TAWN PARENT Commentary: New school districts worth the pain

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Change seems to be the one constant at Indianapolis Public Schools. Superintendent Eugene White unveiled a major redistricting plan Oct. 12 that would send 14 percent of students to new schools next year.

IPS has been redrawing its districts every few years since the ’70s. In recent years, children in my Irvington neighborhood have been assigned at various times to Thomas Carr Howe, Arlington and Broad Ripple high schools. Now, it’ll be back to Howe again. Some families, like mine, had to straddle a transition, with some kids graduating from a nearby school, while siblings were sent to schools farther away.

Such frequent district changes erode the school community, leave people feeling unsettled, and accelerate the departure of people who can afford other options. But what’s the superintendent of a declining school district to do, if the status quo isn’t working?

White took on a daunting challenge when he stepped into the superintendent’s shoes last summer. This redistricting proposal is the latest in a series of bold initiatives he has introduced. The wide-ranging plan has enough going for it to be worthwhile in spite of the disruption it would cause.

Here are some of its best features:

It would promote neighborhood schools. Haughville and Martindale-Brightwood would see their neighborhood elementary schools reopen. The number of “plus” areas where children may be assigned to a variety of elementary schools for the purpose of racial balance would decline from 34 to 28. And some sprawling high school districts would become more compact and logical. Instead of borrowing kids from other districts, Washington Community School and Howe would have their own districts again.

That’s good news to Anita Silverman, the new principal at Howe.

“When people think of Irvington, I want them to think of Howe, and when they think of Howe, I want them to think of Irvington,” Silverman said in a recent meeting with neighborhood parents. She is visiting area businesses in an effort to garner more support for the school. One goal: merchants putting “Go Howe!” on their signs before football games.

The plan would replicate two of the most popular magnet programs: the Center for Inquiry and the Key Learning Community, both of which routinely have more than 100 students on their waiting lists. Given IPS’ steadily decreasing population, giving parents more of the programs they want is a no-brainer. And IPS is wisely placing the new CFI in School 84 in Meridian-Kessler, one of IPS’ wealthiest neighborhoods and one where many families now send their children to Catholic schools.

“We want to provide a public school option that is just as attractive as any private school in the area,” White said.

With nearly 80 percent of its students qualifying for free or discounted lunches, IPS desperately needs the fund-raising firepower, volunteerism and other assistance middle-class parents are more able to provide.

The plan would revive the rich heritage of Crispus Attucks and Shortridge, longtime high schools that have been operating as middle schools in recent years. Both are slated to be converted to grade 6-12 schools with demanding, unusual magnet programs. As a medical magnet school, Attucks would be able to take advantage of its proximity to the near-west-side hospital complex. With a law-government magnet, Shortridge might regain some of its former stature. White believes these two programs, which he says are unique in the Midwest, might even attract tuition-paying students from outside IPS boundaries.

White is a risk-taker who deserves our support. And so do his schools. We all have a stake in seeing IPS’ 39,000 children turn into responsible citizens and capable employees. With a little help, maybe this redistricting plan can stick for more than a few years.

Check out the plan at www.ips.k12.in.us. Or make your voice heard at one of three remaining public meetings on the proposal:

Oct. 24, 7 p.m., Arlington High School mini auditorium, 4825 N. Arlington Ave.

Oct. 26, 7 p.m., Manual High School mini auditorium, 2405 Madison Ave.

Oct. 27, 7 p.m., Broad Ripple High School mini auditorium, 1115 Broad Ripple Ave.

If you live or work inside IPS boundaries, do you know what your neighborhood school is? If not, find out, and reach out. Donate your time, your dollars or your company’s goods or services. It’s the least a neighbor can do.

Parent is associate editor of IBJ. Her column appears monthly. To comment on this column, send e-mail to tparent@ibj.com.

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