Future of Schools

Indianapolis Public Schools is closing high schools. Here are the biggest questions facing district leaders.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
High school students across Indianapolis Public Schools are reapplying for school.

This much is certain — Indianapolis Public Schools will be closing high schools. But what precisely the future holds for the district’s secondary students is still uncertain.

The district expects to have more than twice as many high school seats as students by next fall. High school enrollment has been shrinking for decades, but the problem will be even more stark because the administration plans to remove middle school students from high schools.

As Chalkbeat revealed last summer, low enrollment at schools can dramatically push up costs, draining money from classrooms. But closing high schools can put a steep burden on some families, leaving empty buildings where schools once anchored neighborhoods and forcing students to travel further for school.

The district tentatively aims to approve a plan for reconfiguring schools by this fall and to close schools in 2018-2019. A district facilities committee is expected to present recommendations in March.

Here are some of the biggest questions facing district leaders as they plan a new future for high schools:

Should they be neighborhood or magnet schools?

When IPS leaders first started talking about reconfiguring high schools last summer, the administration floated a surprising new idea — converting all of the district high schools to career academies. Modeled on a similar program in Nashville, each school would have one or several areas of focus, such as technology, teaching or the military. Students would choose their high school based on focus area, even if that meant taking a bus across the city.

Last week, however, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee told the board that switching to a system where students could choose any school in the city had practical challenges, including potentially high transportation costs.

If district leaders decide not to switch to career academies, they could eliminate magnet high schools altogether or have a blended approach similar to the current strategy, with some magnet programs and some traditional neighborhood high schools or schools that have both magnet and neighborhood programs.

What high school size is best?

IPS currently has seven high schools, and they vary significantly in size. Crispus Attucks High School can educate 1,375 students, while the Arsenal Technical High School campus has room for 3,000 students. With so many extra buildings, the district has a lot of options when it comes to deciding whether to aim for large or small high schools.

For years, districts across the country experimented with creating smaller high schools, in part as a result of a massive influx of funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. But research didn’t show a significant improvement in graduation rates and more recently, the idea has become less popular. Smaller schools also typically have higher administrative overhead.

It can be harder for staff to build strong relationships with students in large high schools. But if the district had larger schools, they could likely offer more specialized and advanced placement courses.

Will the strategy attract and retain students?

The district is faced with the prospect of closing high schools following years of declining enrollment as students leave for charter, private and township districts. That means there are families who might be attracted to IPS if they like the school options.

Over the last decade, IPS  high schools lost nearly 40 percent of their enrollment, while elementary schools lost just 13 percent of their students. If the district can retain families from elementary through secondary grades, that will help sustain high schools.

Shortridge High School, for example, is less than a quarter full. But district leaders might decide to keep the school open because it has an International Baccalaureate program that follows the district’s popular Center for Inquiry magnet elementary schools.

How much will it save?

The primary aim of closing high schools is to cut overhead costs, so district leaders will likely take the cost of running each building into consideration when they decide which schools to keep open. In a presentation to the board last week, district staff outlined the monthly operating expenses at each building as well as the cost of transportation. There are other practical considerations as well, such as the year each building was built and whether they need significant maintenance.

IPS High School Enrollment Projections 2017-2018
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Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”