post some of the highest test scores in the state, and the majority of students graduate with honors. The district boasts state titles in not just sports but also arts and academic-related activities.

But when Perrin started looking for schools to enroll her son for first grade, she found something crucial missing at her local neighborhood school: Diversity.

In Carmel schools, 76 percent of students are white, and a little less than 10 percent are poor enough to qualify for meal assistance.

So she made what some in the area would consider a surprising choice: She enrolled her son in Indianapolis Public Schools. He’s now a third-grader at School 91, one of the district’s high-performing Montessori magnets on the city’s north side.

That means Perrin spends nearly an hour a day driving her son to and from a school in a district with fewer resources than Carmel. But School 91, which opens its admissions lottery to all Indiana students who want to apply, is one of the most diverse schools in the area. Roughly 34 percent of kids are black, 42 percent are white, 14 percent are Hispanic and the remaining 10 percent are multiracial, Asian or fell into other ethnic groups. About 43 percent are poor enough to qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch.

It was exactly what Perrin was looking for.

“The real world isn’t all white,” she said. “The real world isn’t all black. Going to school with kids who aren’t just like you is a totally different experience.”

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Going to a diverse school is an experience that’s currently not available to many Indianapolis children. As Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Star and WFYI have reported in a series of stories over the last several months, schools in the center city have gotten increasingly segregated in the last 35 years compared to surrounding districts. Today, about 20 percent of district elementary schools are 75 percent or more one race, white or black, up from 4 percent when the city began busing for racial desegregation in 1981. Roughly 74 percent of Indianapolis Public Schools students are black or Hispanic, and more than 70 percent come from low-income families.

That’s due in part to the tens of thousands of students, many of them white or middle-class, who fled the city for surrounding townships and suburbs like Carmel. In the townships, just 10 percent of elementary schools are segregated, and those are all schools with predominantly white students.

But as city and state education leaders look for ways to re-integrate schools, experts say parents like Perrin — white or middle class suburbanites who recognize the value of diversity — are one key to racially and economically balancing schools.

Mandatory busing programs, like the one that put black students from Indianapolis neighborhoods into primarily white township schools from 1981 until last spring, are no longer a viable option for a variety of practical and legal reasons.

Issues include the fact that township school districts are much more diverse today than they were 35 years ago when a judge found evidence of deliberate discrimination and ordered the busing program. Other challenges include recent court rulings that prohibit desegregation based on individual student characteristics, such as race, and the fact that many of the white children who could integrate Indianapolis Public Schools live outside of Marion County. Region-wide busing programs that mandate kids be bused between the suburbs and the city are largely prohibited by federal law.

So if Indianapolis Public Schools wants integrated classrooms, it needs to find ways to attract middle class families voluntarily into the city schools — or establish collaborations with neighboring communities.

“The challenge that Indianapolis faces is … there is more economic and racial segregation between school districts than within them,” said Richard Kahlenberg, who has done research on school segregation for The Century Foundation, a left-leaning think-tank. “Districts that have high concentrations of low-income and minority students, like (Indianapolis Public Schools), have to think creatively about how to promote more integrated schools if that’s a goal of theirs.”

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Experts say integrated classrooms provide a value to children of every background, enabling kids to learn how to interact with people who are different and serving as an equalizer at a time when kids who are poor and black or Hispanic are more likely to attend a school with perpetually low test scores that might not be getting the resources it needs.

But creating racially and economically balanced classrooms is something that doesn’t happen by accident. Districts that have managed to make some strides toward diversity have taken intentional steps to integrate.

Some districts, such as Hartford, Connecticut, have made a deliberate effort to reach out to families like Perrin’s that could be enticed to come into an urban school district for the right school.

For now, Perrin’s choice to travel from the suburbs into the city is unusual, but not unique. More than 600 children transferred into IPS from nearby districts last year, some drawn by magnet schools and those with popular programs, such as Montessori, dual language or International Baccalaureate.

Students in IPS School 91’s multi-age first-, second- and third-grade classroom work on math activities. The school is one of the district’s high-performing integrated Montessori magnets that is attracting families from outside district boundaries.

But suburban families so far aren’t rushing to enroll in IPS schools, especially given the fact that there are limited spots in high-performing schools and many non-magnet schools still see low passing rates on state tests, high teacher turnover and unimpressive ratings from the state.

Another approach the district could take if it wants to diversify is to partner with surrounding communities across or outside the city.

Among the models advocates point to are Louisville, Kentucky, and Omaha, Nebraska, where districts, cities and counties have come together to maintain integration.

