IPS pushes back on recommendation to convert Howe and Manual to charter schools

Indianapolis Public Schools is asking the state to hold off on a decision next week about the future of three schools transitioning out of state control.

A special task force is recommending to the state that Howe and Manual high schools be converted to charter schools run by Charter Schools USA, the private management company that has been tasked with turning around the schools over the last eight years.

It’s an option that would keep the schools open, which many community members have said they want, though the schools have had mixed academic results so far. But Indianapolis Public Schools said it’s unclear how the district could be financially affected by the schools becoming independent charter schools. The district owns the two high school buildings and said there are “several uncertainties related to the debt financing.”

Becoming charter schools would also open the possibility for Howe and Manual to use a controversial state law that requires districts to make unused buildings available to charter schools to rent or buy for $1 — a snare that has stirred ongoing drama as the cash-strapped, downsizing district looks to unload large, valuable buildings that it no longer needs.

The district does not support the charter recommendation and is requesting the state board of education delay its decision by a month, according to a statement, “to better understand the implications of a path forward that would provide charter options for TC Howe and Manual.”

The future of the schools has been under debate for the past six months as the state approaches the end of a radical experiment to intervene at failing schools. Howe and Manual were among four chronically low-performing Indianapolis schools where the state stepped in and took control in 2011, handing the schools over to outside operators to turn around.

The strategy had mixed results. One of the schools, Arlington High School, endured a rocky path when its management company backed out, saying it was too expensive to run. The school returned to the district’s control in 2015 but closed last year as the district consolidated its high schools.

But it’s up to the state to decide what happens to the remaining three schools: Howe, Manual, and Emma Donnan Middle School, all run by Charter Schools USA.

The state grades at Manual, which enrolls about 700 students, and Emma Donnan, which has about 300, have risen to Cs. But Howe, which has about 600 students, has gotten an F every year since it was taken over.

Howe and Manual face the prospect of closure, either by the state or if they returned to the district, which has said it’s not interested in keeping them open. When the task force collected input, community members largely said they wanted the schools to stay open, particularly after the painful closing of Arlington, Broad Ripple, and Northwest high schools.

Still, some worried about entrusting Charter Schools USA, which is based in Florida, with local schools.

“The bottom line is, we don’t want to see that school close, but we want to see local control and better options for people who live on the southside of Indianapolis,” said Ed Mahern, a Garfield Park resident who has been involved in discussions regarding Manual.

If the state board votes for Charter Schools USA to take permanent control of the two schools, the group would need to secure charters from an authorizer by going through the application process. That would include laying out plans for the schools’ academics, finances, and governance. The task force recommends that parents and community members oversee the charter schools by making up the majority of their boards.

Emma Donnan will likely continue an innovation partnership that it started with Indianapolis Public Schools in 2015. Charter Schools USA opened an elementary school in the same building, overseen by the district. Emma Donnan’s middle school grades will likely merge with the elementary school to become a K-8 innovation school, an idea supported by the district, Charter Schools USA, and the task force studying the transition.