After years of failure, IPS considers drastic change for east-side school

It has been four years since Indianapolis Public Schools officials warded off a state takeover at John Marshall High School by promising big results from outside company that said it could turn things around at the school.

That effort was a bust—so much so that the far-east-side 7-12th grade school has continued to post some of the worst test scores in the state. Just 3 percent of middle schoolers there passed ISTEP last year—10 students out of 324. And of the 17 high school students who took AP tests, none passed. The latest principal resigned at the end of the year.

But IPS is determined to change the school’s fortunes. Encouraged in part by a petition drive from community members who’ve lost patience with the school’s perennial failure, district officials say they’re considering sweeping changes for the school.

“All options are on the table to discuss having a great school on the far east side,” IPS deputy superintendent Wanda Legrand said.

Possibilities being considered for the school include eliminating the middle school grades and focusing attention on the high school or possibly going the other way and dropping grades 9-12 and converting to a dedicated middle school—a role the building has played in the past. Another option is converting to innovation status, which means the school would have charter-like flexibility but still be under the authority of IPS.

Whatever course the district decides to pursue, community members will be watching closely.

Members of the local chapter of the advocacy group Stand for Children are petitioning IPS to do something to make Marshall better.

“It’s truly a problem,” said Jennifer Davis, a mother of four who joined the group this spring and is active in the petition drive.

Davis was so concerned about Marshall’s reputation that she sends her children to other schools, she said. But she believes improving Marshall is key to changing her neighborhood—and reducing the violence.

“I want people to see that this is important,” she said. “It is worth pushing for because you’ve got so many people that are concerned about this school.”

As of Monday, close to 200 people had signed the Stand petition, Davis said. The group is aiming to gather at least 500 signatures.

This summer and fall, IPS will meet with the community to discuss the school’s fate. The assistant principal at the school will take over as interim-principal next year while the district considers its options.

Davis doesn’t have a clear picture for what she wants to see at the school—she is simply looking to see better results for children.

Marshall has had a rough few years. Four years ago, the Indiana State Board of Education nearly took over the school after six years of failing grades. Instead of taking over Marshall, however, state leaders opted for a milder form of intervention supported by former-Superintendent Eugene White, bringing in an outside organization to improve the school.

But the school was passed from one private school management consultant to another and principals have come and gone.

In 2014, IPS proposed closing Marshall and moving the students to Arlington High School, which has a more modern, underutilized building. But the district changed course after community members opposed it. Legrand said there are no plans to close the school.

Now, the state is still paying close attention, said Sarah O’Brien, vice-chair of the state board.

“Obviously, we’re intervening for a reason,” she said.

Both O’Brien and Legrand said they were happy to see parents like Davis pushing for improvement at Marshall.

“We are looking for communities to be involved in how these schools are going to improve,” O’Brien said. “The schools are not going to improve by a (consultant) alone or a takeover alone. It has to be full community involvement.”

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

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