Panelist: Indianapolis should invite the suburbs to help integrate schools

In 2016, is there anything Indianapolis can do to promote integration in its schools?

The short answer is yes.

READ MORE: Find the entire series here.

Panelists at a community conversation co-sponsored by Chalkbeat, WFYI, the Central Library and the Indianapolis Star said Wednesday suggested a range of strategies worth exploring. Some could be small, school-level changes designed to attract more diverse students and teachers. Other options they suggested would be broad challenges, like inviting suburban schools to commit to enrolling large numbers of black and Hispanic children.

The conversation capped a months-long discussion triggered by a series of stories from Chalkbeat and the Indianapolis Star since June that have explored the 21st century challenges of integrating schools by race and income while ensuring all students have equal opportunities to learn. About 140 people attended the discussion.

The series began as Indianapolis ended three decades of court-ordered busing that was designed to integrate city schools. Township schools have become more diverse in the years since busing began, but Indianapolis Public Schools have, in many ways, become more segregated.

The panelists at Wednesday’s event included Carole Craig, an Indianapolis education advocate; Louis Norris, associate director of student services for Perry Township; Mary Ann Sullivan, Indianapolis Public Schools board president; Ahmed Young, education director for the city of Indianapolis; and Kevin Brown, an Indiana University law professor who has studied school integration.

Panelists discuss school integration in Indianapolis at an event co-sponsored by Chalkbeat. (Scott Elliott)

The panel agreed that there is much work to do, and that the city has not always taken the most productive steps to promote diverse and high-quality schools.

“We have done a disservice to Indianapolis,” Craig said. “We don’t have the resources because we have separated the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. We need to look at all of our interests as a big village that is all together as a community.”

Sullivan said IPS is taking steps to promote more school integration in the wake of stories in the series that examined inequities in magnet schools.

The board is moving toward a new funding system aimed at making schools more equitable and transparent, she said. It is working on changes to magnet school admissions to allow more kids from around the city to access the coveted programs and is changing the district’s lottery system to promote magnet options to more children who are poor, black and Hispanic.

“These are marketed to the public as districtwide options and they have not been working that way in practice,” she said of magnet schools. “We know many of our lower income families don’t even apply.”

But Craig said schools must also address internal inequities. High-poverty schools, she said, not only tend to serve more black, Hispanic and poor children, they also have less experienced teachers and more turnover for both students and teachers.

“Teachers with the best credentials do not, for the most part, want to go to segregated schools,” she said. “A critical factor is the teachers. You’ve got to be sure your teachers understand race, white privilege and what happened in America to make inequities and want to see it changed.”

With an explosion of charter schools in the city in the last decade, the panelists said promoting integrated schools has become even more complex. Some charter schools are among the city’s most racially isolated and others do not reflect the racial makeup of their neighborhoods.

Young called for stronger oversight by charter school sponsors. For example, he said the city is working closely with Herron High School as it expands to a second campus in the Riverside neighborhood to encourage enrollment practices that will attract students who reflect the neighborhood.

“How do we approach an enrollment system that is truly fair to make sure we can have a diverse school that reflects our community?” he said of the challenge. “It’s important to confront issues of race head on, even if it’s an uncomfortable issue.”

Really confronting the issue of school integration, Brown said, would require an especially uncomfortable conversation because it would have to include participation by suburban school districts. Just 21 percent of IPS students are white, making racial balance all but impossible without participation of suburban districts.

Because of court decisions, the suburbs can’t be forced to participate in such a plan, Brown said. But they could do so voluntarily. For instance, what if large suburban districts committed to enrolling 15 percent of students who are black, Hispanic or poor?

“The question is whether they would see it as something they want to do,” he said. “But if you really want to talk about integrating the schools in Marion County you have to be talking about the schools outside the county. There is nothing that prevents that but political will.”

One other integration approach the panel discussed was pushing for balance in schools among students from different income levels, a strategy that has drawn praise in Louisville.

Craig noted that The Oaks Academy, an Indianapolis private school, has successfully integrated by race and income by making a balanced enrollment a central academic strategy.

“I think it’s admirable what I have seen there and what they have done by intentionally having a certain percentage from each income group,” she said. “They have intentionally made it a point to have diversity. Those models are out there based on income.”