School Closings

To keep Indianapolis high schools from closing, advocates encourage Northwest parents to tell school board: “Don’t sell off our district”

PHOTO: Hafsa Razi
IPS alumna Carrie Harris speaks at a meeting at Northwest High School.

Advocates against Indianapolis Public Schools’ plans to close Northwest High School, and three others in the district, issued a call to action for parents at Northwest – don’t take this closing lying down.

“We need you to start fighting for your young people,” Carrie Harris, an alumna of Crispus Attucks, told parents at Northwest on Wednesday night.

About 40 people attended Wednesday’s meeting, including Northwest students, family members, and several teachers, who said at the beginning of the meeting they would not speak to the press for fear of repercussions from the district.

Members of the IPS Community Coalition and other opponents of the school closings were also present. The coalition brings together religious groups such as Concerned Clergy of Indianapolis, education advocacy groups like Parent Power, as well as individual parents, educators, and concerned residents in the IPS district.

PHOTO: Hafsa Razi
IPS Community Coalition member Christina Smith urged parents to protest the school closing plan at upcoming IPS board meetings.

Along with answering questions about the proposed conversion of Northwest into a middle school, coalition members urged parents to voice their concerns at the IPS school board meeting at Northwest, which will be held on August 31. Facing low enrollment in IPS high schools, the school board will vote in September on the plan to close John Marshall and Broad Ripple high schools, and convert Arlington and Northwest into middle schools in the 2018-2019 school year.

“As parents we need to let them know, don’t sell off our district,” said coalition member and IPS parent Christina Smith.

Harris said she and her husband talked to several IPS board members who hadn’t made up their minds about the closing and wanted to hear more from parents, not just alumni like Harris.

“What we haven’t had, we haven’t had the parents come and stand up,” Harris said. “I will be there standing with you but you need to be there standing for your student.”

One Northwest parent, Patricia Starks, said she felt the district hasn’t been listening to what parents want.

“My son has been going here since seventh grade, this is all he knows. This year, he’s a junior, he’s doing excellent,” she said. “If they close Northwest, his senior year, he has to go somewhere else. He has to start all over, learning the teachers, the culture, everything.”

PHOTO: Hafsa Razi
Patricia Starks, whose son attends Northwest, said she’s concerned about where her son will go for his senior year if the school closes.

Before leaving the meeting, Starks signed up on a laptop to speak at the school board meeting next week.

Coalition members also spoke out against the expansion of innovation schools in IPS and the personal and financial ties of some board members to organizations that promote charter schools. Innovation schools are part of IPS but they are run by nonprofits or charter operators and their teachers are not employed by the district and aren’t part of the district’s union.

“Board members aren’t listening to parents because that’s not the voices they hear. They hear the voices of these groups like Stand for Children,” Smith said.  Stand for Children Indiana is a parent organizing group that often advocates for innovation schools. Stand also has endorsed and campaigned heavily for several current IPS board members.

Coalition members also argued that IPS has not considered any of the alternatives to closing these high schools, such as selling off the central office downtown for extra cash, placing community resources like health clinics in the unused wings of buildings with low enrollment, and committing to having high schools with small populations.

After the meeting, another parent, who did not want to be named, said she has very little idea about where her three children, in grades 11, 9, and 8, will go if Northwest closes. Her family immigrated from Nigeria last year, and she speaks limited English.

She said she currently walks her children to school, but appeared confused about how they would get to another school if Northwest closes – she doesn’t have a car to drive them to a school in another district, and she was unaware that IPS plans to provide buses to take students downtown.

The parent, and her older daughter who attended the meeting but does not go to Northwest, said Northwest is popular among the other families who live in their neighborhood, including many who came to the United States from Nigeria and other countries.

“Everybody goes to Northwest,” the daughter said. “… When we moved in, they said, come here, because they really liked this school.”

Census data show that nearly a quarter of residents in Northwest’s ZIP code area were born in other countries, and 35 percent speak a language other than English at home – about three times the rates in Indianapolis overall. IPS also plans to move its newcomer program, for recent immigrant students who don’t speak English, to Northwest if it converts to a middle school.

