schools divided

How charters became the most segregated schools in Indianapolis

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

When Kabrina Merriweather was an elementary student in Indianapolis Public Schools, her school was diverse and so were her friendships — her three closest friends were black, white and Asian.

But in middle school, Merriweather left IPS for a charter school and her classmates started to look a lot more alike.

Merriweather went to middle school in the Tindley charter school network. She thrived in Tindley, which has since grown to a network of five charter schools that consistently earns praise for rigorous standards and high test scores. She played basketball and picked up nearly a year’s worth of college credit.

“It was great,” said Merriweather, who returned last year to teach seventh grade at Tindley Collegiate Academy.

But she no longer sat every day beside children from racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds.

Schools in the Tindley network are among the most racially isolated in Indianapolis. More than nine in 10 Tindley students are black. Fewer than 2 percent are white.

Merriweather, who is African American, noticed that her middle school classmates were almost exclusively black, but it didn’t matter to her, she said.

“I was a nerd,” she said. “I was more into what I was going to learn and what it could offer me.”

READ MORE: Find the entire series here.

Tindley is part of a broad national pattern. Racial segregation has been documented in charter schools across the country. Many have focused on serving low-income kids in black and Hispanic communities, where parents are often dissatisfied with their neighborhood schools.

But as charter schools expand their reach across the country and every year educate a larger share of the nation’s children, the issue of racial segregation has raised significant concerns among integration advocates who warn that it can push low-income students into low-achieving schools and reduce the resources going to high-needs schools.

Even at schools like Tindley that are relatively high performing, critics say graduates will be less prepared to interact with people from different backgrounds later in life.

Tindley says it takes steps to expose its students to children from different backgrounds through partnerships with other schools and through academic competitions. The network says it welcomes all students but school officials note that the Tindley network was founded to serve students in high-needs communities. The school draws most of its students from the heavily black neighborhoods surrounding its schools.

“The students in these neighborhoods are generally the students who are scoring the lowest on the state exams — are the students who aren’t getting the opportunities to go to college,” said Patrick Jones, a former principal and the current director of academics and culture at the network. “It’s not necessarily always because of bad schools. It could be because of poverty.”

And if the school is serving children’s needs, some charter supporters say focusing on integrating charter schools is a distraction.

Chris Stewart, outreach director for Education Post, an advocacy website that supports school choice, said charter schools primarily serve black and Hispanic students because those are the kids who haven’t had access to high-quality education in the past.

“There are many sophisticated ways in which white families get their kids into the type of school that they want,” Stewart said. “Charter schooling has been a boon for black choice and brown choice.”

Supporters of integration, however, say diverse schools can play a role in healing the distrust between people of different races and classes.

There’s strong research that integrated schools improve student outcomes, said University of New Orleans professor Brian Beabout. He helped found an intentionally integrated charter school in New Orleans in part because he wanted to create a place where his children could learn alongside kids from different backgrounds.

“We need to figure out how urban charter schools fit into the broader urban community that they are part of,” Beabout said. “I see the creation of diverse schools as one building, one way that we can start to build empathy for each other and interpersonal contact across these historic divides.”

In Indianapolis, where Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Star and WFYI have been examining segregation and the forces shaping enrollment in a divided city, more IPS elementary schools are segregated today than were before busing began.

But charter schools are even more likely to be isolated by race. Of the 38 charter schools in Indianapolis, nearly half have enrollment that is over 75 percent black.

While one in four charter schools are over 90 percent black, IPS has just two schools where segregation is that extreme.

It’s not clear whether charter schools are making the city’s schools more segregated. But a recent study suggests that when Indianapolis students leave traditional public schools for charter schools, their new schools are less racially diverse.

When researcher Marc Stein looked at the Indianapolis students who transferred from an IPS school to a charter school, he found that families were sending their children to charter schools with more students of the same race. When white kids switched to charter schools, they had an average of 14 percent more white students than their prior schools, and when black kids switched to charter schools, they had an average 9 percent more black students. The only exception was Latino students, who actually switched to charter schools that had lower Latino enrollment, likely because the charter schools studied had very low Latino enrollment at the time of the study.

“Overall, kids were moving to less diverse environments,” said Stein, who was a Vanderbilt University graduate student at the time of the study and now teaches at Johns Hopkins University.

