Principal Richard Benberry stood outside of Broad Ripple High School on Monday in the rain, propping up a banner to identify the school’s latest temporary tenant: Purdue Polytechnic High School.
The first day of school for Indianapolis Public Schools brought new life to the building, which has not hosted students since the district closed the school after the 2017-18 school year.
“It’s a big space for a lot of students,” Benberry said, standing in his office amid the bustle of students heard in the hallway. “I mean, we were up to 311 as of yesterday’s count.”
The new space is a relief for the charter school’s north campus, which plans to use the third floor of Broad Ripple High School this year while its permanent home is built just down the street.
But the story of Purdue Polytechnic High School’s growth coincides also with the story of IPS’ shrinking enrollment.
Since opening its first Englewood campus in 2017, Purdue Polytechnic has grown from just 140 freshmen to more than 600 students on that campus alone, Executive Director Scott Bess said. The north campus at Broad Ripple High School, meanwhile, struck a deal with IPS to use the building this year—more room for the school to grow.
As Benberry catches his breath, a mother walks into his office, children in tow.
“New family,” he mutters as he walks over to welcome her.
This year, the charter school—part of the IPS Innovation Network—welcomes its biggest freshman class to its north campus. IPS neighborhood schools, meanwhile, had just under 19,000 students enrolled as of Monday—a figure that has been on the decline.
Student enrollment at neighborhood, district-run schools has dropped roughly 33% since 2015-16—when Innovation schools began—to last school year, according to district data presented in October.
Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said on Monday that she expects overall enrollment to hold steady from last year, although final figures won’t come until later. Last school year, district-run neighborhood schools had 18,777 students.
Still, enrollment in traditional neighborhood schools remains one of the district’s greatest challenges as it starts a new year, in addition to the usual challenge of staffing vacancies. Declining enrollment is a challenge not only to Indianapolis, but also to urban school districts nationwide that still are dealing with the pandemic’s effects.
Enrollment is a key component of the district’s Rebuilding Stronger initiative, a broad-reaching effort that could reconfigure district schools.
“A part of that effort is about trying to determine a way to replicate the conditions we create in our choice schools in our neighborhood schools,” Johnson said.
The new school year also represents the first traditional return to classrooms since the pandemic struck in 2020—no masks, no isolated learning while hunkered down at home.
“That is the hope, that we’ll feel more normal,” Johnson said. “I’ve been framing it as just less disrupted and more constant, is the hope for the year ahead.”
For students at Purdue Polytechnic High School, the new year brings fresh air in more ways than one: at 25,000 square feet, the third floor of the high school provides nearly twice as much space as the school’s original location at 1405 Broad Ripple Ave.
Plus, the first maskless, in-person school start also brings relief.
“It’s like you can breathe again,” said Jayden Barney, a junior who started high school during the pandemic. “A weight lifted off of your soul.”
Chalkbeat is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.