When snow days shut down Edison School of the Arts, Penny Guthrie puts the time to good use by recruiting Indianapolis Public Schools sixth-graders who might need a middle school.
“I’ll sit at home and call every single one of them,” said Guthrie, director of advancement and engagement at the school. “Snow days and weekends — because that’s when families are at home.”
The focus on recruiting students to Edison is part of a paradigm shift. As school choices proliferate across Indianapolis, families are no longer simply going to their neighborhood school. This year, about 14,500 students who live in the boundaries of Indianapolis Public Schools have chosen charter or township options. But district leaders are betting that the right school options and recruitment will grow enrollment.
The leaders at Edison, which specializes in visual and performing arts and was previously at School 70, were not always as dedicated to attracting families.
“When I first became a principal, I just thought we were kind of handed kids,” said Nathan Tuttle, who has led the school for more than three years. But then, his school lost two teachers because enrollment was lower than expected. In the years since, Tuttle said, he has taken more responsibility for attracting students. “We work for it,” he said. “We want to keep ourselves alive.”
One reason Tuttle feels more ownership is because Edison leaders chose to convert to an innovation school last fall. As an innovation school, building leaders have full control over daily management and staffing, but enrollment and test scores are still counted under the district umbrella.
Innovation schools have gotten the most attention as an effort to improve some of the district’s lowest performing schools. But the schools can also help boost the district’s enrollment by creating popular new programs — and encouraging school leaders to take ownership of their campuses and recruit new students.
Edison, which enrolls students in kindergarten through eighth grade, has been growing since it moved to a larger campus and added middle school grades two years ago. This year, enrollment grew by almost 13 percent, and the school is just a few students shy of the building’s capacity of about 600.
While enrollment held steady across traditional schools in Indianapolis Public Schools this year, nearly every innovation school in the district saw the number of students they educate grow. At the eight district schools that have converted to innovation status, enrollment grew by more than 7 percent. Some of those students are likely coming from other campuses in Indianapolis Public Schools, but the schools are also attracting new families to the district. At Edison, about 5 percent of students are coming from outside district boundaries, according to Guthrie.
Indianapolis Public Schools board member Kelly Bentley said that as the district creates more innovation schools and ties funding to enrollment, it is encouraging principals like Tuttle to recruit. Ultimately, she said, that’s essential to growing the whole district.
“That’s where you sell people,” she said. “You sell people on a program, not at the district level, not on a billboard.”
The person who leads Edison’s recruitment is Guthrie, whose approach to connecting with families is both straightforward and comprehensive. She visits school fairs, leads campus tours, calls perspective families, and helps parents through every step of the application process.
“I just always do whatever I have to do,” Guthrie said. “If I have to go knock on all the doors in the neighborhood, I will.”
It was that personal attention that helped win over Kori Durham when she was looking for a school for her daughter Ava to start kindergarten. Initially, Durham chose a school in Perry Township. But when her family decided to buy a house in Indianapolis Public Schools boundaries, she began scrambling to find a new school.
When Durham looked at Edison online, she thought it would be a great fit for Ava, who aspires to be a singing corn farmer – Edison has a garden and raises chickens on campus.
But it was Guthrie’s friendliness and help through the application process that won her over.
“She was amazing,” sad Durham. Guthrie offered to give a tour of the campus during the summer, but Durham had already made up her mind. “There was just something about it that made me feel extremely comfortable putting my first kid into their hands.”