Future of Schools

The changing face of Indianapolis reflected by school enrollment data

Over the last nine years, Marion County school districts — with the exception of IPS — have enrolled more students, and as they have, schools have grown more diverse and more of the children they serve are coming from poor families.

This is the time of year when school districts report enrollment to the state, and it’s a big deal. Schools are funded on a per-student basis that is determined by two student counts in September and February. The September count was taken on Friday.

Students who don’t get counted can cost schools much-needed dollars. And in a budget cycle where some Marion County schools saw funding declines, every kid, well, counts.

And with every count, the subtle changes that are reshaping Indianapolis schools become a bit more pronounced.

Data on school district enrollment is available from the Indiana Department of Education going back to the 2005-06 school year. Looking at the changes over that time, it’s clear that enrollment is growing in public schools in Marion County, and much of that growth can be connected to more black and Hispanic students.

And many of the same districts that are gaining more black and Hispanic students also are losing white students.

All districts except IPS saw big gains in students coming from families poor enough to qualify for free lunches, meaning a family of four can’t earn more than $31,535 annually. While free meals generally increased, reduced-price meals decreased, possibly signifying an increase in poverty county-wide. (To qualify for reduced-price meal, the income limit for a family of four is $44,863 this year.) Franklin Township alone saw a 115 percent increase in free meals.

As districts grow and become more diverse, that can bring challenges for staffing and building maintenance.

Just two districts in the county lost students. Lawrence Township was down by 1,040 students at the end of the 2015 school year compared to 2006, but district spokeswoman Dana Altemeyer said some of that is being offset by out-of-district students who are enrolling and expressing interest in Lawrence schools. As of Sept. 11, the district is up 484 kids this school year.

There was a much bigger decline for IPS. About 8,000 students left between 2006 and 2015, a 21 percent drop.

Yet that trend isn’t necessarily new. Over the past few decades, it has become fairly common across the country for families to leave city centers for suburban schools. At more than 30,000 kids, IPS is the largest district in the state and in the county, beating out the next largest county district, Wayne Township, by almost double.

Below, Chalkbeat takes a closer look at a few of the county’s school districts that have seen the biggest changes according to enrollment data from the Indiana Department of Education. (You can also check out our recent profiles of highest- and lowest-scoring IPS and Township schools.)

See this spreadsheet for more detailed data breaking down enrollment by race, ethnicity and free and reduced-price lunch.

Perry Township 

One of the largest factors in Perry Township’s student enrollment growth is the ever-increasing number of refugees, many from Asia, choosing to settle in the area.

“The last several years we’ve been monitoring enrollment very close,” Superintendent Tom Little told Chalkbeat in March. “And we’ve been seeing a real growth at the elementary level, especially at the Kindergarten level. When they come to Perry Township, our children tend to stay.”

Over nine years, the district saw a 1,115-student spike overall, with an increase of 2,376 Asian students and 1,153 Hispanic students. The biggest bumps in the number of kids took place in 2009, 2013 and 2014, leaving the district with 14,955 students at the end of 2015.

Perry Township also saw a spike in the number of students receiving free lunches, up to 8,477 in 2015 from 4,837 in 2006. Part of that growth could be connected to the district’s refugee population, which tends to include families who are low-income and, many times, still learning English.

Little said he was excited about the district’s growth, something he attributes to the township’s affordable housing, cultural diversity and support from the business community — the district has passed four referendums for additional school funding in the past four years.

District officials said earlier this year before its most recent referendum passed that it needed the extra dollars for new and better buildings rather than relying on portable classroom trailers that aren’t the best learning environments or safest option for students.

“We feel Perry Township has truly become a premiere school district in the state of Indiana,” Little said last week. “And we’re poised for further growth.”

Wayne Township

The second-largest district in the county, Wayne Township has seen slower, but fairly steady, growth since 2006, expanding by 1,130 students by the end of last year.

There were small hills and valleys along the way, but district spokeswoman Mary Lang said it’s been consistent, and the district is in a good place to keep growing building-wise. Last week, enrollment hovered around 16,000 students, Lang said, up a few hundred from 15,758 at the end of 2015.

“We do have some portables at some schools, but we don’t at most,” Lang said. “And we are currently very much able to serve the students we have … so we are not looking at any construction projects at this point or anything like that.”

Lang said Ben Davis University High School’s early college program, which helps students earn an associate’s degree while still in high school, the availability of preschool and virtual learning options have all been draws the the district. As district attendance boundaries have been eliminated over time, Lang said it’s increasingly important to make sure Wayne is communicating with its community about what is has to offer.