It’s not necessarily surprising that families who are choosing schools end up sending their children to less diverse schools, he said. When the Indianapolis families he studied chose schools, they tended to rely on word of mouth, learning about schools from friends, family and coworkers — communities that are often segregated as well.

“We tend to isolate ourselves with people who look like us, talk like us, have the same experience as us,” Stein said. “If we are making decisions based off of information from people that look like us, that might lead us to environments that are more like us.”

There’s a growing national movement to create integrated schools, and a handful of charter schools in Indianapolis do have integrated enrollment. But Stein said that it takes intentional work to reach out to families in different communities.

It’s not clear that recruiting more racially diverse student bodies is a priority for most Indianapolis charter schools.

The vast majority of the city’s charter schools are authorized by the mayor’s office and overseen by the Indianapolis Office of Education Innovation. Although director Ahmed Young said he values student and staff diversity at schools, he hopes to see schools become more diverse naturally as parents have access to more information through a proposed unified enrollment system.

Reducing segregation is not Young’s first priority.

“The most important thing is making sure that no matter what the composition of a school is, that they are receiving a high-quality education,” he said. “What’s key for me are the outcomes.”

At Irvington Community Schools, one of five majority-white charter schools in the city, school leaders are quick to say that it reflects the neighborhood demographics and welcomes any students who apply. Located on the near east side in a vibrant neighborhood that attracts young middle-class families, about 70 percent of Irvington students are white.

When Irvington opened 14 years ago, the aim was to give families who didn’t want to send their children to IPS an option other than moving out of the district or paying for private school, according to school leaders.

Irvington has done outreach to families by attending school fairs and bringing flyers to a nearby church with a heavily Hispanic congregation. In the past, they’ve put up billboards, sent out mailers and put advertisement in the community newspaper. They recruit high school students from charter elementary and middle schools that serve lots of black and Hispanic students. But they don’t do a lot of marketing.

Irvington, which has a waitlist and school admission lottery every year, primarily attracts families who have heard about the school from other students there, according to CEO Tim Mulherin.

“The people who come to us come to us,” Mulherin said. “We are not looking at color, we are looking at the people that are sitting in the chairs. … Whoever gets in to our school, we are going to educate them, and we are not creating roadblocks to that.”

But simply removing barriers may not be enough to integrate charter schools.

At the charter schools that were successfully integrating in Indianapolis, school leaders worked hard to recruit diverse students, Stein said. They took steps such as hiring Hispanic staff who were bilingual in Spanish and English and already enmeshed in the communities they were aiming to reach.

“It’s about where you put your efforts and what you focus on,” he said. “It’s the type of issue that requires frank, open discussion about what a community values and what it wants its schools to do.”

Indianapolis schools divided

Admissions changes are diversifying Indianapolis Public Schools most popular magnets. Now, the district may go further.

PHOTO: Provided by Indianapolis Public Schools
The magnet priority admission boundaries adopted by Indianapolis Public Schools in 2016.

New rules designed to make Indianapolis Public Schools’ most sought after schools more accessible for low-income families and children of color appear to be working. But with admissions still skewed, the administration is proposing going even further.

Across IPS, just one in five students are white and nearly 70 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for meal assistance. But at three of the district’s most sought after magnet schools, white students fill most of the seats and the vast majority of students come from middle class or affluent families.

At a board meeting last month, district staff highlighted School 60 (the Butler University lab school), School 84 and School 2 (both Center for Inquiry schools) as three schools where seats fill up fast and enrollment doesn’t reflect the demographics of the district.

In a bid to make those schools more accessible for low-income families and children of color, the board changed the admissions rules for magnets last fall. They shrank the boundaries that give priority to families who live near the schools, which is important because the three most popular schools drew from areas with more white, affluent families. And they changed the timeline for magnet admission to allow families to apply later.

“Magnet schools were born out of the civil rights movement and were intended to help school districts to re-integrate,” former-board member Gayle Cosby said at the time. “We want to make sure that magnet schools are not actually serving a different purpose in our district.”

The changes appear to have opened Schools 2, 84 and 60 to more students of color, according to data from the first admission cycle under the new rules. Next year, 32 percent of kindergarteners are expected to be children of color. That’s more than double last year, when just 14 percent of kindergarteners were not white.

But those demographics don’t come close to matching the district, where 72 percent of kindergarteners are children of color.

