Arlington High School has struggled this year, but the Indiana State Board of Education on Wednesday took a less urgent tone about the need for improvements than they did just six months ago.
In May when it looked like Arlington might be returned from state takeover to Indianapolis Public Schools, the state board put on the brakes. They wanted assurances first.
Then-board member Dan Elsener said the district would first have to demonstrate it was “well structured” and “well managed.” Ultimately the board wasn’t ready to trust that IPS fit that description, so they kept control over Arlington even while putting IPS back in charge of running the school day-to-day.
But at today’s state board meeting, only board member David Freitas expressed concern that Arlington might be moving in the wrong direction. Gordon Hendry, a board member who asked the Indiana Department of Education for more details on the Arlington transition in October, was absent.
“I just want to be sure that we continue to advocate for every child in Indiana, and I’m concerned for the children at Arlington,” Freitas said. “It’s my understanding that we still retain control of Arlington, and I feel almost a personal responsibility to be sure that it is continuing to move forward.”
A series of reports from WFYI’s education reporter Eric Weddle, who is making regular visits to Arlington, have described disorder at the school and calls from Principal Stan Law for more staff to help him get a handle on its many problems.
But Law and other IPS officials told the state board that a series of steps they’ve taken in the last few weeks would bring quick improvements.
For example, the school recently moved students out of the first floor and closed it off. The immense size of the building, which could accommodate more than 2,000 students, also contributed to discipline problems, deputy superintendent Wanda Legrand said.
The district is providing new Arlington teachers with mentors and on-going training, Legrand said. More staff has been added, too. Law said there are still a few teaching positions open in math, science and special education, but he’s focused on finding the right people to fill the jobs, not just whoever shows up first.
“A lot of our kids come in with a lot of challenges — social, emotional, academic challenges,” Law said. “We want teachers there and staff members also there who want to work with such a population.”
Arlington continues to need work to fill all its open teaching jobs, improve learning and build stronger relationships between students and teachers, Law and IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee acknowledged.
There has been a lot of change at Arlington. Some teachers and students from last year remain, but a large number of new teachers and students have since arrived. That has led to some of the tension, Legrand said
“Challenges, of course, always occur when you blend people,” she said.
The school, which enrolls 600 students so far this year, is 89 percent black, 1 percent Hispanic and 10 percent white, Ferebee said. About 25 percent of students have special needs, and most students come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. To do so, a family of four must make less than $44,863 annually.
Arlington was taken away from Indianapolis Public Schools in 2012 after six straight F-grades and turned over to be run by Tindley Accelerated Schools, a charter school network. Then the network abruptly pulled out before the end of its five-year contract. So the state gave Arlington back to IPS.
IPS said in some cases, it is holding out on hiring teachers to try to find those that fit best. But board member Vince Bertram said IPS needs better hiring strategies. Good teachers have too many options, he said.
“I don’t think its sustainable, I don’t think it’s a scalable strategy,” Bertram said. “There are just too many other choices and options. What are those incentives … that we can use to attract people to IPS and to Indiana?”
The district’s now offers up to $18,000 for teachers who take on key leadership positions under it’s recently-signed labor contract, Ferebee said, which could attract more teachers to IPS. The district also has partnerships with Marian University, Ball State University, IUPUI and University of Indianapolis to recruit teaching candidates and is helping its most promising teacher aides to earn licenses to become classroom teachers.
Freitas praised a new partnership between Charter Schools USA with IPS at Emma Donnan Middle School, and asked Ferebee whether such an arrangement could benefit Arlington as well. IPS and CSUSA agreed that students in grades K-6 would be added at the middle school as long as IPS gets to share oversight.
So far, only one of three former IPS schools managed by CSUSA has shed its F-grade — Manual High School. Donnan has been rated an F or an equivalent grade since 2010.
But Ferebee said adding elementary school grades didn’t make sense at high school like Arlington. The district instead would continue to explore how school feeder patterns might be improved throughout the district.
Last month, Indiana Department of Education officials told the state board that Arlington was a top concern because of the difficulties there since the start of school. But Superintendent Glenda Ritz said today she believed Arlington was making progress.
“I think there has been some good movement in the school to make sure they’re on-track, making sure they have a great climate,” Ritz said. “They are moving in a good direction.”