“Families have the ability to choose more now than they ever have before, and we are very keenly aware of that,” Lang said. “We know it’s important for us to let people within our district know the great things that are happening so they can continue to feel good about sending their students here.”

Washington Township

After 12 years of stagnant growth, district Superintendent Nikki Woodson said, Washington Township’s enrollment picked up in earnest in 2010. From 2006 to 2015, the district grew by more than 10 percent — 1,073 students — to 11,348 in 2015.

It might not seem like much, but Woodson said it’s certainly significant for the district, which has also seen tremendous growth in poverty in the same time period. The number of children who come from families poor enough to qualify for free lunch jumped by 86 percent. Districtwide, the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch is now 60 percent, up from 40 percent in 2006.

Historically, the large district has been a desirable place to live, with a mix of families of varying income levels.

But that many new students also puts stress on the district’s buildings, Woodson said. In 2007-08, the Washington Township School Board voted to close two elementary schools, just before enrollment spiked. At the time, census forecasting and talks with experts in demographics didn’t reveal any upcoming enrollment bumps.

“It is a huge impact to us because we had closed two elementary schools,” she said. “So had we been a fleet of nine elementary schools, things would feel a lot different with that additional numbers of students.”

Woodson said current 10-year enrollment predictions have the district growing by another 600 students by 2025.

Last year, Washington Township became the first district in Indiana, and just the sixth worldwide, to offer all-International Baccalaureate classes to all students in all grade levels. IB is a challenging, college-prep curriculum that encourages students to be globally-minded and use questions and critical-thinking to guide their learning.

Woodson said that IB, especially at the middle school level, has been attractive to families. The district has more than 600 students from outside the district’s boundaries. However, those extra students are not main reason for the overcrowded buildings, she said.

“Even when we remove all 600 from our fleet of schools, it does not subside overcrowding that exists,” Woodson said. “The nonresidents are not the reason for overcrowding because they are sprinkled amongst 13 different grade levels and 11 buildings, and it’s controlled enrollment.”

For now, Washington Township administrators are planning as best they can. A community conversation is likely the next step. Woodson said the district isn’t necessarily ready to re-open the closed schools, as they are in poor condition that would require a large sum to renovate, but they’ll take the lead from their residents.

“We’re thrilled with the growth,” she said. “It’s a challenge that we’re ready to tackle, but it’s not a challenge that we wish we didn’t have.”

Other trends

Changes in the county’s demographics in terms of ethnicity, race and poverty stem from long-term trends in the city and newer shifts in education policy, such as the state’s voucher program.

Each district except Beech Grove and Franklin Township, the county’s wealthiest, lost anywhere from 400 to more than 3,000 white students, while numbers of minority students, especially black and Hispanic students, increased.

Amos Brown, host of WTLC’s Afternoons with Amos radio show, has been studying Indianapolis’ demographic shifts since the state began releasing data in 1986. He said the changes to districts’ makeups of black and white students isn’t necessarily new. In 1986, Brown said, there were more than 81,000 white students in Marion County districts. At the end of the 2014-15 school year, that number was down to about 48,000.

“No one will admit that publicly, as the township school districts became more racially diverse — and this occurs in other cities — whites flee,” Brown said. “That’s been going on like forever. So all of a sudden a school or school district gets more minority students, and that tends to accelerate flight.”

Brown said the availability of publicly funded vouchers also might be a factor in districts losing white students. Last year, more wealthy, suburban families used the vouchers to pay for private school tuition.

As white families moved into the suburbs, Brown said, minority families moved into Marion County, and they tended to be younger families with more children. Districts like Washington Township are seeing rapidly growing enrollment in younger grades, he said. Brown is serving on a volunteer committee in the district that is assessing building needs.

Although its total enrollment has been fairly flat since 2006, Warren Township gained the largest number of black students by adding 1,129, or a 23.5 percent increase. Beech Grove schools saw the highest percent increase of black students at 74.3 percent, although the number grew by just 81 students in nine years to 190 at the end of last year in the small district.

In IPS, Hispanic enrollment is up by 61.1 percent over the nine years, while enrollment of white and black students dropped by about 37 percent and 31 percent, respectively.

“IPS is getting hit by a number of factors,” Brown said. “I think the perceptions and realities of violence, school quality — all of that plays into it.”

