IPS board votes to close Key school, OKs school-autonomy plan

Key Learning Community’s historic run as the world’s first school built on curriculum inspired by the Multiple Intelligences theory will come to an end next spring.

A tearful Indianapolis Public Schools board member Mary Ann Sullivan, who was a Key parent, volunteer and supporter for more than 15 years, prefaced a 6-1 vote to close down the program Thursday by saying its demise is an example of how central office meddling can ruin an innovative school.

“I cannot help but wonder what Key would look like now,” she said. “What if the district would have supported, rather than undermined, their work?”

Following that rationale, the IPS board went on to approve a plan that would move IPS schools toward more autonomy for principals, giving them added freedom to make decisions about how schools are managed independent of the central office.

Key’s closing is part of a broader plan that would move the elementary arts magnet program from School 70, on the city’s north side, to just west of downtown in the Key building. The arts magnet would expand to grades K-8 while Broad Ripple High School would drop middle school grades from its arts magnet program. School 70 then would become the fourth Center for Inquiry magnet school.

But the second half of the plan is on hold until meetings are held at School 70, Broad Ripple and Key. The board will vote on changes at School 70 and Broad Ripple on Nov. 9.

Sullivan said the decision to close Key demonstrated the need for a plan to move IPS schools toward more freedom for principals to make decisions about budget, staffing curriculum and school start and end times.

“I’ve had a front row seat to the slow dismantling of the dreams of the incredible women who started the Key school,” Sullivan said. “I know who the bad guys were and who the good guys were in this long, sad story. The IPS administration was always messing with something that mattered in order for the school to succeed.”

But the board heard concerns from its teachers union and a group known as Parent Power, both of which warned that autonomy could simply be a cover for privatizing public schools by allowing outside groups to profit by managing them.

Board member Gayle Cosby said she could not back the policy even though she said she believed in autonomy. She was troubled that groups managing “Innovation Network Schools” in IPS would be asked to have a not-for-profit governing board to oversee their work in addition to answering to the IPS school board.

“As a former classroom teacher I know all too well what it feels like to have your professionalism as an educator diminished and your creativity stifled,” she said. “My issue with this particular framework is as we move toward Innovation Network Schools is we are setting up a system where you have a governing body in place for a public school district and those schools also have a governing body. I have serious concerns about how that might be perceived as taxation without representation.”

Cosby was the lone no vote, however. She also voted against closing Key.

Board member Sam Odle said he simply had to look at the good test scores of schools like those run by the semi-independent Centers For Inquiry and Project Restore to know more freedom for school leaders would pay off.

“When you look at those schools that are really among the best and most sought after, I just believe the facts bear out that if we give more freedom at local level they get better outcomes,” he said. “Those students get better schools.”

More freedom for schools, he said, should help poor minority children, who dominate many of the lowest scoring schools.

“This is the fastest way for us to give them an outstanding school too,” he said.

Board member Kelly Bentley said resistance to the autonomy plan was largely driven by concerns of adults who want to protect the status quo.

“We have a lot of kids who are in schools that are failing,” she said. “We need to be thinking about kids and thinking about different approaches to educating children. It’s immoral if we don’t.”

Key, which opened in 1987, has been in danger or closing down for several years, and closing it was first recommended last year.

The school was widely studied by education researchers for it first-of-a-kind curriculum. The inspiration was Howard Gardner, a renowned Harvard University psychologist, who devised a theory that attempted to categorize human behaviors that he felt qualified as “intelligence.”

He originally identified seven: visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical-rhythmic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, linguistic and logical-mathematical. Every person, he theorized, possessed a unique mix of strengths and weaknesses in each category.

A group of IPS teachers read Gardner’s book traveled two states to hear him speak and devised the blueprint for the Key school, which opened to international attention. The school was an initial success with strong test scores and high demand. But performance waned over time until the school earned F grades from  the state for several years in a row.

In an effort to avoid state takeover, IPS hired Sheila Dollaske as principal in 2012, asking her to alter the program to keep its principles while shifting to a stronger academic focus. The elementary students in the K-12 school made a 20 percentage point jump in their ISTEP passing rate and posted an A-grade in Dollaske’s first year. But scores then fell back, and Dollaske left earlier this year to accept a fellowship from The Mind Trust to develop a middle school program for IPS.

Information meetings next week will be held at Key (6 p.m. Monday), School 70 (6 p.m. Tuesday) and Broad Ripple (6 p.m. Wednesday).

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