IPS board OKs John Marshall conversion as part of realignment plan

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It’s official. John Marshall High School is set to become a middle school next year.

The Indianapolis Public Schools Board voted Thursday night to drop grades 9-12 at the east-side school and convert Marshall into a free-standing middle school serving grades seven and eight.

Students who were enrolled in upper grades at Marshall last year will go to Arlington High School, about 6 miles away.

The board also voted to open two new schools and expand elementary schools across the district.

The changes are part of a district-wide plan to remove middle school students from combined middle-high schools that was first revealed at a school board meeting on Aug. 16. District leaders say these changes will help improve academic performance among middle school students, who have consistently posted terrible scores on the state ISTEP test.

Board member Kelly Bentley recalled when the district decided to combine middle and high schools several years ago.

“I was part of some of those decisions … to put middle school kids in with the high schools, and I think it was one of the worst decisions that the board ever made,” she said. “I am thrilled that we are retreating from that, and I think it will be much better for kids.”

Four high schools will phase out middle school grades in coming years, putting pressure on the district to find new seats for more than 2,000 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students.

In addition to changes at Marshall, the district plans to open a new magnet medical science middle school in the Longfellow building in Fountain Square and a magnet elementary school at an undetermined site that will use the Reggio Emilia philosophy, which is used at the Butler lab program at School 60 and focuses on self-guided learning. Many other middle school students will be educated at five elementary schools that are expanding to serve middle grades. Plans to convert School 43 to a magnet school were dropped from the proposal following criticism.

Both planned middle schools will be on the east side of the city, district officials said, prompting advocates at board meetings to speak out in favor of also creating an innovation middle school on the west side. Innovation schools are similar to charter schools but are considered part of the district.

The idea for a west-side innovation school comes from former IPS principal Sheila Dollaske, who has been working with community members to create a middle school that would also offer education for students’ family members. The proposal has won support from the district, but the board has not yet voted on whether to approve the school and no locations have been publicly identified.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the district made recommendations for school configuration without taking innovation schools into consideration. He said decisions about whether schools will convert to innovation status will be made at a later time.

With middle school students gone, many of the district’s underutilized high schools will be even closer to empty. Last year, IPS had nearly 15,000 high school seats, excluding Marshall, and just over 5,000 high school students.

District leaders say that IPS will need to close some of its high schools in coming years to reduce costs. Ferebee’s initial plan called for closing high schools in fall 2019, but Bentley and fellow board member Mary Ann Sullivan said the district should look at closing high schools as soon as 2018.

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

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