Wayne Township has become more diverse, adding about 2,500 Hispanic students since 2006, bringing them up to 3,844 — a 184 percent increase. Lang said the district has a large number of English-language learners, mostly Spanish-speakers, but still with about 70 different languages spoken in the district.

“We’ve created an atmosphere where people come into the district even if English is not their first language,” Lang said. “We are very attentive to their needs and helping them learn English and really get going into the school system.”

Beech Grove and Franklin also saw proportionally large increases to their enrollment at 26 and 11 percent. The growth seems to be spread across ethnic groups, with slight upticks for Hispanic students in Franklin and white students in Beech Grove.

Brown said that while he doesn’t expect to see any major changes to IPS’ enrollment when new enrollment data is released later this year, the district’s reunion with Arlington High School, back under its management after state takeover, and a deal with Charter Schools USA to co-manage Emma Donnan Middle School could add to the district’s student count.

“It’s a combination to me of vouchers, a combination of continued flight to the suburbs, changing family structure,” Brown said. “The county has changed. I think the nature of households has changed, and the minority growth is strong, and I think that’s reflected in schools.”

new money

House budget draft sends more money to schools, but not specifically to teacher raises

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Despite months of heated debate, Indiana House Republicans are not setting aside extra dollars for meaningful teacher raises in their version of the state’s $14.5 billion education budget plan released Monday night.

Even though lawmakers are proposing preserving a controversial merit-based bonus pool and adding small amounts for teacher training programs, their budget draft would largely leave it up to school districts to dole out raises through increased overall funding.

The budget draft proposes increasing what Indiana spends on schools overall by $461 million — or 4.3 percent — through 2021, a little more than increases in years past. The basic per-student funding that all districts get would jump from $5,352 per student this year to $5,442 per student in 2020 and $5,549 per student in 2021. House lawmakers are also adding in a one-time payment of $150 million from state reserves that would pay down a pension liability for schools. But while lawmakers and Gov. Eric Holcomb have said that pension payment would free up about $70 million in schools’ budgets each year, the state likely wouldn’t require the cost-savings be passed along to teachers.

Although increasing teacher pay is a top goal for House Republicans, lawmakers have crafted bills that hinge on districts spending less money in areas such as administration or transportation rather than adding more money to school budgets and earmarking it for teacher salaries.

Their criticism of school spending has raised the ire of superintendents and educators who say they have little left to cut after years of increasing costs and state revenue that has barely kept pace with inflation.

But budget draft, which is expected to be presented to and voted on by the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday, doesn’t completely omit efforts to incentivize teachers to stick around. Unlike Holcomb’s budget proposal, House lawmakers are keeping in the current appropriation of $30 million per year for teacher bonuses.

The House budget draft would also set aside $1 million over two years for a teacher residency pilot program and $5 million over two years for schools that put in place career ladder programs that allow teachers to gain skills and opportunities without leaving the classroom.

Teacher advocacy groups, such as the Indiana State Teachers Association and Teach Plus, have been supportive of residency and career ladder programs, but the organizations have also called for more action this year to get dollars to teachers. Additionally, the ideas aren’t new — similar programs have been proposed in years past.

Calls for the hundreds of millions of dollars it would take to raise teacher salaries to be more in line with surrounding states will likely go unheeded for now as the state instead prioritizes other high-profile and expensive agencies, such as the Department of Child Services and Medicaid.

But while plans for major teacher pay raises appear to be on hold, House lawmakers are looking to boost funding in other areas of education to support some of the state’s most vulnerable students.

The budget draft would increase what the state must spend on preschool programs for students with disabilities from the current $2,750 per-student to $2,875 in 2020 and $3,000 in 2021 — the first such increase in more than 25 years.

House lawmakers are also proposing the state spend more money on students learning English as a new language, at $325 per student up from $300 per student now. While all schools with English learners would receive more money per student under this plan, the new budget draft removes a provision that had previously allocated extra dollars to schools with higher concentrations of English learners.

A 2017 calculation error and an uptick in interested schools meant state lawmakers did not budget enough money for schools with larger shares of English-learners in the last budget cycle, so they ended up getting far less than what the state had promised. But even the small increases were valuable, educators told Chalkbeat.

House lawmakers also suggested slashing funding for virtual programs run by traditional public school districts. Going forward, funding for both virtual charter schools and virtual schools within school districts would come in at 90 percent of what traditional schools receive from the state — now, only virtual charter schools are at the 90 percent level. It’s a marked change for House lawmakers, who in years past have asked that virtual charter school funding be increased to 100 percent.

