School closings

Indianapolis Public Schools is about to reveal which high schools are likely to close. Here’s what you should know.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
The Indianapolis Public Schools administration is about to announce which high schools they aim to close.

The wait to learn which Indianapolis high schools could close is almost over.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is expected to release his recommendation next week, following an Indianapolis Public Schools report calling for three of its seven high schools to close. The administration recommendation will also include plans for where magnet programs at closed schools could move and what might happen to the vacant buildings.

The board plans to vote on which high schools to close in September. Before a final vote, the district is expected to hold meetings at each of the schools targeted for closure.

The board will meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday at the IPS central office, 120 E. Walnut St. Community members can sign-up online to offer comments.

Here are four things you should know ahead of the decision:

1. Some high schools are (virtually) safe from closure.

Although Ferebee and other district administrators have been close-lipped about which high schools are most likely to close — the list of criteria is so expansive it’s difficult to draw any conclusions — some schools are in far more danger than others.

It would be stunning, for example, if the administration recommended closing Arsenal Technical High School, the district’s largest high school and a hub for career training programs. Other schools seem far more likely to face closure, including the beloved art magnet Broad Ripple High School. The building is expected to be less than 30 percent full this fall and it has the highest per student spending in IPS.

Read Chalkbeat’s analysis of each IPS high school.

2. The effect on current and future students can’t be easily predicted.

The district expects to have more than twice as many seats as there are high school students next year. IPS leaders says closing schools could save more than $4 million per year and allow the district to invest in more advanced classes and career and technical education programs at the four remaining high schools.

But research on how closing high schools affects student outcomes, such as graduation rates, is mixed. Some studies have shown that current students are less likely to graduate when their high school closes. But when the process is executed well and students are given better options, some research has found improved graduation rates for current and future students.

3. Indianapolis Public Schools has been losing high-schoolers for years.

At its peak, IPS had 11 high school buildings serving an average of 2,373 students. This fall, it’s expected to run seven buildings with an average of 763 students each, according to the district closing report.

Families have been leaving Indianapolis Public Schools for suburban, charter and private schools for decades. Over the last 10 years alone, enrollment in IPS high schools has fallen by more than 40 percent, and the decline is even more apparent looking further back. In 1968, the district enrolled 26,107 high school students. Enrollment has drastically declined since then, and the district expects to educate just 5,352 high-schoolers next year.

4. Lots of community members oppose closing high schools.

Whichever high schools district leaders move to close, there is likely to be vigorous community opposition.

Parents, students and alumni have spoken out against closing schools at several contentious district-run meetings in recent weeks and pled with the administration to slow down or come up with an alternative plan. Closing high schools, they said, will leave vacant buildings in neighborhoods, push students to dropout and increase violence, as students from different communities are forced into the same school. Critics even organized their own meeting to oppose closing high schools.

The board will meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday at the IPS central office, 120 E. Walnut St. Community members can sign-up online to offer comments.

Struggling Detroit schools

Scores of Detroit schools are empty eyesores. Here’s why it’s so hard to bring them back to life.

PHOTO: Anna Clark
Blackboards in the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School still hold memories. The school closed in 2009.

The school building that Detroit Prep founder Kyle Smitley is trying — and struggling — to buy for her charter school is far from the only one sitting empty across the city.

A wave of about 200 school closures since 2000 has pockmarked the city with large, empty, often architecturally significant buildings. Some closed schools were repurposed, most often as charter schools; others were torn down. But most remain vacant, although the exact number is unclear.

Vacant schools can become crime hubs or crumbling dangers. But even if that doesn’t happen, they are disheartening reminders of Detroit’s struggle to prioritize education for its children — at the heart of communities where good schools could make a big difference.

Most residents would like to see the buildings come back to life, if not as schools, as something. But even as developers rework other vacant structures, these school buildings are rarely repurposed.

Understanding why illuminates the complexities facing Detroit’s main school district’s effort to get itself back on track.

For one, school district policies — some of which were created to discourage flipping and the opening of charter schools  —  have made selling these buildings difficult.

Smitley, the co-founder of two charter schools, wants to move Detroit Prep into the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School by fall 2018. Detroit Prep opened in 2016 in the basement of an Indian Village church and will eventually serve 430 K-8 students.

“We’d like to be part of a positive story for Detroit, and turn a decrepit building back into a school that serves the neighborhood,” Smitley said.

Smitley is preparing to do a $4 million rehab on a building where flaking paint litters the hardwood floors. Lockers gape open. Natural sunlight floods classrooms where instructions from the last day of school are still chalked on the blackboard: “Spelling Test … George Washington Carver Reading – Timed  … Clean Desks … Take Books.”

Landlord Dennis Kefallinos bought the former Joyce school from the public school district in 2014 for $600,000. The general manager of Kefallinos’ company told Chalkbeat that they planned to repurpose it for residential use when the market seemed right, or wait a few more years to re-sell it for a large profit.

But another challenge of repurposing schools is that their complex layouts and their residential locations far from downtown do not easily adapt to other uses. And the market for former school buildings was flooded with closed public and parochial schools in recent years, which further reduced demand.  

