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Coming to Indianapolis: a public boarding school?

October 9, 2014

Indianapolis Public Schools next year could consider bringing a free public boarding school—one of just a few in the country—to the city.

The concept behind the school is to provide a stronger academic school, and safer, more stable daily life, for poor children who sometimes live in chaotic homes and neighborhoods.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said he would love to have a residential school as part of IPS’ offerings, and that it’s not an unrealistic idea.

“If you can find the right facility, make the updates without breaking the bank, it can have a tremendous impact for students,” Ferebee said. “We know our students need structure and consistency. In many cases, they’re not getting it.”

It’s a controversial idea that has been tried only a handful of cities, starting with the SEED school, which was the nation’s first college preparatory public boarding school when it opened in 1998 as a charter school in Washington, D.C. SEED now has schools in Baltimore and South Florida, and is developing a school in Ohio.

Public boarding schools are expensive, as they must cover the cost of both housing and educating children. And the idea that students are better off living at school than with their families has been the subject of some debate.

Former IPS principal Lauren Franklin suggested the idea at an IPS school board committee meeting. She is spending the next two years developing a plan for opening a high-quality school in Indianapolis, possibly in partnership with the district, as one of the Mind Trust’s innovation school fellows.

Franklin and three other Mind Trust fellows told board members they hope to open up to three new schools, or use their ideas turn around existing IPS schools. If they partner with IPS, the schools would be accountable to the district but independently run. They told the school board about their plans at a meeting Wednesday night.

Franklin said she was inspired to consider a boarding school by her niece and nephew, who went through a difficult time at home.

“They did not have stability,” Franklin said. “They did not always know where they were going to sleep. They didn’t know if they were going to get dinner. There were so many unknowns that absolutely impacted their school performance.”

After a change in custody, Franklin said her relatives are now thriving, and that it’s not a coincidence that some of the changes in their lives are as simple as having a designated dinner time, homework time and an opportunity to participate in school activities.

“I thought, if this can make this type of difference for two kids, why wouldn’t we want to do that for more students?” she said. “I want to make sure the needs of students are being addressed.”

Franklin was also inspired by the success of the SEED Schools, which were featured in the 2010 education documentary “Waiting for Superman” and touted as an example of urban education done right.

But the prospect of opening a public boarding school is expensive, especially for a district with an already delicate financial situation. Franklin said her first estimate is that it could cost around between $30,000 and $40,000 per student to run a residential school. Currently, IPS spends $4,861 in basic tuition support per student.

“It’s a very costly proposal,” said Franklin, who said she is also considering an alternative plan built around a longer school day that provides all the services of a residential facility without the students sleeping overnight. She’ll develop her idea over the next year and likely propose specific plan in the fall of 2015. The school wouldn’t open until at least 2016.

Ferebee, who has visited the SEED School in Washington, acknowledged a residential school comes with additional discipline and supervision concerns. But he said he was confident Franklin would develop an idea that’s workable for IPS.

“She’s one of our own who was fortunate to be selected (for the fellowship), and I have a lot of confidence in her leadership abilities,” Ferebee said. “She’ll come back with a really good idea.”

The innovation school that could open first is a school in partnership with the Phalen Leadership Academy charter school. That proposal is being developed jointly by Arlington High School dean Marlon Llewellyn and Earl Phalen, who operates a public charter school at 23rd and Illinois streets.

Phalen and Llewellyn will present their idea to the board Nov. 11, and a vote to approve the school to open next fall is expected at its Dec. 9 meeting.

Their concept also includes a longer school day and more school days each year but rather than start a new school, Phalen and Llewellyn are expected to propose taking control of a low-performing IPS school that has yet to be selected. The school would serve kindergarteners through sixth graders and would use a blended-learning model, in which students sometimes learn on computers and sometimes through traditional teacher-led classroom lessons.

Another idea being developed is an entrepreneurship-focused middle school. Heather Tsavaris, a former counter-terrorism official for the U.S. State Department, is hoping to find new ways to prepare students for high-tech careers.

Ferebee said he was encouraged by all of the presentations, and is looking forward to how the ideas are developed over the next months and years.

“It was a reminder tonight of how creative some of the ideas are,” Ferebee said. “They all could add value to our instructional program. They were selected for a reason.”

Chalkbeat Indiana is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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