The virtual funding proposal comes as lawmakers are considering bills that would add regulations for the troubled schools, where few students pass state exams or graduate.

The budget draft also includes:

  • $5 million per year added to school safety grants, totaling $19 million in 2020 and $24 million in 2021
  • Doubling grants for high-performing charter schools from $500 per student to $1,000 per student, at a cost of about $32 million over two years. The money is a way for charter schools to make up for not receiving local property tax dollars like district schools, lawmakers say.
  • $4 million per year more to expand the state’s private school voucher program to increase funding for certain families above the poverty line. Under the plan, a family of four making between $46,000 and $58,000 annually could receive a voucher for 70 percent of what public schools would have received in state funding for the student. Currently, those families receive a 50 percent voucher.
  • About $33 million over two years (up from about $25 million) for the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship program.

rethinking the reprieve

Indiana lawmakers take step to eliminate generous ‘growth-only’ grades for all schools, not just those in IPS

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

A panel of Indiana lawmakers took a first step Monday to stop giving new and overhauled schools more generous state A-F grades that consider only how much students improve on tests and cut schools slack for low test scores.

The House Education Committee was initially looking to clamp down on Indianapolis Public Schools’ innovation schools, barring them from using student test score improvement as the sole determinant in their first three years of A-F grades. The more generous scale has boosted IPS’ performance as it launches a new strategy of partnering with charter operators, by allowing some innovation network schools to earn high marks despite overall low test scores.

But lawmakers expanded the scope of the bill to stop all schools from receiving what are known as “growth-only grades” after Chalkbeat reported that IPS’ overhauled high schools were granted a fresh start from the state — a move that would allow the high schools to tap into the more lenient grading system.

“I want to be consistent, and I felt like [grading] wasn’t consistent before, it was just hodge-podge,” said committee Chairman Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican. “We need to be transparent with parents.”

Read: Why it’s hard to compare Indianapolis schools under the A-F grading system

The committee unanimously approved the bill. If it passes into law, Indianapolis Public Schools stands to be one of the districts most affected. Growth-only grades for innovation schools have given the district’s data a boost, accounting for eight of the district’s 11 A grades in 2018. All of its high schools could also be eligible for growth-only grades this year.

Indianapolis Public Schools officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In the past, they have defended the two-tiered grading system, arguing that growth on state tests is an important window into how schools are educating students. Growth-only grades were originally intended to offer new schools time to get up and running before being judged on student test scores.

IPS was also the target of another provision in the updated bill that would add in stricter rules for when and how schools can ask for a “baseline reset” — the fresh start that its four high schools were recently granted.

Read: IPS overhauled high schools. Now, the state is giving them a fresh start on A-F

The resets, which districts can currently request from the state education department if they meet certain criteria that show they’ve undergone dramatic changes, wipe out previous test scores and other student performance data to give schools a fresh start. The reset schools are considered new schools with new state ID numbers.

The state determined a reset was necessary for IPS’ four remaining high schools because of the effects of decisions last year to close three campuses, shuffle staff, and create a new system a new system for students to choose their schools. Each school will start over with state letter grades in 2019.

But Behning and other lawmakers were skeptical that such changes merited starting over with accountability, and they were concerned that the process could occur without state board of education scrutiny. If passed into law, the bill would require the state board to approve future requests for accountability resets.

A state board staff member testified in favor of the change. The state education department did not offer comments to the committee.

Rep. Vernon Smith, a Democrat from Gary, said he didn’t like the fact that a reset could erase a school’s data, adding that he had concerns about “the transparency of a school corporation getting a new number.”

The amended bill wouldn’t remove the reset for IPS high schools, but by eliminating the growth-only grades, it would get rid of some of the incentive for districts to ask for a reset to begin with. Under current law, reset schools are considered new and qualify for growth-only grades. But the bill would require that reset schools be judged on the state’s usual scale, taking into account both test scores and test score improvement — and possibly leading to lower-than-anticipated state grades.

The amended bill would still offer a grading grace period to schools opening for the first time: New charter schools would be able to ask the state to give them no grade — known as a “null” grade — for their first three years, but schools’ test score performance and test score growth data would still be published online. Behning said he didn’t include district schools in the null-grade measure because they haven’t frequently opened new schools, but he said he’d be open to an amendment.

The bill next heads to the full House for a vote.