Some developers have transformed empty Detroit schools into apartments, luxury condominiums, or a boutique office building. However, these were former Catholic schools, or, in the case of Leland Lofts, sold to a private developer more than 35 years ago. Catholic schools generally have smaller footprints, which are more manageable to renovate, and they do not have the same deed restrictions as more recently closed public schools.

PHOTO: Anna Clark
The former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School in Detroit closed in 2009.

In the case of Joyce school, Smitley’s persistence and the intervention of a mutual friend convinced the Kefallinos company to sell to Detroit Prep. She agreed to buy the building for $750,000, and to pay the district $75,000 on top of the sales price, per a condition in the original deed.

But the status of the sale is uncertain, as she and the district spar over the law and whether the district can halt the sale of the building — which it no longer owns.

On the northwest side of Detroit,  two Detroiters have been trying for years to buy the former Cooley High School to turn it into a community center, as part of the much-lauded Cooley ReUse Project. This summer, it was crowdfunding the last $10,000 it needed to finally become Cooley’s owners.

But on August 31, the project’s social media account announced that “after meeting with Detroit Public Schools Community District’s (DPSCD) new leadership, it has been confirmed that Thomas M. Cooley High School is no longer for sale. We were told that Cooley will be secured and redeveloped by its current owner, DPSCD.”

Donations are being returned to the contributors. In the meantime, the 322,000-square-foot building is vulnerable to theft and vandalism, destabilizing its northwest Detroit neighborhood.

The Cooley and Joyce schools were built when Detroit schools faced a different challenge: capacity. They opened during the fast-moving period between 1910 and 1930 when 180 new schools were built to keep up with growth. In 1966, the district peaked with 299,962 students. Since then, it has shrunk to fewer than 50,000 students.

No matter who owns a closed school building, its revival depends on its security. Failure to secure it results in profound damage by scrappers, criminals, and natural elements. That will either add millions to the cost of rehabilitation or doom it to demolition. It also threatens the neighborhood.

John Grover co-authored a major Loveland report, spending 18 months investigating 200 years of archives about public schools in Detroit, and visiting every school in the city.

Boarding vacant schools with plywood isn’t enough, he learned. As its buildings were continually vandalized, the district escalated security with welded steel doors and cameras, though even these are vulnerable. Securing a building properly costs about $100,000 upfront, and $50,000 per year ever after, according to the Loveland report. In 2007, it cost the district more than $1.5 million a year to maintain empty buildings.

Chris Mihailovich, general manager of Dennis Kefallinos’ company, said that it hasn’t been cheap to own the empty Joyce building. Taxes are high, security is expensive, grass has to be mowed in summer and snow has to be shoveled in winter.

The Joyce school is in better condition than most, which Grover credits to its dense neighborhood. “At least up until a few years ago, a retired cop lived across the street, and he watched the block and would call in if he saw anything,” Grover said.

But he remembered the fate of one elementary school in east Detroit that was in a stable neighborhood when it closed.

“It became like a hotbed for prostitution and drug dealing,” he said. “There were mattresses stacked in the gymnasium. It definitely had a negative impact on the neighborhood. … I can’t imagine people would want to live around that, and those who could get out did.”

 

School closings

Breaking: High school teachers across Indianapolis Public Schools may need to reapply for their jobs

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

High school teachers across Indianapolis Public Schools may need to reapply for their jobs as part of a district-wide reconfiguration.

That includes teachers at high schools that are remaining open as well as those at schools that will close at the end of this year. The plan was announced to teachers yesterday, less than 24 hours after the IPS board approved a proposal to close three high schools.

The goal is to make sure that teachers are well matched with their schools, said Mindy Schlegel, who heads human resources for the district. Even schools that remain open will dramatically change under the high school reconfiguration plan, she said. They will have new specialized magnet academies and, potentially, new leaders.

“We really wanted to give teachers the opportunity to learn more,” she said, “and find the right fit for them.”

Teachers may not get their first choice position because school leaders will be able to interview and select teachers. But the district doesn’t expect any teachers to lose their jobs, Schlegel said.

But while Schlegel framed the decision as a move to help teachers find jobs they like, union leader Rhondalyn Cornett was concerned it could push educators to leave the district.

“This is like a total disruption at one time,” Cornett said.

Since the announcement, Cornett has received dozens of texts and emails from concerned teachers. Teachers say they feel like they have sacrificed because they love the district, and now they are being treated like they are pawns, she said.

“I mean,” she added, “why wouldn’t they feel like that?”

Under the high school reconfiguration plan approved Monday, Broad Ripple High School and John Marshall Middle School will close. The Northwest and Arlington high school campuses will be converted to middle schools.

Four high schools will remain open: Crispus Attucks, Shortridge, George Washington and Arsenal Technical high schools.

Teachers will have a chance to learn more about the programs and leadership at each high school in October or November, Schlegel said. Then, the human resources department will schedule interviews for teachers at their first choice schools.

“Closing four buildings is a big shakeup, so I’m not sure that we can avoid so much disruption,” she said. “We are really trying to handhold teachers through this process so they land in the right spot.”

Some teachers won’t need to go through the transfer process, including those who have received special training to teach International Baccalaureate courses, arts specialists, life skills teachers and career and technical teachers. Schlegel said some of those educators may switch buildings, but they will stay in the same positions.

Teachers in core content areas, such as English and math, however, will need to go through the application process even if they wish to stay at their current campus.