Future of Schools

After years of gains, most IPS high schools see dips in graduation rates

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Students outside Arsenal Technical High School.

Arsenal Technical High School had been one of Indianapolis’s graduation success stories, as the percentage of its seniors graduating jumped 15 percentage points over two years. But scores released last week showed that improvement came to an abrupt halt in 2018, with the graduation rate tumbling by more than 7 percentage points.

The high school was one of five Indianapolis Public Schools campuses that had declines of more than 3 percentage points, dealing a crushing blow to one of the district’s signature academic achievements. Only two high schools saw improvements in their graduation rates, and another remained steady.

The declines come after a tumultuous year for the district’s high schoolers. In an effort to reorganize its high school program after decades of enrollment declines, district leaders closed three of the seven high schools it manages, including Northwest, which had an 8 percentage point drop.

When the state initially released data last week, the graduation rate for the whole district appeared to be down about 3 percentage points. But it held steady at about 82 percent when the state revised the figure to include students from Herron High School, a charter school with a high graduation rate that joined the district’s innovation network last year.

Interim-superintendent Aleesia Johnson said she couldn’t pinpoint a single reason for the drop but she said that one factor was instability caused by high school closings.

“Ultimately, I think, that transition, some schools were able to as a team sort of get through that in a way that produced more stability then what we saw in others,” Johnson said.

Arsenal Technical was not among the schools slated for closure, but it had its own upheaval. Two leaders that spearheaded the effort to improve graduation rates left, including the award-winning principal and the graduation coach.

The decline in the percentage of seniors graduating high schools managed by IPS is a reversal for the district, which had experienced five years of gains and an overall 17 percentage point boost in its graduation rate.

The rise in graduation rates had been a source of pride for outgoing superintendent Lewis Ferebee, who is awaiting confirmation to lead Washington, D.C., public schools.

A district spokesperson pointed to several areas where the graduation rate improved, including among special education students and students who are learning English.

This year, the district is taking steps that Johnson expects to help boost graduation rates. Principals are regularly meeting with other staff, including Johnson, to look closely at graduation projections earlier in the year.

“Where are we with our cohort for 2019? What are the steps we are taking to make sure every student gets across the finish line?” Johnson said.

The district also rolled out new freshman academies, a program that was piloted at Crispus Attucks High School last year. The aim is to begin monitoring whether students are on track to graduate as soon as they enter high school.

Future of Schools

The political arm of the Indy Chamber spent $100,000 on the IPS board election and referendums

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat

The largest donors to Indianapolis Public Schools board candidates were two local political groups with competing visions for the district’s future.

The political action committee affiliated with the Indy Chamber gave close toe $50,000 to three school board candidates — an investment that only helped them win one seat — according to annual campaign finance disclosures released this week.

The donations come at a time when the local chamber of commerce is increasingly entwined with the district. The business group formed a partnership with the district in September to help implement a cost-cutting plan, which was the culmination of months of negotiations. The chamber, in turn, was an influential backer of two referendums that helped raise funds for the district. In addition to vocally supporting the tax measures, the political action committee gave more than $50,000 to that campaign.

The candidates that the chamber supported were all endorsed by Stand for Children, a parent organizing group that supports strategies such partnerships with charter operators. All three candidates were seen as allies of former-superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration.

The referendums passed easily, but the chamber was not as successful when it came to the school board. Only one of the contenders they backed, Evan Hawkins, won a seat. Incumbents Mary Ann Sullivan and Dorene Rodríguez Hoops were defeated. The group’s contributions included cash and in-kind donations such as consulting.

The largest donor in the race was the political arm of the state teachers union, which contributed $68,400 to three candidates who all expressed criticism of Ferebee’s administration, as Chalkbeat reported in October. That group backed Michele Lorbieski, who lost to Hawkins, as well Susan Collins and Taria Slack, who defeated incumbents to win seats on the board.

The latest disclosures do not capture the full spending on the election. The three candidates endorsed by Stand for Children Indiana —Sullivan, Hoops, and Hawkins — likely received significant unreported benefits. The group typically sends mailers and hires campaign workers to support the candidates it endorses. But it is not required to disclose all of its political activity because it is an independent expenditure committee.

