Editorial: ‘Failing’ schools get failed again

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Nothing breeds failure like uncertainty. Unfortunately, that’s what has been chosen once again for three Indianapolis schools that have been battered for years by the shifting priorities of state and district-level policymakers.

In a surprise decision, the Indiana Charter School Board on Dec. 13 voted 4-3 to deny charters for Howe and Manual high schools and Emma Donnan Middle School, three former Indianapolis Public Schools facilities labeled as “failing” and taken over by the state in 2011. That’s when the state hired private operator Charter Schools USA to run them. Though that experiment produced mixed results, the State Board of Education last March encouraged the company to seek charters to operate the schools after this school year.

Now that path forward appears to be dashed. The Charter School Board’s decision, by a single vote and with two members absent, went against its own staff recommendation. It creates turmoil for the students, families, teachers and communities associated with the schools and positions them to be controlled once again by IPS, the district that failed them in the first place.

Those directly associated with the schools have the most to lose, but there’s more at stake than meets the eye. The city’s battle to keep and attract residents and the tax revenue they produce is well-known. Solid schools in middle-class neighborhoods can be an effective weapon in that fight. Unfortunately, that has never seemed to matter to IPS, whose decisions over the years have led the district to essentially abandon neighborhoods with much to offer.

Broad Ripple lost its high school last year, and Irvington is poised to lose its legacy school if the district follows through with its intention, stated under previous Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, to close Howe if it ever came back under district control. Ferebee also intended to close Manual, which was once an anchor and rallying point on the city’s south side.

There are signs that IPS Superintendent Aleesia Johnson, who replaced Ferebee earlier this year, is open to considering how the schools can become assets for IPS and their neighborhoods. The district has proposed finding a charter operator for Emma Donnan and forming a partnership with locally based school operator Christel House to operate Manual. Howe’s fate under IPS control is uncertain. But in its campaign to win back control of the three schools, the district implied that all three buildings would continue to serve Indianapolis families. We hope that was more than lip service.

At the very least, IPS should promise not to close schools without a plan in place for the real estate. The district has a history of closing schools and allowing the buildings to become neighborhood liabilities. Negligence on that scale should not be repeated.

The State Board of Education will decide in January whether to entrust IPS once again with control of Donnan, Howe and Manual. We hope the decision is well considered. For the sake of students, families, neighborhoods and the entire city, it’s time for the uncertainty to end.•


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