School Closings

‘You hate to see it end so soon’: Arlington High School has its final last day of school

PHOTO: Shelby Mullis

The hallways, lined with vacant green lockers, are quiet. The classrooms, once filled by eager high school students, are empty. The auditorium of Arlington High School will soon be consumed with graduating seniors and proud parents.

Thursday was the last day of school for Indianapolis Public Schools. But for students at Arlington High School, it’s a little more final: It’s one of three high schools closing this year as part of a district-wide consolidation.

“It is very bittersweet,” Arlington principal Stan Law said. “You always have to embrace change because it’s a constant, but at the same time, when you pour sweat and tears into building something we built here at Arlington, you hate to see it end so soon. ”

He said the hardest part of the transition will be leaving his students.

“Some of the students will go elsewhere,” said Law, who has been principal there since 2015. “You’ve built relationships with them, with their families. You won’t necessarily see them next year. ”

For Arlington, the closure is the finale of a rocky history over the last six years. It was taken over by the Indiana State Board of Education in 2012 after six years of F grades under Indiana’s A-F grading system, briefly run by a charter operator assigned to turn it around, and returned to the district in 2015.

Now it joins a list of three other district schools closing this year, including Northwest High School, Broad Ripple High School, and John Marshall Middle School. Arlington and Northwest will reopen as middle schools and places for additional services, such as the newcomer program and a night high school.

The Indianapolis Public Schools Board voted to close the schools last September because the district had more than twice as many seats in high schools as students to fill them.

The district estimated it could save more than $7 million by eliminating empty seats and reconfiguring schools.

About 5,000 high school students in the district will be combined at the four remaining campuses — Shortridge High School, Arsenal Technical High School, George Washington High School, and Crispus Attucks High School.

All four remaining schools will be specialized college and career academies in subjects such as business, the arts, and information technology. Students will choose a new school based on a  subject area that interests them. They will complete this program alongside their traditional classwork.

Mareon Sneed will start his senior year this fall at George Washington High School — nearly 15 miles west of Arlington. He had only been at Arlington for a year after moving to Indianapolis from Muskegon, Michigan.

He was still adjusting to a new life at Arlington, so choosing another new high school didn’t come easy.

Sneed chose to follow his former principal to George Washington. Law will take over there as principal, replacing Emily Butler. This is Law’s 17th year in a district leadership position.

“It was hard at first,” Sneed said. “But it eventually got easier because I realized I didn’t want to leave the new friends I made and the new people I’ve met. I didn’t want to start all over.”

PHOTO: Shelby Mullis
Juniors Leyha Jones, Brennon Sneed and Mareon Sneed pose in the nearly-vacant Arlington High School library. Arlington is one of three Indianapolis high schools closing after Thursday.

For Brennon Sneed, Mareon’s cousin, the decision of a new school comes at a more personal cost. Brennon Sneed has been Law’s student since seventh grade. Now, the two are parting ways.

He said Law and other administrators had a large impact on his life. Sometimes they would pull him aside to talk when they saw him making bad decisions.

“They helped me grow into a better person,” he said. “I’d be in trouble somewhere if I didn’t have anybody tell me not to do this or not to do that.”

Brennon Sneed will finish his high school career at Lawrence North High School where he’ll play football. Football and academics were deciding factors in his decision to enroll there, he said.

Leyha Jones, a junior, said she has until July to decide what school she wants to attend this fall. She is basing her decision off what she hopes to do in the future and the programs each school offers, whether it be law or media communications.

“It’s just difficult leaving family because you’ve built a relationship with the administrators and friends and different people you meet,” Jones said. “It’s difficult to leave them and go to a different school where you barely know people, especially during our senior year. It’s the most important year. It’s difficult starting all over.”

Correction: June 7, 2018: A previous version of this story said Mareon Sneed and Brennon Sneed are not related. They are cousins.

appeals

Will charter schools rebuffed in Chicago find a savior in the state? Why the outlook is iffy.

At Moving Everest Charter School one recent morning, first-grade teacher Alexis Collins gestured proudly at her room of 15 students, all wearing oversize headphones and quietly peering at laptop screens loading a math program that would launch them into elementary computer programming.

“We start them off with coding, so by the time they are in eighth grade, they’ll know what a person with an associate’s degree would know,” Collins said.

The school is so confident that its controversial personalized learning program will help raise up children from struggling neighborhoods that its directors proposed opening a second campus.

But the Chicago school board, perhaps recognizing the shifting political tide, denied the proposal from Everest and two others seeking to open new charters, despite lobbying by supportive parents.

Now Moving Everest is pinning its hopes on an appeal to the Illinois State Charter Commission.

Another charter applicant also plans to appeal: Kemet Leadership Academy, which proposed a middle school for at-risk boys in Englewood. So do the operators of Kwame Nkrumah Academy, which the Chicago district ordered closed at the end of the school year.

Appeal plans are uncertain for two others: charter applicant Intrinsic, which sought to replicate its Level 1-plus campus with another citywide high school, and Urban Prep West, whose school was ordered closed. Neither Instrinsic nor Urban Prep West responded to requests for comment.

The state established the charter agency in 2011 to ensure quality in charter schools, and granted it the power to override local school boards’ rulings. Since then, charter school operators have regarded the state charter commission as a lifeline protecting them from hostile local school boards.