The mother said her children are doing well and they like their teachers; she does too. But despite her desire to keep her children at Northwest for high school, when asked if she would protest the closing at the school board meeting next week, she simply shook her head.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that fact that Stand for Children Indiana no longer donates directly to school board campaigns. The group does endorse and campaign on behalf of candidates. The update also clarifies that Stand often advocates for innovation schools. 

School choice

Secret CPS report spotlights big vacancies, lopsided options for students

The Kids First Chicago website

An unreleased report by a school choice group backed by the business community paints in stark detail what many Chicagoans have known for years: that top academic schools are clustered in wealthier neighborhoods, and that fewer black and Latino students have access to those schools.

The report highlights startling figures: About 27 percent of black students are in the district’s lowest-rated schools, compared with 8 percent of Latino students and 3 percent of whites. It also says that while Chicago Public Schools has more than 150,000 unfilled seats, 40 percent, or 60,000 of them, are at top-ranked schools. That surplus will grow as enrollment, which has been plummeting for years, is projected to decline further by 5.1 percent over the next three years to about 350,000. What that means is the cash-strapped district is moving toward having nearly one extra seat for every two of its students.

The document effectively shows that, in many areas of the city, students are skipping out on nearby options, with less than half of district students attending their designated neighborhood schools.

In a city still reeling from the largest mass school closure in U.S. history, this report could lay groundwork for another round of  difficult decisions.

Secret Report
The school district says the report will help inform how it invests in and engages with communities. Communities groups worry the document will be used to justify more school closings, turnarounds and charters.

The “Annual Regional Analysis” report, compiled by the group Kids First Chicago on CPS’ behalf, has been circulating among select community groups but has not been made public. It comes on the heels of a report showing students’ high school preferences vary with family income level. Students from low-income neighborhoods submit more applications than students from wealthier ones and apply in greater numbers for the district’s charter high schools.

The group behind the latest report has had many iterations: Kids First is a new name, but its origins date back to 2004, when it started as the charter fundraising group Renaissance Schools Fund. That was during the Renaissance 2010 effort, which seeded 100 new schools across the city, including many charters. The group changed its name to New Schools Chicago in 2011 and again rebranded this year as Kids First, with a greater focus on parent engagement and policy advocacy.

The report has caused a stir among some community groups who’ve seen it. Because the school district has used enrollment figures to justify closing schools, some people are worried it could be used to propose more closings, turnarounds, and charter schools.

“To me this is the new reason [for school closings],” said Carolina Gaeta, co-director of community group Blocks Together, which supports neighborhood schools. “Before it was academics, then it was utilization, now it’s going to be access and equity. Numbers can be used any way.”

In a statement on the report, Chicago Teachers Union Spokeswoman Christine Geovanis blasted Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration for policies that she alleged “undermine enrollment at neighborhood schools,” such as the proliferation of charter schools, school budget cuts, and building new schools over the objection of community members.

Reached by phone Thursday, Kids First CEO Daniel Anello confirmed that his organization helped put the report together, but declined to comment on its contents, deferring to the district. CPS Spokeswoman Emily Bolton acknowledged the report’s existence in a statement emailed to Chalkbeat Chicago that said the school district “is having conversations with communities to get input and inform decisions” about where to place particular academic programs. The statement said CPS is still in the process of drafting a final version of the document, but gave no timetable. Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office didn’t grant requests for interviews about the Annual Regional Analysis.

Below is a preview of the report provided to Chalkbeat Chicago.

Gaps in access to arts and IB programs

Data released this week from the district’s GoCPS universal high school application clearly shows what academic programs are most in demand: selective enrollment programs that require children to test in;  arts programs; and career and technical education offerings, or CTE.

The Kids First’s analysis puts those findings into context, however, by detailing how supply is geographically uneven, especially when it comes to arts. Maps in the report divide the city into regions defined by the city’s planning department and show how highly-desirable arts programs are not spread equally throughout the city, and are most concentrated along the northern lakefront and downtown.

PHOTO: Sam Park
This map shows the number of fine & performing arts program seats available per 100 elementary school students in each planning area.

Worse, four regions offer 10 or fewer arts seats per 100 students, including the Bronzeville/South Lakefront region that includes neighborhoods such as Woodlawn, Kenwood, Hyde Park, Washington Park and Bronzeville. They are also scarce in the West Side region, which includes Austin, Humboldt Park and North Lawndale, in the Far Northwest neighborhoods of Belmont Cragin, Dunning, and Portage Park, and in the Northwest Side area, home to neighborhoods like West Ridge and Albany Park.

