Indianapolis Public Schools took another step in its dramatic shift away from the traditional school district model.
While IPS has historically run all of its schools from its central office downtown, the IPS School Board is increasingly transferring schools to private managers who operate independently from the district. On Thursday, the board added two more schools to its “innovation school” roster, allowing them to operate independently, like charter schools, while still remaining under the authority of IPS.
School 44, a diverse west-side school, will become Global Prep Academy, converting the school to a dual-language Spanish immersion model.
School 69, a long-struggling school northeast of downtown, will be restarted as Kindezi Academy, a school founded by the leaders of the Enlace Academy charter school, where students will spend time during each class working independently on computers, in addition to lectures and small group work with teachers.
By next fall, more than 10 percent of IPS students are projected to attend schools that run independently with charter-like flexibility.
It’s a big change for the state’s largest school district. All IPS students were in traditional, district-managed schools until this year when the district converted a failing school to an “innovation” school, launched a new elementary school with a charter partner and pulled four existing schools into its innovation network.
The changes are controversial, in part because when schools convert, their teachers and staff are no longer represented by the teachers union. They are hired and paid by the charter network or not-for-profit that runs the school. The outside groups then control money and resources that used to flow to traditional district schools.
“They are taking away from the traditional public schools,” said Larry Yarrell, a former IPS principal and chair of the NAACP education committee. “You’re taking money away from the traditional schools. You’re taking resources away from the traditional schools. You’re taking quality teachers and educators and you’re placing them in these innovative schools.”
But supporters say the changes will lead to better schools.
“If we allow our school leaders and our school teams who know those kids best to make decisions that will best serve those kids and families, we will see improved outcomes,” said Aleesia Johnson, the district innovation officer.
The district-charter partnerships are part of a national trend in urban districts, but the legal framework and political climate in Indianapolis has accelerated the growth of these kinds of schools in the city, said Jordan Posamentier, deputy policy director for the Center for Reinventing Public Education, which supports the approach.
“They are moving ahead swiftly,” Posamentier said. “They’re doing it faster than you see other cities doing it.”
Next year, enrollment in IPS innovation schools will more than double, from about 1,389 to 3,076 students, according to district projections. The main reason for that jump is a plan to convert four existing district schools to innovation status and allow outside organizations to take over management.
In addition to the vote on School 44 and School 69, the board is poised to approve applications from leaders of two IPS schools who are aiming to convert to innovation status to gain greater freedom over staffing and instruction. Those schools are Cold Spring, an environmental science magnet, and School 93, which began using the homegrown turnaround model Project Restore last year. If their plans are approved, they will be the first schools to voluntarily pursue innovation.
It’s all part of a larger district shift toward a “portfolio” strategy, where the central office provides services, from transportation to special education teachers, but does not direct choices like curriculum, staffing or teacher training. In the long term, IPS aims to transform all of its schools either to innovation status or to autonomy schools, which offer school leaders more flexibility without the full independence of innovation. Next year, the district will pilot its first six autonomous schools.
Innovation schools, which were authorized by lawmakers in 2014, are considered part of the district under state law. IPS is held accountable if the schools receive poor grades on annual state report cards and gets credits for strong student test scores. The school board also decides on contracts with outside management organizations.
But the district is giving up oversight over the day-to-day operations at schools, said board member Gayle Cosby. If something goes wrong at a school, parents can appeal to the IPS board, she said. But it has little say in how innovation schools respond.
“The only thing the IPS board has any power to do is to cancel the contract,” Cosby said. “I just don’t see that happening.”
Cosby is not opposed to all innovation plans, and she voted to convert schools 44 and 69.
One reason the district has expanded the innovation network is to stabilize long-shrinking enrollment. This year, IPS added three charter schools to the network that were previously renting space in district schools: Enlace Academy, KIPP Indy College Prep Middle School and KIPP Indy Unite Elementary School. The students at those schools are now part of district enrollment.
This year, the district has 29,377 students. That’s about 22 percent fewer children than the district educated 10 years ago when IPS had 37,890 students, according to Indiana Department of Education data. In 2013 and 2014, enrollment slightly increased, but it has returned to a slow downward trend more recently.
The district had been the state's largest for years but now slight trails Fort Wayne Community Schools, which reported 29,483 enrolled students in the 2015-16 year.
Joining the innovation network is beneficial for charter schools in part because they get access to additional funding from property taxes that pays for services such as transportation. If the schools choose to get those services from IPS, that helps the district financially.
“We believe that’s cost neutral, and we’re bringing innovative programs to schools that have historically been struggling,” said IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.
Most of the funding the state provides for students at innovation schools simply flows through the district. Based on their contracts with the district, the schools receive the full per-student allocation for the children they serve—about $6,731 this year.
That’s more than traditional district-managed schools, which lose some of their funding to central office expenses. For example, at the relatively well-funded School 84 on the north side, the district spends about $5,955 per student, according to a budget estimate.
As districts transition to a portfolio strategy, central offices typically provide fewer services and shrink in size and cost, Posamentier said. Instead of making education decisions, they shift to more of a broker of services that schools can choose to purchase, he said.
“Rethinking what the central office does is critical here,” he said. “Money is distributed very differently.”
IPS has already begun reducing the size of its central office. Since July 2013 when Ferebee took over, the district cut central office staff by 25 positions, which added up to a savings of $2.2 million from July 2013 through June 2015, according to the district.
Regardless of its financial impact, Johnson said increasing enrollment by attracting students to the district is one aim of innovation schools.
“It sends a positive message to families and to the community that people are interested in, invested in and want to be a part of IPS,” she said. “We’re building a really powerful narrative where people are saying, ‘I know there are great options and I’m excited to be part of the district.’”
Chalkbeat Indiana is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.