Its history with Chicago is contentious. The commission has overruled Chicago Public Schools  to approve opening two charter schools and to reopen four charters closed by the district — one of which later shut down. The state agency oversees and funds five charter schools now operating in Chicago.

Opponents chafe at the commission’s ability to override local decisions.

But circumstances have changed. The commission’s future is far from certain, meaning that charters rejected this month could have only a small window to win commission support before the administration, and possibly policies, change in Springfield.

Chicago tried to curb the commission’s authority by backing a state bill that would have stripped it of its right to reverse school district decisions. The bill passed, but Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed it last spring, and the Illinois Senate failed to override the veto.

But incoming governor J.B. Pritzker has pledged to place a moratorium on charter school expansion. His position on the charter commission is unclear. He earlier told Chalkbeat that good charter schools are “worthy of support” but that adequate funding for district schools should come before “expanding the opportunity for people to start charters.”

Now legislators have introduced a package of bills to rein in charter schools. Among other things, they would cap charter school expansion in financially struggling districts like Chicago and bar for-profit companies from running charters.

Could Everest win approval in time? Charter operators have 30 days from a denial to file an appeal. Then the commission has 75 days to rule.

The school hasn’t yet filed an appeal. But Michael Rogers, the founder of Moving Everest, said he isn’t ready to give up on expanding his school’s mission.

He’s not deterred by Everest’s Level 2-plus rating, not a stellar rank, from Chicago Public Schools.

He said that the school offers a unique learning environment. It also provides for its students in other ways, including offering dental and eye care.

“How do we interrupt the cycle of children growing up in this neighborhood who have a challenging instructional environment?” Rogers asked, adding he will tell the commission about the importance of investing in a struggling community.

In Austin, one of the city’s most under-invested neighborhoods, the large gray-and-green buildings that house Moving Everest school and its partner after-school “Christ-centered” program, By The Hand, stand our starkly against the nearby empty lots, run-down strip malls, and train tracks.

“We are thankful that the charter commission lives on, at least for the time being,” Rogers said. “We do believe that we have a strong school academically, financially. Our model is such that the community has spoken very loudly about or school.”

Indiana A-F grades

Indiana looks to ditch two A-F grades. Here’s how the feds would measure schools instead

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
First-grade students on the first day of school this year.

Confused by your school’s two letter grades? Some Indiana education officials are trying to change that.

Officials are proposing that the state scrap one of its two school A-F grades, a move they say will clarify for educators, parents, and community members how a school has performed.

“It was causing a lot of confusion,” said state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. “I think schools will be pleased.”

The Indiana Department of Education will instead ask federal officials to approve an updated school rating system under its plan to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, which relies on four categories — exceeds, meets, approaches, and does not meet expectations — rather than letter grades. The state, however, will continue to assign A-F grades to schools as part of its own grading system.

Read: Indiana has a curious plan to sidestep federal rules — give schools two A-F grades next year.

The changes to the grades represent an attempt to get past the limited scope grades offer, McCormick said. It’s also an acknowledgement that Indiana lawmakers and state board of education members have opposed combining the state and federal grading model into one, despite urging from McCormick and other educators and experts.

“I over-assumed and underestimated the desire to take ESSA as seriously as we were,” McCormick said. “Our goal was not to have two (school grades), but we can control that obviously easier on our end.”

While the revisions would mean that schools across the state would get one grade, there would still be two yardsticks against which their test scores and other achievement data will be measured — one that meets federal law, and one that meets state law. The two ratings have different consequences for schools. The state grade would determine where a school falls on the timeline for state intervention, and the federal rating would count under rules for identifying struggling schools and those that govern Title I funding.

An education department spokesman said the state is submitting its revisions to the federal government in January and hopes to hear a response by April or May. If approved, the new model would be used for 2019 ratings, typically released in the fall.

In addition to removing the A-F grade labels, the federal plan would also change the components of the rating. Currently, federal grades are based on data from five areas — six for high schools, which report graduation rate — that still draw mainly from test scores. New to Indiana are factors that measure the fluency of students learning English as a new language and chronic absenteeism. Those aren’t included in state grades, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

The updated version would keep most of the above factors, but remove data on course and credential completion and add a component measuring the share of students who graduate with the state’s Core 40 diploma, as well as another that focuses on test score gaps between students from different backgrounds.

Although the new ratings would still be based mostly on test scores — a requirement of federal law — they would involve more information that educators say offers a better and more fair picture of how schools are doing.

“I absolutely love it,” said Steve Baker, principal at Bluffton High School. “The letter grades have run their course — they are truly not an accurate description of what’s happening in a school.”

Baker said that unlike grades, the ratings aren’t as punitive and might not emphasize as starkly the disparities between schools in more affluent communities and those that serve more students from low-income families.

Also, different ratings could give parents more insight when choosing schools, he said. Just knowing that an “A” school is rated higher than a “B” school, without understanding what plays into those grades — which stem mainly from test scores and have been criticized for not including enough students or accounting for gaps between students from different backgrounds — isn’t going far enough, he said.

Baker said he hopes lawmakers and state board of education members consider working the ESSA changes into the state’s grading system, which after a delay, is currently under review by the state board of education.

McCormick was less confident other state leaders would lend their support. Although the education department is the state’s liaison with federal officials and doesn’t need approval to make changes to its ESSA plan, it can be helpful to have broader support, she said.

“It’s time for us to start working together,” Baker said. “Not being on the same page does not help the students of Indiana.”