IPS board to Ferebee: Discontinue 7-12 high schools

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Students at Harshman Middle School, where Jack Hesser is a teacher, work on science projects.

The end could be near for Indianapolis Public Schools’ combined middle and high schools.

The Indianapolis Public School Board directed Superintendent Lewis Ferebee at a board retreat last Friday to develop a plan to phase out school designs that result in 7th and 8th graders sharing space, schedules and sometimes even teachers with high school students, a controversial legacy from former superintendent Eugene White’s tenure.

“We’ve got clear direction that we have to explore options that would move us away from that model,” Ferebee said. “We’ll get it vetted and get community input.”

Instead, board members said they want to see well-developed middle grades programs at elementary schools and to expand successful magnet programs, which they hope will help increase student safety and bolster grades and test scores.

Middle schoolers have some of the lowest test scores in the district: Seven IPS high schools serve grades 6 to 12 or 7 to 12. In many of those schools, high school test scores are on the rise while middle school students’ ISTEP scores last year made little growth or even fell farther behind.

Nothing is expected to change next year but the district could start the transition toward more K to 8 elementary schools as early as the 2016-17 school year. Ferebee has said since he arrived at IPS in 2012 that the district’s 12 grade configurations scattered among more than 60 schools is “convoluted” at best and unsafe at worst.

“When you have students going through that phase in life, it’s not appropriate to have them with high school students who are in a different phase in their lives,” Ferebee said. “It’s best that those experiences be separate for a lot of different reasons, but primarily safety and social and emotional (development).”

Ferebee said combined middle and high schools also present instructional challenges. In some schools he’s seen 11th-grade Advanced Placement Calculus teachers be simultaneously responsible for teaching 7th-grade Pre-Algebra, a very different challenge.

“That’s a very unique skill set,” Ferebee said. “What happens is we have teachers who really enjoy one group and not so much the other. When I talk to the students, they don’t like being around each other. The middle grade students aren’t too fond of the high school students. It’s a real challenge for staff to manage.”

He said he’s exploring a new approach to organizing staff to avoid those situations next year.

Switching to more K to 8 schools may also help IPS compete with neighboring township and charter schools. The district often loses students as they approach middle and high schools. IPS has more than twice as many students in its elementary schools as it does in its middle and high schools.

Board member Kelly Bentley said she consistently hears from parents that they want their kids in K to 8 schools. She said IPS should expand its existing successful magnet programs such as the Center for Inquiry schools.

“We’ve got to respond to the market,” Bentley said. “A lot of these people are just walking.”

Board member Gayle Cosby said she wants to make sure IPS expands its successful programs in vulnerable neighborhoods as well as in places where parents are vocal.

“What’s great about Center for Inquiry 84, we need to make that available on other sides of town,” Cosby said.

The combined middle and high schools, called “community high schools,” were a major initiative of former superintendent White, who said the retooled schools would help reduce dropouts in the district and increase graduation rates. And graduation rates did rise dramatically after they were instituted.

But some of those gains were fueled by the use of graduation waivers, where students are allowed to graduate even if they have failed state tests.

School board President Diane Arnold said she supported the community school concept initially, especially at George Washington High School. She said she saw wayward middle schoolers blossom when they were able to participate in high quality high school athletics and music programs.

“It rescued some of those kids,” Arnold said. “I know there’s times it hasn’t worked well at Washington. I did see a few snippets of where it worked well for some kids.”

But Washington’s middle schoolers have continued to struggle. A new principal there this year created a separate program for older middle schoolers to try to get them back on track and reduce behavioral issues.

Unfortunately, said Butler University researcher Flo Barnes, there is “no magic bullet” when it comes to grade configuration. There are pros and cons to each model, she said. But she said the fewer transitions a student has between schools, the better they seem to do on a social and emotional level.

One benefit to having a K to 8 school is that elementary and middle school teachers may be better able to collaborate, Barnes said.

“I liked the thought that if you are in a K-8 setting, you can really enrich professional development,” said Barnes, a former Spanish teacher and instructional coach. “Having your elementary school teachers thinking on that middle school playing field. On the contrary, your secondary teachers … really see the value of (teaching) the whole child.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”