Would fewer IPS high schools lead to more advanced courses?

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Arsenal Tech High School

More advanced course options for Indianapolis Public Schools students is one possible advantage to changing the way high schools are arranged, especially if it results in more students in grades 9 to 12 grouped together on fewer campuses.

As part of a plan to push for more students to take Advanced Placement courses, school board members Tuesday discussed the idea of fewer high schools with more students in the future.

“You can offer more higher quality education options,” board member Sam Odle said. “There’s probably no other way to raise the quality of the options if we can’t get more students in the building.”

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee has pushed for shifting junior high school students out of community and magnet high schools, which typically serve grades 7-12 or 6-12. Earlier this year, the board told him to create a plan to do so. The combined middle and high school was a major strategy for Ferebee’s predecessor, Eugene White, to try to curb dropouts in ninth grade.

Ferebee has said he prefers to move toward having more K-8 elementary schools, which would spread seventh and eighth graders across the city rather than congregate them in a smaller number of middle schools or combined high schools. Junior high schoolers have some of the lowest test scores in the district.

After that shift, he said, IPS could consider where the district’s roughly 6,000 high school students would best be housed.

“Collapsing 9 -12 into a smaller number of high schools allows us to offer more,” he said.

Ferebee has pointed out in the past that all of the district’s roughly 4,500 high school students who attend five general high schools — Arlington, Arsenal, Northwest, George Washington and John Marshall — could theoretically be housed at one site, perhaps the sprawling Arsenal Tech High School campus.

But other options could be two or three general education high schools. Last year, the largest of those schools, Arsenal, with 1,831 high school students, was almost twice the size of the next largest high school, Northwest, with 1,089. George Washington had 800 high school students, John Marshall had 595 and Arlington had 218.

Another 1,465 high school students attend four IPS magnet high schools — Crispus Attucks, Shortridge, Broad Ripple and Key Learning Community.

The big variation in high school size means vastly different Advance Placement offerings. Districtwide, IPS offers AP courses in 16 subjects: biology, calculus, computer science, Spanish language, U.S. History, world history, government and politics, chemistry, English language, English literature, environmental science, microeconomics, physics, statistics, studio art and music history.

But some IPS high schools offer as few as five of those. Right now, the principal decides which courses to offer based on student interest, teacher interest and by considering whether student SAT scores suggest they can handle the rigor of the course.

Last year just 9 percent of IPS high school students took an AP course. This year, that number is up to 12 percent. The district has set goals to reach 16 percent next year and 20 percent in 2017-18.

AP courses are a staple of academic plans for students who want to graduate with an Indiana Academic Honors Diploma. Last year, 17 percent of students were on track for that diploma. This year, the number is 19 percent. Again, the district’s goal is to boost those numbers to 21 percent next year and 23 percent in 2017-18.

To get there, The district is planning teacher training run by the College Board, the national organization that creates AP courses, as well as support for schools from curriculum coaches who can lead further training and planning meetings.

The district could start the transition toward more K-8 elementary schools as early as the 2016-17 school year. Ferebee has said since he arrived at IPS in 2012 that the district’s 12 grade configurations scattered among more than 60 schools is “convoluted” at best and unsafe at worst.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede