Shuffling grades, closing school buildings: IPS proposes sweeping changes

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The future of Indianapolis Public Schools has come into clearer focus after district officials outlined five potential solutions to the district’s financial challenges, including merging small schools and reconfiguring middle school grades.

The final meeting of the Rebuilding Stronger committee, held Thursday, capped a series of spring presentations on the district’s major hurdles, like declining enrollment at neighborhood schools that has led to budget woes and underutilized buildings, as well unequal access to high-demand innovation programs.

Dwindling enrollment is a national issue that has already led to school closures in cities like Chicago, Detroit, Oakland, and Philadelphia. At IPS, enrollment at district-run neighborhood schools has dropped more than 40% since 2010, while enrollment at innovation network schools has increased tenfold since 2015.

IPS officials presented a series of possible solutions that would likely affect most students at the district. Several proposals could work in tandem to relocate students to larger, better-funded, and better-performing programs. At the same time, the district would close schools with low enrollment that have fallen into disrepair.

Community members at the meeting raised several questions about the plans. They asked how merging schools would affect staff; whether the district has the facilities to accommodate much larger middle schools; how the district would provide transportation to families whose neighborhood schools shutter; and what the district and its students stand to lose by closing small programs.

“Anything we do requires a tradeoff of some kind,” said Superintendent Aleesia Johnson.

District leaders expect to present a final plan in September, after which it will head to a board of commissioners vote in October. Johnson said the district is still determining a future timeline, as well as the potential costs of each proposal.

Here are the five solutions the district is considering. It could adopt all or several of them.

Expanding high-performing programs

The district wants to expand access to its best schools, whether by adding seats in existing programs, or by replicating those programs in new buildings. In the case of the latter, officials said they would focus on the east, west, and south sides of Indianapolis, where traditionally fewer choice programs exist.

During community feedback, Amanda Milliken, principal of George Buck Elementary School, asked what metrics would be used to determine which programs were high-performing enough to be expanded or replicated.

Milliken also asked whether those metrics would guarantee success in every neighborhood school.

“It may be a great program for the northwest side, but is it a great program for the southwest side?” she said.

District officials said they would address such community questions in a future presentation, as they have throughout the series of Rebuilding Stronger meetings.

Reconfiguring middle school grades

Another possible solution would see the district reconfigure middle schools to serve grades 6-8. Currently, it has a mix of K-6, K-8, and 7-8 schools.

The reconfiguration would create larger middle schools that could better afford to offer extracurricular activities and advanced academics — something the district says seriously lags at neighborhood schools compared to charter schools.

Teachers would be better able to collaborate across a shorter band of grades, district officials said, and younger students would have more access to seats at redesignated K-5 schools.

But community members pointed out that IPS has shuffled middle schools in the recent past, moving the grades out of combined middle and high schools and into elementary schools in the hopes of improving achievement. They also asked whether that previous shift addressed the district’s original concerns.

Others asked whether parents of sixth graders would feel comfortable sending their children to new, large middle schools, and whether the district has the space to facilities to accommodate the idea.

Consolidating and closing schools

Closing small schools would be a versatile solution for the district. Fewer larger schools are less costly to operate than many small ones, and can offer more programming. Previous district presentations also highlighted the deteriorating physical state of some IPS schools and the cost to repair them.

“This is a way to move more students into warm, safe well-kept buildings that promote learning,” the district said in its Thursday presentation.

But not everyone has warmed to the idea. Deborah Wooldridge, a teacher at William Penn School 49 where Thursday’s meeting took place, asked what would happen when consolidated schools created large class sizes. She also asked whether staff would have to reapply for their jobs at new schools.

Others pointed out that the district would  contradict itself by seeking to offer the experience of high-demand choice schools—which tend to be small—to more students, while also creating more large schools.

Still others asked about the demoralizing impact that shuttered school buildings might have on neighborhoods.

Creating geographic enrollment zones

The district is considering two solutions to improve access to choice programs.

One would create geographic enrollment zones, in which IPS families would be able to enroll at traditional and choice schools that are within their zone. Currently, district neighborhood schools have their own enrollment boundaries, while some choice schools have zoned enrollment areas.

Under the proposal, families would not have to change schools if their address changed within their zone. The district hopes that this proposal would reduce student mobility at neighborhood schools without destabilizing its choice options.

Community members asked whether this proposal would lead to less available choice at IPS.

Eliminating proximity priority

The district’s other enrollment proposal would remove proximity as a lottery consideration for its preferred schools, meaning all students within a given enrollment zone would have the same chance of going to a certain school.

Officials said district data shows that high-demand choice schools serve fewer students of color due in part to the priority given to siblings of current students and families who live within half a mile of the school.

