Future of Schools

Empty hallways, higher costs force Indianapolis Public Schools to consider closing high schools

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
John Marshall Middle School.

Whenever Cassandra Money walked out of chemistry class at John Marshall Community High School last year, she noticed something unusual about the hallway: There was just a handful of teens loitering and chatting, with none of the commotion of a typical high school.

It was great for reaching her next class quickly.

“In an empty hallway you can get to your class on time,” said Money, a rising junior at Marshall.

But the quiet corridors are not great for her school.

They’re a small sign of a problem plaguing Indianapolis Public Schools. Numbers obtained by Chalkbeat reveal that the district has more than twice as many seats in secondary schools as it has students to fill them. Those extra seats come at a price, because schools that are just a quarter full still bear high costs for services like heating, security and maintenance throughout the building.

With the district in the process of planning a massive school reconfiguration designed to remove middle schoolers from high schools, the board must decide whether to close some of the underused buildings to save costs.

At least one board member believes that now is the time for the district to begin closing high schools.

“It’s gonna be really painful,” said board member Kelly Bentley. “But we have to make those tough decisions. And we can’t continually shy away from making those tough decisions.”

IPS planning supervisor Tricia Frye said that ideally, schools should be at about 85 percent of their capacity so they have space to use some rooms for other purposes like a parent center.

Crispus Attucks is the only IPS high school that is close to meeting the 85 percent utilization goal. Six of the district’s eight high schools serve fewer than half the number of students they could.

IPS High School Enrollment
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At Marshall, there’s enough room for 1,650 students, but last year, the school enrolled just 694 kids, according to district data. That’s one reason the cost of educating students at Marshall is particularly high. In 2014-2015, IPS spent about $10,369 per student at Marshall. At Crispus Attucks, the cost was just $5,530.

The district has not yet released the details of how that money is spent, but officials say that at least part of reason why some schools are so much more expensive per student than others is because of the high costs of running underused buildings.

The problem could become more urgent as the district reconfigures middle school education. Marshall is one of several IPS high schools that serve middle school children in addition to students in grades 9-12. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee has committed to moving those kids to K-8 elementary schools or standalone middle schools in a bid to improve academic results for middle school students.

That move would reduce the high school population by about 2,033 middle school students, exacerbating problems with enrollment. But since there is not enough room to accommodate those students in the existing IPS elementary schools, the reconfiguration also offers the district an opportunity to repurpose some high school buildings as middle schools instead of closing them altogether.

Last month, Deputy Superintendent Wanda Legrand confirmed that one option for Marshall, which has long-struggled on state tests, could be converting it to a dedicated middle school.

But Legrand is close lipped about whether the district also will need to shut down high schools, although she said it is a potential option going forward.

“We are not going in to this conversation saying we are closing 10 buildings or any buildings at all,” she said. “Our conversation now and our work now isn’t about closing schools. Our conversation is finding places for our middle years kids.”

School Board President Mary Ann Sullivan said underutilization may force the board to close high schools but raised the possibility that some high school buildings could be kept open through strategies such as sharing school buildings with other organizations.

It’s a model that’s being tested in the Gambold building on the northwest side, which houses the Enlace Academy charter school and the IPS newcomer school.

Bentley said the district needs to be financially responsible when it comes to deciding whether to close high schools.

“The ultimate goal is to do what’s in the best interest of families and taxpayers and kids,” Bentley said. “Right now, operating these high schools isn’t in anybody’s best interest. It just isn’t.”

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

These are the 13 education bills poised to become law in Indiana in 2018

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
House Speaker Brian Bosma talks with Democrats shortly before the session adjourned without passing several bills.

Despite a chaotic end to this year’s legislative session, lawmakers managed to push through several education bills that could bring changes for teachers, students and schools.

And it’s not quite over either.

Lawmakers ran out of time before their midnight deadline last week, leaving behind several major bills, including a bill that would expand state takeover in Gary and Muncie school districts. On Monday, Gov. Eric Holcomb announced he’d be calling for a special session so they could revisit that issue and others.

In non-budget year, it can be hard to make significant change because money is generally not available to fund new programs or increase existing ones. This year, the biggest education issue lawmakers passed was a bill to make up an unexpected shortfall in school funding.

Below is a summary of education bills that passed this session, which next head to Holcomb, where he can decide whether to sign them into law. You can find the status of all the bills introduced this year here, and Chalkbeat’s 2018 legislative coverage here.

Graduation and workforce

Senate Bill 50 establishes the governor’s workforce cabinet, which would oversee job training efforts across the state. The cabinet would create a “career navigation and coaching system,” which all Indiana high schools would be required to participate in. State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick would be a cabinet member.

