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

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.