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IPS board approves plan to close three high schools

September 18, 2017

In a room crowded with students, parents and teachers, the Indianapolis Public Schools board voted to close three high schools Monday.

The vote was five to two in favor of the plan. Board members Venita Moore and Elizabeth Gore voted against it. Board members Diane Arnold, Dorene Rodriguez Hoops, Mary Ann Sullivan, Michael O’Connor and Kelly Bentley voted in favor.

Beginning next school year, about 5,000 high school students in the district will be combined at four campuses, half the number that were operating just last year.

Broad Ripple and John Marshall Middle School will close their doors at the end of this year. The Arlington and Northwest High School campuses will be used to house middle schools and additional services, such as the newcomer program and a night high school.

While many board members framed the decision as painful, but unavoidable, many in the crowd laughed, murmured and occasionally yelled in skepticism.

That tension came to the surface when board member Bentley, who graduated from Broad Ripple High School, spoke about her heartbreak at closing the high schools.

“All I can say is, I’m sorry,” Bentley said. “The very human reaction to this difficult decision is anger, sadness, and the need to place blame.”

A woman in the audience stood to interrupt her. “Blame, blame,” said the woman, as she walked out of the board room. “I’m blaming you.”

Her comment was a sign of the simmering animosity some critics of the plan appear to have for district leaders, but it’s not clear whether the vocal opposition from people in the audience reflects broader feelings in the community—or even among the hundred or so people at the meeting.

IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said that many of the critics in the audience have been to several meetings throughout the process.  

“Many people understand the need to right-size our high schools,” he said, “but not many people wanted their high school to close, and it was a tough decision that had to be made.”

Board member Moore said she supported closing high schools, but she was opposed to the plan because it only kept campuses at the core of the district open. “I will have to vote no,” she said.

One reason the administration recommended keeping open the four schools near the center of the district is because it will make it easier to bus students. The plan to close schools goes hand-in-hand with a proposal to create an all-magnet high school model. If approved, students will be able to select any high school that interests them, and transportation costs could be higher if the district must bus students to schools on the far edges of its boundaries.

The four remaining campuses—Shortridge, George Washington, Crispus Attucks and Arsenal Technical high schools—will offer programs in subjects such as health sciences, manufacturing and information technology.

The board did not vote on the career academy plan Monday, but it is expected to at a future meeting, and none of the board members indicated they would oppose it.

“We must do a better job of providing the best academic experience for our students,” said board member Arnold. “Increased student opportunities for AP classes, stronger athletic programs and a more robust educational model are all potential rewards for the proposed changes.”

The move to reconfigure high schools comes as the district faces a host of challenges. Several have struggled to improve graduation rates and test scores. And there is intense competition from charter and township high schools.

After decades of shrinking enrollment, the district currently has more than twice as many high school seats as students to fill them. All those empty seats push up costs of running the campuses, and the district estimates it could save more than $7 million by reconfiguring schools.

Hundreds of people shared their anger, sadness, resignation and support at district-led public meetings about high school closings throughout the spring and summer. Others vented their frustration online and in meetings they organized themselves.

But people still wanted to make their voices heard the day of the vote.

Ahead of the meeting, a cluster of about two dozen protesters opposed to the plan gathered on the sidewalk outside, holding signs as passing cars honked in support.

One of the protesters was Zoe Bardon, a student at Shortridge, who said that although her school won’t close, she wanted to support her friends at schools that are slated to close.

“It’s really frustrating,” she said. “We haven’t been listened to … as students.”

This morning, however, another demonstration sent a far different message. About a dozen parents with the organization group Stand for Children, which is closely aligned with the current administration, arrived at the central office to deliver hundreds of emails in support of closing high schools.

Seretha Edwards, a mother of four IPS students, said that she didn’t want her children going to high schools that are in “crisis.”

“If there is a program available that offered my child not only a high school diploma but an education that made them college ready or prepared for an entry-level career position,” she said, “there is no discussion about it. I’m on board.”

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

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