The decision by Indianapolis Public Schools to close three of its seven high schools will matter to a relatively small number of Indianapolis-area families, but the move continues a decades-long erosion of city neighborhoods that has broader consequences for the region.
IPS announced June 28 it is targeting Arlington, Broad Ripple and Northwest high schools for closure after the next school year. Collectively, those schools enroll barely more than 2,000 students, a number smaller than most public high schools in the city’s township and suburban districts.
The mass exodus from IPS that caused anemic enrollment numbers happened over the last several decades and is precisely what the district is trying to stem by reducing its number of facilities and pumping more resources into those that remain. But previous attempts to do so have backfired, further eroding the already badly degraded bond between Indianapolis neighborhoods and their schools and sending more families in search of better options.
The court-ordered reassignment of students in the 1970s within the IPS district and in the early 1980s between the district and township schools started a death spiral for IPS by undermining neighborhood schools. IPS did itself no favors in the years that followed, adopting enrollment policies that further divorced schools from their immediate surroundings.
For city government and others who are trying to prop up the city’s tax base by enticing people to live in Indianapolis, the latest round of closings can’t be good news.
But there are a few silver linings. Today, unlike during the last round of closings in the 1990s, there are more options for students in the form of high-performing charter schools such as Herron High School, to keep people from pulling up stakes and moving across the county line. And in neighborhoods long abandoned by IPS, the need to transport children to schools in far-flung locations is an accepted condition of city living.
IPS also seems more engaged than in the past in considering the futures of the facilities it shutters. Of the three high schools that would close under the latest plan, Broad Ripple is the only one the district would seek to sell. The desirability of the surrounding neighborhood makes closing the school a tough call, but the neighborhood’s appeal also makes the real estate more attractive to potential buyers. Repurposing Northwest and Arlington to house middle schools and administrative functions would result in the disposition of two IPS buildings that don’t house schools.
The only other school in danger of sitting empty is Marshall Middle School, whose students would be moved to another building. Although Marshall might be harder to sell than Broad Ripple, the district said it would form a task force to consider its future. That’s an improvement from previous rounds of closings, after which some schools sat vacant for decades, becoming liabilities for their neighborhoods.
With the district projecting its high schools will be at only 37 percent capacity in the coming school year, it’s hard to argue IPS should keep all its schools open. But the district owes it to the neighborhoods it’s leaving to see that the real estate is returned to productive use. That’s the least we should expect from a move that harms neighborhoods and the entire city in the long run.•
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