House Bill 1426 would combine Indiana’s four diplomas into a single diploma with four “designations” that mirror current diploma tracks. In addition, it would change rules for getting a graduation waiver and create an “alternate diploma” for students with severe special needs.The bill would also allow the Indiana State Board of Education to consider alternatives to Algebra 2 as a graduation requirement. It makes several changes to state tests, replacing the state high school exam with a national college-entrance exam and eliminating the requirement that schools give the Accuplacer remediation test. The final version of the bill also changes the timing of testing from earlier version. Students wouldn’t begin the new graduation pathways plan until 2021, so the same deadline was applied to switching to a college entrance exam for state accountability. Until then, state education officials will have to decide what annual test high schoolers take when students in grades 3-8 switch to the new ILEARN test next year.


House Bill 1001 would close the gap in school funding that resulted from miscalculations in the number of students attending public schools. The bills would let the state transfer up to $25 million this year and up to $75 million next year from a reserve fund to the state general fund, where it could then be distributed to districts. The bill also calls for a study of virtual education programs within school districts.


Senate Bill 172 would require public schools to offer computer science classes as an elective in high schools, as well as a part of the science curriculum for all K-12 students, by 2021. The bill also sets up a grant program to help pay for teacher training in computer science.

Senate Bill 297 would require schools to include “employability skills,” also known as “soft skills,” in their curriculums. The idea for the bill came from David Freitas, a member of the state board of education.

Senate Bill 65 would require school districts to let parents examine any instructional materials dealing with sex education. It would also require schools to send out consent forms for sex ed classes, where parents could then opt students out of the class. If they do not, the students would still receive instruction.

House Bill 1399 would require the state board to create elementary teacher licenses in math and science. It would also require the state education department to create an incentive program to reward teachers who earn the content area licenses.

Senate Bill 387 would allow districts to pay teachers different amounts and give special education and science teachers extra stipends in an effort to fill jobs. A previous measure that would let districts hire up to 10 percent of unlicensed teachers has been added and removed several times this year, and was killed for good in conference committee. The bill also makes changes to the state’s career specialist permit. Career specialists would have to pass an exam showing they understand how students learn and the practice of teaching, in addition to content exams. The bill also removes a provision from the current version of the permit that says a career specialist must have a bachelor’s degree in the area they wish to teach in.


House Bill 1420, among several other measures, would not let a student who has been expelled from a virtual charter school for non-attendance re-enroll in that same school during the same school year.

House Bill 1421 would ask the state education department to develop a school discipline model that reduces suspensions and expulsions, especially among students of color. It also requires the department to provide guidance and information to districts, beginning in 2019, that want to use that model. It encourages the legislative council to study positive student discipline and restorative justice and asks the education department to survey districts on those practices.

House Bill 1398 would allow a group of charter schools and districts to form a “coalition” to pursue innovative academic strategies. Coalition members could also waive certain state requirements, such as the requirement that students pass Algebra 2 to graduate.

Senate Bill 217 would require districts and charter schools to screen students for dyslexia and by 2019, to employ at least one reading specialist trained in dyslexia, among other provisions.

House Bill 1314 would set up data sharing between the state’s education and child services departments. It would also require that the Indiana State Board of Education release an annual report about foster and homeless youth education.

cooling off

New York City charter leader Eva Moskowitz says Betsy DeVos is not ‘ready for prime time’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat
Success Academy CEO and founder Eva Moskowitz seemed to be cooling her support for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In New York City, Eva Moskowitz has been a lone voice of support for the controversial U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But even Moskowitz appears to be cooling on the secretary following an embarrassing interview.

“I believe her heart is in the right place,” Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy, said of DeVos at an unrelated press conference. “But as the recent interviews indicate, I don’t believe she’s ready for primetime in terms of answering all of the complex questions that need to be answered on the topic of public education and choice.”

That is an apparent reference to DeVos’s roundly criticized appearance on 60 Minutes, which recently aired a 30-minute segment in which the secretary admits she hasn’t visited struggling schools in her tenure. Even advocates of school choice, DeVos’s signature issue, called her performance an “embarrassment,” and “Saturday Night Live” poked fun at her.  

Moskowitz’s comments are an about-face from when the education secretary was first appointed. While the rest of the New York City charter school community was mostly quiet after DeVos was tapped for the position, Moskowitz was the exception, tweeting that she was “thrilled.” She doubled-down on her support months later in an interview with Chalkbeat.

“I believe that education reform has to be a bipartisan issue,” she said.

During Monday’s press conference, which Success Academy officials called to push the city for more space for its growing network, Moskowitz also denied rumors, fueled by a tweet from AFT President Randi Weingarten, that Success officials had recently met with members of the Trump administration.

Shortly after the election, Moskowitz met with Trump amid speculation she was being considered for the education secretary position. This time around, she said it was “untrue” that any visits had taken place.

“You all know that a while back, I was asked to meet with the president-elect. I thought it was important to take his call,” she said. “I was troubled at the time by the Trump administration. I’m even more troubled now. And so, there has been no such meeting.”