Bennett endorses private operators for 4 IPS schools

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Indiana's top education official proposed Thursday that the state assume control of four troubled high schools and a middle school in what would be the state's first takeover of underperforming public schools under a 1999 law.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett said he had mixed emotions in asking the State Board of Education to approve the takeover of a Gary high school and three Indianapolis high schools and a middle school. But he said the step is necessary for the students' sake. The schools have been on academic probation for five years because of poor test scores.

The State Board of Education is scheduled to vote Monday on Bennett's proposals.

"This is not about blame, this is about the future," Bennett said at a news conference in Indianapolis. "Our intent is to use everything we have in this state to restore these schools to what they should be for the students in these communities."

He announced that he's asking the Board of Education to approve the takeover of Arlington Community, Howe Community and Manual high schools and Emma Donnan Middle School in Indianapolis. The district is the state's largest with about 34,000 students, many of them from low-income families.

Under Bennett's proposal, the four Indianapolis schools and the Gary school would be run by school management firms that will evaluate each school's performance for the remainder of the current academic year. Starting in the 2012-2013 academic year, those companies would take over full operation of each school and receive the state's per-pupil aid for each school.

In mid-July, the state identified the three private school-management organizations it could tap to help improve the performance of the struggling schools.

Bennett on Thursday recommended that Florida-based Charter Schools USA lead the turnaround at Manual, Donnan and Howe, and that EdPower, a school-management arm of the Charles A. Tindley charter school in Indianapolis, do the same at Arlington.

Earlier Thursday, Bennett visited Gary to announce that he's asking the Board of Education to authorize a state takeover of Roosevelt High School, which has about 1,600 students.

Dr. Eugene G. White, superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools, has threatened to sue the state if it moves to take over schools in his district. He urged the corporation's commissioners in an e-mail Wednesday to begin legal action against the Department of Education.

"It is truly time to stand up for our children," White said in the e-mail. The commissioners were scheduled to meet Friday night.

Bennett said that if the Board of Education agrees, the companies would receive a one-year "transitional" contract followed by a four-year operations contract to run each school, with benchmarks to chart school improvement still to be determined.

Bennett also recommended "targeted interventions" for two other IPS schools — Broad Ripple Magnet High School and Washington Community High School, both in Indianapolis. If approved, both would receive two "lead partners" that would collaborate on the school's operation with IPS officials and the Department of Education.

The six IPS schools have between them a total of about 5,800 students, about 4,000 of whom attend the four schools slated for takeover.

Indiana's schools are placed on probation based on the percentage of students who pass statewide tests. A 1999 law allows the state to intervene if a school has not improved its test scores after five years on probation.

Bennett said Thursday he considers that five-year time frame too long and that lawmakers need to put more pressure on underperforming schools to improve.

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard said he supports Bennett's recommendations for the six IPS schools, calling them a "bold step."

"These schools have been failing for many years," Ballard said in a statement.

Jim Larson, the Department of Education's director of school turnaround and improvement, said the five schools that would be taken over by the state would undergo a careful yearlong review by their chosen operators.

"This is much more than just 'Go in there collect some data, write a report, tell us what you're going to do better,'" he said. "All these schools are at different places."

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