Here are some of the most notable contributions from campaign disclosures:

IPS referendums

The Vote Yes for IPS campaign, which supported the referendums for additional funding for the school system, raised more than $397,000 last year. By far the largest donor was Stand for Children, which donated nearly $328,000.


Susan Collins, who won her school board election, raised nearly $17,000. The bulk of that money came from a $15,000 contribution from the Indiana Political Action Committee for Education.

Incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan, who lost to Collins, raised almost $34,000. That included more than $14,000 from the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, $5,000 from Reid Hoffman (a LinkedIn co-founder known for political spending), and $2,000 from Laurene Powell Jobs.

A third at-large candidate, Joanna Krumel, who also lost to Collins, raised $200.

District 3

Evan Hawkins, who won a seat, raised nearly $35,000. That included about $14,000 from the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee and $1,000 Jonathan Hage, CEO of Charter Schools USA.

Michele Lorbieski, who lost to Hawkins, raised almost $28,000, primarily from a $24,900 contribution from the Indiana Political Action Committee for Education.

A disclosure for Sherry Shelton, who also lost to Hawkins, has not been posted by the Marion County Election Board. Her latest disclosure showed she raised had raised $1,763, primarily from money she contributed.

District 5

Taria Slack, who won the election, raised nearly $30,000, including a $28,500 contribution from the Indiana Political Action Committee for Education.

Incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, who lost to Slack, raised almost $41,000. That included more than $20,000 from the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, and $5,000 from Hoffman.

Civics lesson

Water fountains, a march, and dreams: Brooklyn kindergartners learn about the civil rights movement ahead of MLK day

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Kindergartners at New American Academy Charter School in Canarsie learned about the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. by staging a peaceful march in the school hallway.

A dozen kindergartners held picket signs and marched down their third floor hallway, chanting about Martin Luther King Jr., “He was great, and he was good. He taught peace and brotherhood.”

Stopping in front of the nearest water fountain, one student taped to the wall a sign that, in child’s penmanship, read “White Only.”

“Did people get punished for drinking out of the wrong water fountain?” asked their teacher, Diamond Mays.

“Yes,” several of the children, all of whom are black, responded.

How, Mays asked, did black people who couldn’t use certain water fountains feel, especially on a hot day?



This scene on Thursday was one of several exercises the kindergartners at New American Academy Charter School in Canarsie participated in ahead of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Each year, the school commemorates the day with lessons or activities tailored to each grade.

Since the students are so young, teachers have mostly focused on King’s promotion of peace and his legacy, rather than the more violent aspects of the American civil rights movement, said Fatima Toure, a kindergarten teacher at the school. It’s part of the school’s model to promote King’s vision and ideology, which is what “we want for our students,” said Lisa Parquette, the school’s headmaster.

The activities at New American are one slice of what schools across the city are doing to teach their students about King ahead of the national holiday, which marks when the civil rights leader would have turned 90. Brooklyn’s PS 261 participated in an annual march to Borough Hall. P.S. 770 in Brooklyn will hold a volunteering event Monday to commemorate the holiday, which children have off from school.

Toure said the activities also appeal to students’ natural curiosity. “They seem more curious as to, you know, why it was happening because I believe they just heard about Martin Luther King, but they didn’t really understand what he did,” Toure said. “They would ask questions about why African Americans have to sit in the back of the bus, why was everything separated, why were there colored signs in certain places.”

Since kindergartners do better with visuals, school leaders chose the march and water fountain activity so they could actually see slices of what life was like before and during the civil rights movement, Toure said.

Over the past week, kindergarten classes reviewed a few readings about King. With a teacher’s help, they wrote about the ideas King pioneered that left an impact on their daily lives.

A guest speaker visited students on Tuesday and answered questions about segregation and King’s biography.

They learned key terms like segregation and Jim Crow and helped make their “protest” signs featuring facts about the civil rights movement.

“Jim Crow laws legalized racial segregation,” one kindergartener read proudly from her sign before their march.

After the march, the students returned to their classroom to share their dreams (with inspiration from King’s “I Have A Dream” speech). Several of the children, a little confused by the lesson, wished that black and white people could use the same water fountains, and their teacher gently reminded them that this was already the case. One girl hoped to “get more big and grow up.”

Then it was Nathan’s turn.

“My dream is white and black people can come together,” he said.