The report also shows an imbalance in the number of rigorous International Baccalaureate programs.

This map shows the number of IB program seats per 100 students available to elementary and high school students in each planning area.

The highest number of IB seats are in the wealthy, predominately white and affluent Greater Lincoln Park area, which includes the Near North Side, Lakeview, and Lincoln Park. In contrast, there are far fewer IB seats in predominantly black communities such as  Englewood and Auburn Gresham, in the predominantly Latino Back of the Yards, and in the mostly black and Latino community of Ashburn. All of those communities are in the South Side planning region.

When it comes to selective-enrollment elementary school programs such as gifted centers and classical schools, which require students to pass entrance exams, options tend to be concentrated, too, with fewer choices on the South and West sides of the city. This map shows where selective enrollment high school options are most prevalent:

PHOTO: Sam Park
This map shows the number of selective enrollment high school seats available per 100 students in the city’s planning regions.

STEM programs are more evenly distributed across Chicago than both IB and selective enrollment schools, yet whole swaths of the city lack them, especially on the South Side, including the Greater Stony Island region, which includes far South Side neighborhoods like Roseland, Chatham, Greater Grand Crossing and South Shore. As the other maps show, that region lacks most of the high-demand academic programs the district has to offer.

PHOTO: Sam Park
This map shows the number of STEM program seats available per 100 elementary school students.

Racial disparities in school quality

The analysis also shows disparities in quality of schools, not just variety.

At CPS, 65 percent of students districtwide are enrolled at Level 1-plus or Level 1-rated schools. But only 45 percent of black students and 72 percent of Latino students are in those top-rated seats, compared with 91 percent of white students.

The disparities are even more severe given that the school district is mostly Latino and black, with fewer than one in 10 students identified as white. 

A page from a presentation of the Annual Regional Analysis showed to select community groups.

In the Greater Lincoln Park region, 100 percent of elementary schools have one of the top two ratings — the highest concentration of them in the city.  The highest concentration of top-rated high school seats, 91 percent, is in the Central Area, which includes Downtown and the South Loop.

The lowest concentration of top-rated elementary seats, 35 percent, is in the Near West Side region, and the lowest concentration of high school seats, 14 percent, is in the West Side region.

Long commutes from some neighborhoods

The number of students choosing schools outside their neighborhood boundaries has increased in recent years.

But the report shows that school choice varies by race: 44 percent of black students attend their neighborhood elementary school, compared with 67 percent of Latino students, 69 percent of white students, and 66 percent of Asian students. For high schoolers, only 14 percent of black students attend their neighborhood school, compared with 28 percent of Asians, 30 percent of Latinos, and 32 percent of whites.

More students enrolling outside their neighborhood attendance boundaries means more and more students have longer commutes, but how far they travel depends on their address. 

Again, this is an area where the Greater Stony Island area stands out.

A graphic from the Annual Regional Analysis executive report that shows how far elementary school students in each of the city’s 16 planning regions travel from their homes to school. The data shows that students on the South and West Sides tend to have longer commutes.

The average distance traveled for elementary school students is 1.5 miles — but K-8 students in Greater Stony Island travel an average of 2.6 miles. The average distance to class for high schoolers citywide is 2.6 miles, but students in the Greater Stony Island region travel an average of 5 miles, about twice the city average. 

A graphic from the Annual Regional Analysis executive report that shows how far high school students in each of the city’s 16 planning regions travel from their homes to school. The data shows that students on the South and West Sides tend to have longer commutes.

Looking forward

The introduction to the Annual Regional Analysis describes it as “a common fact base” to understand the school landscape. It clearly states the intent of the report is to assist with district planning, not to provide recommendations.

It still bothers Wendy Katten, founder of Raise Your Hand, who has seen the report and said it tells little about how kids are actually learning at schools.

“It sounds like some data a company would use to reduce inventory at a manufacturing plant,” she said.

Gaete with Blocks Together said the numbers in the report are also missing important context about how the proliferation of charter schools, a lack of transparent and equitable planning, and a lack of support for neighborhood schools in recent decades has exacerbated school quality disparities across race and neighborhoods in Chicago, one of the nation’s most diverse but segregated cities.