IPS director of enrollment and options Patrick Herrel said the goal should be for admissions at the most popular magnet schools to reflect district demographics.

“All kids, regardless of background, (should) have an equal chance of accessing some of our highest quality schools,” he said. “We moved in the right direction, but we are absolutely not there yet.”

The changes also aim to make the schools more economically diverse, but the data on income diversity among kindergarteners won’t be available until students complete enrollment and income verification paperwork, according to an IPS official.

District staff say IPS could do more. Last month, they presented the board with a plan to reserve more seats for students who apply late in the cycle. IPS data shows that students who apply later in the spring are more likely to come from low-income families and to be children of color.  

The move would double down on a change made last year, when the district switched from a single admissions lottery in January to three lotteries. Last year, 70 percent of seats were available in the January lottery, but 30 percent were held for lotteries in March and April. The new proposal calls for going further by reserving half the seats at magnet schools for the March and April lotteries.

When the board voted on the change to admissions rules last fall, there was strong momentum behind the move to change magnet lottery rules, following a Chalkbeat and IndyStar series on segregation in schools that found the district’s most popular programs primarily served privileged students. But there was also resistance from some parents, many of whom came from neighborhoods that lost their edge in gaining entry to popular schools.

It’s unclear whether board members will be willing to risk more backlash from parents who have the means to travel to other districts or pay private school tuition. The board did not vote on the latest lottery proposal, and it received mixed feedback.

Board member Diane Arnold said she supports holding more seats for later lotteries when more children of color apply.

“I like the fact that we are looking at playing with those percentages … connecting that to equity and trying to get more children engaged in those programs,” she said.

But board member Kelly Bentley was more skeptical. Equity is important, she said, but if parents don’t know whether their children are admitted to their top choice school until late April, they might choose another school.

“That’s a … loss of a student and a loss of revenue to the district,” she said. “I think we need to be very careful on making any changes.”

Indianapolis schools divided

School districts across the country are breaking apart, but Indianapolis is already divided

PHOTO: EdBuild
The report on school district secession was released Wednesday.

Communities across the U.S. are breaking away from larger urban districts, exacerbating segregation by race and class and draining money from school systems with the highest needs, according to a new report.

“This isn’t a story of one or two communities,” said Rebecca Sibilia, CEO of Edbuild, which released the report Wednesday. “This is about a broken system of laws that fail to protect the most vulnerable students.”

So far, the phenomenon of school district “secession” has largely bypassed Indianapolis, in part because the city’s schools are already separate — 10 districts surround Indianapolis Public Schools. That’s by design: State lawmakers wanted to avoid local backlash, so they chose not to merge school districts when Indianapolis and Marion County unified in 1970 under “Unigov.”

The national report from EdBuild, a nonprofit research group focusing on education funding and inequality, highlights districts across the country that have had some of the most dramatic secessions. A particularly egregious example is when six suburban towns within Shelby County split off from the Memphis school system. In Tennessee, municipalities with at least 1,500 students can secede if a majority of local voters approve.

Unlike Tennessee and other states where secession is common, Indiana law is less friendly to breakaway districts. If a community wants to split from a larger district, they must have the backing of a county committee, the Indiana State Board of Education and 55 percent of local voters, the report said. During that process, state and county officials have to consider how that move would affect school finances.

Since 2000, just one attempt at district secession has occurred within the state. The East Madison school district tried to secede from Anderson Community Schools in 2012, but the move was defeated.

There have not been any efforts for school districts to secede in Marion County, where they are already highly fragmented. In fact, the decision not to unify schools when the city and county merged has had far reaching effects.

As Chalkbeat reported in a story last year, the courts would later call that decision discriminatory, and it was a primary argument a federal judge cited in 1971 when he ordered desegregation busing of IPS students across school district lines into the townships. The program began in 1981 and ended last June.

The judge who ordered the busing, Samuel Dillin, stated bluntly that a merged city that left 11 separate school districts was racially motivated at a time when a majority of the region’s African-American and minority students lived in the city center while the surrounding school districts primarily enrolled white students.

“Unigov was not a perfect consolidation,” then-Mayor Richard Lugar told Chalkbeat. He went on to be one of Indiana’s most legendary political leaders as a six-term U.S. senator. “A good number of people really wanted to keep at least their particular school segregated.”

You can find EdBuild’s interactive graphic here and the entire report here.