Eighteen Indiana schools have a lot riding on statewide test scores that will be released this summer. If the schools fail again — marking a sixth consecutive year of being on academic probation — the state could turn them over to private companies charged with spurring improvement.
School leaders, teachers, parents and students are sticking up for their local schools at public hearings around the state, saying they want to retain control and that they know better than anyone what their districts need to succeed.
But State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett said it's simply unacceptable to have six straight years of failing schools.
"The state isn't being aggressive enough," he told The Associated Press. "The fact that we have children in communities who spend their entire high school and junior high years in bad schools — that's not the fault of the kids or the parents, that's the fault of state leadership to say 'We should not tolerate this.'"
The 18 schools are located in urban areas, with seven in Indianapolis Public Schools. IPS spokeswoman Kim Hooper said the district hopes test scores released in June and July will show enough improvement at least two failing schools — Broad Ripple High School and George Washington Community High School — to pull them out of probation and keep the state at bay.
Parents and teachers at other schools are hoping for test score success. But the state is holding public hearings this summer in cities where the schools are located discussion options in case they fail. Meetings are being held in Fort Wayne, South Bend, East Chicago, Marion, Gary, Hammond and Indianapolis, and wrap up July 11.
If any of the 18 schools are still on academic probation once test scores are released, the state Board of Education likely will meet in August to choose one of five options, including merging with another school, implementing changes suggested at the public meetings or turning the school to a private company.
Skeptics say turning around urban schools is more difficult than outsiders think.
"If you've never worked in urban education, it's easy to have tough talk about children and failing schools and how we need to save them," Hooper said. "That's political talk. The reality is, in urban education we serve every child who comes in the front door. It's not an excuse, it's the reality."
That includes students who don't know English, students with parents who don't prioritize education, and poor students who are more concerned with their next meal than studying algebra.
Juli Van Wyk, who has three kids who graduated from IPS, said the wide range of students in the schools is a challenge. But she said the state seems to be overlooking progress being made at places like Broad Ripple High School, where her youngest child attended before moving on to Butler University this fall.
"If parents really think the school's failing the kids, they're going to move them to another school. You're not seeing droves of parents take their kids out," she said. "I'm just not sure that you can always judge a school as failing by looking at test scores."
In South Bend, officials say they are working hard to turn around the three schools on the list of 18. Jay Caponigro, a school board member, said community partners have stepped up and all parties are coming together to improve the schools and avoid state takeover.
"That's exciting to see that kind of energy percolating around us," he said. "The state pressure has helped us focus on the kids that were struggling most."
Bennett said the Board of Education will make its determination of possible takeover based on what's best for each individual school and the students there. But his preference is not necessarily for turning the schools over to private management companies.
"My hope is that the local school community, in concert with the local school corporation, comes together and takes the necessary steps to right the ship themselves," Bennett said.
Bennett, an outspoken Republican who has angered and alienated many teachers by pushing sweeping education changes in the Statehouse, is comfortable keeping the pressure on schools. He has met with leaders at the 18 schools and says he'll do what it takes to get results.
"I told them I either wanted to be their best friend or their worst enemy — whichever will help them the most."