It’s unclear when the final study will be published, or how exactly the school district will use its contents to inform its decisions and conversations with communities.

But an event posting on the website for Forefront, a membership association for “nonprofits, grantmakers, public agencies, advisors, and our allies,” mentions a briefing for the report on Oct. 10.

Kids First Chicago CEO Dan Anello and CPS Director of Strategy Sadie Stockdale Jefferson will share the report there, according to the website.

School Closings

An Indianapolis high school doubled in size after 3 schools closed. Here’s how it’s coping.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Orchestra and other music offerings have expanded at Shortridge.

In the hours before the first week at Shortridge High School came to a close, about 20 students in the advanced choir class were dashing back and forth across the room. On one side of the classroom, the aim was to guess which student held the key. On the other, it was to pass the key in secret.

For teacher Daria Weingartner, however, the goal of this game had little to do with singing. Rather, it was about bringing together a class with students who’ve come from high schools across the city.

Last school year, Shortridge had fewer than 450 students. This fall, enrollment swelled to more than 1,000, following the closure of three of Indianapolis Public School’s other high school campuses. As a result, Shortridge educators like Weingartner spent their first week trying to build a sense of community at a school where about two-thirds of students are new — including many of the upperclassmen in the advanced choir class.

“It’s OK that we’re all coming from different places,” Weingartner said. “But we’re here now, and we need to build that sense of community and family.”

Weingartner herself is new to Shortridge. She’s been teaching for seven years, but last year, she worked at Warren Central High School.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
The Shortridge choir was focused on community building games Friday afternoon.

When Shortridge Principal Shane O’Day learned last fall that the historic midtown high school would stay open and three other district high schools would close, he almost immediately began looking for more teachers. At high schools across the district, 418 educators were displaced during the restructuring. Over the past several months, Shortridge — preparing to welcome hundreds more students and to house Broad Ripple High School’s displaced arts programs — hired about 60 new staff members, O’Day said.

This fall, the school added classes in some subjects, such as dance, sculpture, and photography, and it expanded offerings in others, such as music and theater.

The change is part of a broad restructuring that is transforming high schools in the state’s largest district. Last year, Indianapolis Public Schools officials shuttered three of the seven campuses in the district. The redesign was intended to help the district save money, by closing underused campuses and creating larger schools, and to improve academic quality at the four remaining schools. The district also added new focus areas — such as health sciences, business, and construction — eliminated neighborhood boundaries for high school, and encouraged students to choose schools based on their interests.

The changes at high schools could be just the beginning for the district, which may soon be forced to close more than a dozen additional schools to save money.

Shortridge expanded from a dedicated magnet for International Baccalaureate, which allows students to earn college credits in high school. It continues to offer I.B. diplomas, but there are also students focusing on the arts. Students can take courses in both focus areas, regardless their specialization, according to O’Day.

Ultimately, Shortridge staff are focused on creating a school culture that is welcoming of students regardless of where they come from, O’Day said.

“When we talk about culture, it’s a lot of listening,” he said. “When you allow students themselves to share their stories — talk about their backgrounds, their passions, their interests, their hopes, what they want to do to make their world a better place — that’s exciting.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Shortridge is expanding arts offerings, including by offering dance classes.

Sophomore Shayna Bailey is one of the students who will likely benefit from the school’s increasingly diverse academic offerings. A self-described “choir and drama girl” in Weingartner’s choir class, Bailey is also in her second year in the Shortridge I.B. program.

This year, the school is a lot more crowded, she said. But “I’m a very social person, so it just means a lot more friends for me,” Bailey said. “I get to learn more things about new people.”

For the students who are new to the school, the transition can be more challenging.

Senior Marqueshia Allen was so nervous about her first day at Shortridge, she thought about skipping altogether. She had been a student at Broad Ripple High School since she was in sixth grade. She was devastated when that school was closed and she realized she would have to transfer for her senior year.

But Allen was determined to find the good in her new school. By Friday of her first week, she was at ease at Shortridge.

What stands out is how welcoming teachers and students have been, she said. “Everybody is so open. They are willing to help you out,” Allen said. “It’s actually been amazing.”