The day was over at School 31. Students had gone home, and the parking lot was nearly empty. But a dozen children were outside — training for football, walking a dog, and sitting on the swing set.
For years, the playground at the Bates-Hendricks elementary school had been locked outside of school hours. But this spring, the interim principal opened the gates to the neighborhood so children and families, even those who aren’t students, are welcome to play.
Opening up the playground may seem like a small gesture, but it’s just one tactic in a mounting campaign to attract new families and perhaps determine the future of the Indianapolis Public Schools campus. As Bates-Hendricks has gentrified, with rental housing being rehabbed and sold to young couples, School 31 has seen its enrollment dip to about 350 students, nearly 40% fewer students than it had three years ago.
“The building went from being overflowing to empty classrooms,” Michele Whaley, a social worker who has since left the school, said at a recent meeting. “We want all our classrooms back full again — desperately.”
In part, the declining enrollment is simply a demographic shift. Families with school-aged children who previously rented are being pushed out, and many of the middle-class homeowners who have moved in don’t have school-aged children. But residents say many of those that do are choosing to send their children to charter, magnet, and private schools instead of School 31, a neighborhood school also known as James Garfield that serves kindergarten through eighth grade.
School and neighborhood leaders are trying to stem the tide and persuade parents of young children to send them to School 31. And part of their plan is simply to open the school up to the community and give people a chance to see what it’s like. That means holding meetings to talk about the school, hosting community events there — and unlocking the playground.
“We are here for whatever you need,” interim Principal Adrienne Kuchik told parents and neighbors during a meeting last week.
No one is certain what the formula is for winning families back. Next year, Kuchik said she aims to bring back a music teacher and add a project-based science and engineering program. And at the request of neighborhood parents, she is hoping to add preschool in the coming years. But leaders are contemplating pursuing more dramatic changes, such as converting the school to a magnet program, if that’s what neighborhood residents want.
Neighborhood leaders are also focused on creating a community of parents, said Laura Giffel, president of the Bates-Hendricks Neighborhood Association. Giffel hopes that if parents get to know each other when they have babies and toddlers, then when it comes time for school, they will feel comfortable choosing the neighborhood school because they are part of a group.
“We have a lot of young, newly married families,” Giffel said. “I really think in five years, we’re going to have a big bubble of zero to five-year-old kids living in this neighborhood.”
School 31 is not alone in its difficulties attracting middle-class families. It’s a struggle for neighborhood schools across Indianapolis Public Schools. Unlike some parts of the city, where gentrification is displacing low-income families of color, the Southside is historically a white community, Giffel said. Students at School 31 are racially diverse, and about half are white. Right now, however, about 70% of students at School 31 qualify for free lunch, a proxy for poverty. The fact that it serves so many low-income families may be one reason middle-class parents shy away from the school.
Bethany Friesen didn’t have friends who sent their children to School 31 when she and her husband decided to enroll their son in kindergarten this school year. When she moved to the neighborhood, the school had a bad reputation, and she heard second-hand stories about fights there, Friesen said.
But Friesen got to know students at the school because she oversees an after-school program. Her son struggled in a Montessori preschool, so she and her husband decided to give School 31 a try. Now, they love it.
“When I first moved here, I didn’t necessarily see the value of an ordinary IPS neighborhood school,” she said. “Since then, I’ve changed my mind drastically. I see a huge value in a neighborhood school and in kids walking to school and living life together outside of school hours.”
For some parents, choosing School 31 feels like a risk. When Kristina Porter and her husband moved into the neighborhood more than three years ago, they didn’t have children, and schools were only vaguely on their radar, she said. But with a toddler and another child on the way, they started thinking seriously about schools.
Porter knows teachers who left Indianapolis Public Schools because they were unhappy. And she heard things that worried her, like that School 31 had cut its music program this year. In the end, she and her husband decided to move to the suburbs, Porter said.
“Everybody says, ‘oh, you have time to research these schools and do all these things,’ ” Porter said. “But there’s already so much to do as a parent. It’s much easier just to feel like, ‘OK, I know I’m in a neighborhood where the school is supported. I don’t have to stress too much.’ ”
School 31 is beloved by many of the current families, who say that despite some turnover of recent principals, it’s welcoming and supportive. Sherry Jett went to School 31 herself in the late 1980s, and now that her son is a student, she tells other families she meets that it’s an “awesome school.”
Frances Gourley, who moved into the boundary this year, is looking for a new home so her granddaughters, who live with her, can have their own bedrooms. But she plans to make sure that wherever she moves, her granddaughter can stay in School 31, Gourley said. “Everybody knows everybody. Everybody has got everybody’s back,” she said.
Michelle Maga, who sent her children to School 31 and now she has custody of two grandsons who attend the school, said she thinks it sometimes gets a “bad rap.”
“Every teacher in that school is a strong teacher,” said Maga, who is a parent volunteer. “They’ve been there for years. They are amazing teachers.”