After a marathon of feedback, IPS board backs overhauling two struggling schools with charter partners

Indianapolis Public Schools is moving forward with plans to overhaul two struggling campuses in a decision that came after a large contingent of parents and advocates weighed in, with most speaking in support.

The IPS board tentatively backed proposals to restart School 48 and School 67 as innovation schools, which would be managed by charter operators under the oversight of the district. If the board approves the changes at its March meeting, the principals, teachers, and other staff at the neighborhood schools likely will be replaced.

Whether to restart School 67, also known as Stephen Foster, has become one of the most controversial overhaul decisions the board has faced. The neighborhood campus has dismal scores on state tests, but many parents and staff were stunned by the decision to hand the school to a charter manager, and vocal opponents came to the board meetings last month.

That made the two board meetings this week something of a test of whether the operators that may take over the schools had been able to persuade anxious parents that the overhauls would be best for their children. And supporters of innovation schools turned out in force — including a large contingent of families and staff from other campuses who spoke about their positive experiences.

It was clear that the public feedback weighed heavily on board members, several of whom shared long statements about their decisions. Board member Evan Hawkins said the district’s low passing rates on state tests and the especially low passing rates for children of color cannot be ignored.

“Though I do not believe that test scores tell the whole story of any school community, these statistics are intolerable,” Hawkins said. “For generations across this nation, this state, and this city, we have seen what happens to our children and what they lose access to when they are not given the mere opportunity to be prepared academically.”

On Thursday, Hawkins was joined in supporting both overhauls by Michael O’Connor and Diane Arnold. Venita Moore, who was absent Thursday, said on Tuesday that she supported continuing the process for both schools. Elizabeth Gore supported the restart of School 48 but not School 67. And Taria Slack and Susan Collins said they opposed both overhauls.

Many family members of children at School 48 and a few from School 67 spoke in favor of the new operators — including some parents who had initially opposed the restarts.

No one exemplified the change of heart that some parents felt as much as Angela Cordova, who has four children at School 67, a westside elementary and middle school. When the plan to restart the school and replace the educators was announced, Cordova helped lead unusually vocal opposition.

This week, Cordova focused on her frustration not on the potential change, but on the district. “Every child in that school deserves a chance — a chance that you failed to give them,” said Cordova, during the public comments portion of Tuesday’s meeting. “You saw us failing and didn’t help.”

Cordova, who is one of many parents at restart schools who didn’t realize the campus had an F grade from the state, now says she loves the potential operator selected to restart School 67. Cordova told Chalkbeat that in the days since she initially opposed the overhaul, she researched innovation schools on her own and visited an existing campus.

She also met with Alicia Hervey, the local educator who is founding the PATH, a planned charter school the administration recommended as the new operator of School 67. Cordova said she connects with Hervey “on a mom level,” and she trusts her to help the school.

“I think this would be very beneficial to all the kids,” she told Chalkbeat. “I think a change is what we need.”

In contrast with School 67, the resistance to the proposed overhaul of School 48, also known as Louis B. Russell, was muted. In part, that’s likely because the elementary school on the near northside has received years of failing marks from the state. The district administration previously attempted to improve it by placing it in its transformation zone, a group of struggling schools that receive extra resources and attention. Superintendent Aleesia Johnson is recommending that the campus be taken over by Phalen Leadership Academies, a charter network that also runs two other Indianapolis Public Schools campuses.

Several parents from the school told the board Thursday that they support overhauling the campus and want Phalen to take charge.

Joseph White, a parent at School 48, became a supporter after visiting an innovation school. White’s daughter attends the pre-kindergarten program for students with special needs, and last month he told Chalkbeat he was skeptical about the restart. But at Thursday’s meeting, he told the board he supports the overhaul.

“I do believe innovation would be the best way for this school,” White said. “I can tell you one thing, if it’s not restarted, she will not be going there. My daughter deserves the best.”

More than 70 people signed up to speak for the public comment period at Thursday’s meeting, which O’Connor estimated was the largest crowd since he joined the board, and each speaker’s time was reduced to 2 minutes.

But even though the proposed operators had support from many parents, the meeting was tense. A smaller number of family and staff members from School 67 spoke against the plan. And as the meeting came to a close, an uproar broke out with a handful of angry parents and educators yelling at the board and superintendent because they had expected a formal vote based on flyers from the district.

Since Indianapolis Public Schools began overhauling failing campuses as innovation schools five years ago, six schools have been turned over to outside managers. The schools have freedom from some district requirements, and educators at the schools work for the charter managers and are not covered by the district teachers contract.

School board member Venita Moore said at the Tuesday board meeting that she believed the district waited too long to overhaul School 48. But in the future, she suggested the district should try to bring families into the conversation sooner. “Would it be better for us to allow more time on the front end?” she asked.

Jamie VandeWalle, who oversees innovation schools for the district, said officials have begun asking themselves “how do we make sure that everyone within the schools and then families who send their students to schools every day truly understand the performance of their schools?”

The board also supported partnering with Adelante Schools to run Emma Donnan Elementary and Middle School. Adelante would be the first charter school run by Eddie Rangel, who previously led a Tindley charter school, and Matthew Rooney, an Indianapolis native who led a charter school in New York City.

The Donnan elementary school was launched as an innovation school run by Charter Schools USA in collaboration with Indianapolis Public Schools after the state seized the middle school from the district. Earlier this school year, Indianapolis Public Schools ended its partnership with Charter Schools USA, and the state board voted to return the campus to the district in January.