The district would implement this plan in conjunction with grade reconfiguration for middle schools, which is meant to open more seats at high-performing K-5 schools. As a result, the district hopes, more families would have access to the choice process.

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

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13 thoughts on “Shuffling grades, closing school buildings: IPS proposes sweeping changes

  1. The entire education system needs to be overhauled period. There should be either college prep schools or trad schools and kids and their families can choose which to attend. Schools should only focus on math, English, economics and whatever trade they select. Kids should also be able to go to trade school and work and get paid while in school. Times have changed and the education system hasn’t kept up with the times

    1. What district do your kids attend? The public schools in the district my kids attend provides both trade and college bound paths through the public school system. The focus is on helping prepare kids beyond knowing a little math and English — to get them as far ahead as they can in whichever/whatever path they choose to take after K-12. Many kids can come out of the school system with things such as welding experience, construction, and other trades as well as college prep or even nursing, tech security, and other focus areas. The opportunities are there in many districts, so again, what district are your kids attending? Maybe you should take a closer look.

      As stated in the article, consolidating to fewer larger schools could give IPS a better edge to be able to offer the same (if they are not offering it already. I’m in the suburbs, so I can’t speak to what IPS specifically offers).

    2. Amen …you are spot on. Not everyone needs to go to college to be successful.

  2. They focus so much on choice schools but there are no evidence that the choice schools perform better than neighborhood schools. Why keep ignoring neighborhood schools? Setting them up to fail and then blame it on the individual schools. It’s a total shame.

    1. Direct quote from the article. IPS enrollment is down 40% from 2010. Not down from their heyday in the 70’s, 2010. Choice schools up “tenfold” (I guess Chalkbeat couldn’t bring themselves to actually type the number) since 2015. Nope, no evidence at all…

  3. Sounds like you have an opportunity to overhaul the entire system. Take advantage of that position. Our children deserve better than the education system we have in the US, which is failing them and the communities daily. Indianapolis needs a more diverse workforce- build a curriculum to meet those needs. Every kid cannot and should not go to college. But they can learn a solid trade that will provide them a lifelong career and stability for their families. They then become more attached to “their” community. This isn’t rocket science folks- it just means you need to go against the norm and do something new and different. Change is painful- but it is evermore necessary in education! Indiana as a whole should be working to create an education program that becomes the system by which others are measured.

  4. I have often wondered as IPS struggles to manage running busses all over the city, and have far flung schools like Marshall, why do they insist on sticking to the old pre-unigov city boundaries, and just cede some territory to the surrounding townships. This would make the district more compact and as a by product easier to manage.

    1. Marshall, and most (all?) of the IPS schools in the “John Marshall” area of IPS (38th St. corridor east of 465) are closed or converted to charter/choice schools.

  5. One of my best friends was trying to “raise children”, none of which were his, but long story short none of them were taking school seriously. The enigma of college and the cost of it was already looming over them. Most kids these days feel that way. Without scholarships, a full ride, or costly students loans A LOT of high school students are taking gaps years, dropping out, or not going to college. The education system needs a reset. The system is broken. Teachers are underpaid. It trickles down and adds to the 40% decline in enrollment and some of the problems IPS is facing.

  6. I agree. Just closing schools isn’t going to help. Obviously, parents aren’t happy with how IPS is teaching their kids. They need to look at the lack of quality education the kids are getting. But then they would have to admit that how they are teaching kids isn’t working.
    I don’t expect any of these ideas to ever be implemented.

    My ideas are:

    1.Start making school interesting with more hands on and real life learning. IPS is still spending most of the time having kids memorize and regurgitate the information.
    2. Increase the size of the ONLY gifted school at IPS. There is so much emphasis on underperforming kids that the smart ones get lost. Most schools think extra homework is the solution which is the WORST thing you can do for a gifted child. There should be more emphasis on teaching the kids the way they learn. Instead only teaching kids 1 way.
    3. Start giving teachers hefty pay raises and a alow consequences for bad behavior so teachers can go back to teaching. Also, give them interns that work for them 30-40 hours a week so that teachers can teach instead of doing paperwork.

  7. Let’s face it…IPS has been rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic for the past 30 years. About 20 years ago some serious people suggested devolving pie shaped slivers of IPS to the adjacent suburban Marion County districts, and that is probably what needs to happen.

    1. And lest I be accused of not having skin in the game…I sent a kid through IPS, K-12. There were a few bright spots 25 years ago when he was there, and there still are. But the vast majority of IPS students are failing state tests in failing schools. (What’s the current overall IPS pass rate on the ISTEP, ITest, ILearn, or whatever its flavor of the year is?)