In Louisville, Jefferson County Public Schools have what’s called a “controlled-choice” or “managed-choice” model, where families can choose where they want to send their kids, but the district uses a series of factors, such as address, income level and adult education, to determine the final school assignment.

About 90 percent of Kindergarten families ended up with their first choice last year, said Dena Dossett, the district’s chief of data management, planning and program evaluation.

The county, Dossett said, “is trying to find a balance between what can be considered competing principles: choice and diversity.”

In Omaha, a 2007 state law established a “Learning Community” relationship between 11 school districts that span two counties. The districts were given the ability to share tax revenue and an extra $500,000 in state funding so long as they created a diversity transfer plan based on socioeconomic status that would be monitored by a governing council.

Students whose presence increases a school’s diversity get free transportation. Although the city’s goal is to make sure the proportion of low-income students in school buildings matches that of the city, there’s no explicit diversity percentage schools need to meet and no penalties for failing to make progress. And buildings still have autonomy when it comes to curriculum, hiring and budgeting, and districts retain their central office staff.

The setup isn’t without challenges and political tensions. Some suburban superintendents have pushed back against the governing council’s authority. But though it’s far from perfect, the Omaha example is notable because it’s the first plan of its kind that attempts to take advantage of some aspects of merging districts without actually having to do so.

That could be meaningful in Indianapolis, where a failed district merger under the city’s celebrated Unigov law has arguably cost the inner-city schools in terms of equity.

District consolidation has been struck down repeatedly since Unigov passed in 1969, but perhaps a less restrictive partnership along the lines of Omaha’s could be a compromise between autonomy and diversity.

Although experts say the Louisville and Omaha models don’t go as far toward integrating schools as the desegregation programs of the 1960s and 1970s, they’re also a lot less controversial.

And the two models show that city districts don’t have to go it alone when it comes to diversifying schools.

“Some sort of regional collaboration is the model that I would argue for,” said Jennifer Jellison Holme, a desegregation researcher from the University of Texas at Austin. “So often cities are just left holding the bag … and it’s almost always the urban districts that lose.”

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In Indiana, existing school choice programs allow individual kids to travel outside their home community for school.

Just last year, almost 5,000 kids in the county transferred from their home districts to others. But research and history have shown that simply creating a choice model and allowing it to operate freely results in more segregation, not less — unless laws or incentives are put in place that prioritize diversity.

Preschool and kindergarten students at IPS School 91 work in a small group with their teacher. The school is one of the district’s high-performing integrated Montessori magnets that is attracting families from outside district boundaries. (Shaina Cavazos / Chalkbeat)
A kindergartener at IPS School 91 does an activity with sponges and water. (Shaina Cavazos)
Together, two School 91 students work on reading and writing.

The federal government is trying to encourage voluntary desegregation with increased federal funding for districts and states that commit to furthering integration.Researchers Jennifer Jellison Holme and Kara Finnigan argued in a blog post for the Shanker Institute that states might be able to build incentives into their new accountability systems with the flexibility the law now allows.

Indiana is already working on aligning its A-F model to the new rules. One area it has to address, particularly for elementary and middle school students, is creating a measure to factor into school grades that goes beyond test scores. Diversity could be one option. Holme and Finnigan explain:

“For example, a suburban school that is 90 percent white, 5 percent Asian, and 5 percent African American in a metropolitan area that is 65 percent white, 25 percent African American, 5 percent Asian, and 5 percent Latino would have to show progress toward increasing the non-white populations each year over a certain time period,” the researchers wrote.

States can also set aside more federal funding — 7 percent up from 4 percent under No Child Left Behind — to help struggling schools as long as the methods are supported by research. The researchers said there’s enough evidence that the racial and economic makeup of schools affects students for it to potentially qualify.

But these approaches are not without their challenges. Usually, they’re more effective when the cities and suburbs work together, and states would probably need to contribute funding to schools as well as provide support to train teachers. Holme and Finnigan say this is crucial to having a successful plan.

But the first decision states and districts need to make is whether integrated schools are worth working toward, said Seena Skelton, director of the Great Lakes Equity Center housed at IUPUI, a group that helps districts develop and assess plans to ensure they are educating students equally.

Perrin, the parent from School 91, decided it was worth it for her family, not just for the curriculum, but for all that her children could gain by learning from the different students around them.

But for now, she said, she knows she’s an exception.

“We wanted the Montessori curriculum, but we also wanted to send our kids to a school that was racially diverse and economically diverse,” Perrin said. “We were meant to end up there.”


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