School Closings

Broad Ripple is one of three Indianapolis high schools facing closure

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Broad Ripple high School is one of three schools that the IPS administration recommended closing.

Broad Ripple, Arlington and Northwest high schools would close under a plan released today by Indianapolis Public Schools.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s proposal would spare the four high schools closest to the core of the district: George Washington, Crispus Attucks, Shortridge and Arsenal Technical High School.

The IPS Board is not expected to vote on the plan until September, but if the board approves it, the district would convert Northwest and Arlington high schools to middle schools. It would also close John Marshall, which is scheduled to open as a middle school this fall.

Specialized academies where students can study subjects such as information technology, health sciences and teaching would be housed in the four remaining schools, which would all be magnets. The arts and humanities magnet programs at Broad Ripple would relocate to Shortridge, which would continue to operate the International Baccalaureate program. Students from across the district would choose from any of the four schools.

The four schools that would remain open are near the city’s downtown core. One reason the administration is aiming to close the high schools on the edge of the district is because having more centrally located schools would help reduce transportation costs and the length of bus rides for students, said IPS operations officer David Rosenberg.

In a system of all magnet high schools, “it makes sense to ensure that the majority of high schools that remain open are more centrally located,” Ferebee said. “We believe that this high school model is the best model for our students.”

The proposal builds on an earlier recommendation to close three unnamed high schools. In the weeks since the recommendation to close high schools was released, the administration has hosted several public meetings where parents, students and alumni spoke out against closing their schools. Tuesday night, just hours before the administration released its plan, critics held a protest against closing high schools outside a school board meeting.

Some of the fiercest criticism of the move has come from parents and community members who oppose the district’s increasing collaboration with charter schools. They have called out district leaders for looking to close traditional high schools at the same time that the district is adding three charter high schools to the innovation network. As innovation schools, they are considered part of the district but they have the flexibility of charter schools, and their teachers are not part of the teachers union because they work for the charter school managers.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Dountonia Batts

“This board is considering closing high schools while simultaneously approving charter schools that have no accountability to the public but access to public funds,” parent Dountonia Batts told the IPS board Tuesday. “IPS is destroying its own infrastructure that takes the public voice out of public education.”

The more detailed plan released today is sure to draw a fresh wave of opposition now that residents know which schools are targeted for closure. Passionate alumni and students from Broad Ripple have been some of the most vocal defenders of their high school, which is one of oldest campuses in the district and the home of a beloved arts magnet program.

Meanwhile, a district-led meeting near the Arlington campus was so crowded that some people were turned away. The school went through years of turmoil after it was taken over by the state for poor performance, and alumni have become staunch advocates.

Northwest is one of the largest high schools in IPS, with enrollment expected to exceed 700 students next year, and it is one of the newest buildings in the district. But that was not enough to spare the school from closure. Like the other targeted schools, it is on the distant edge of the district, making it difficult to transport students from other neighborhoods.

Here are some more details on the plans for buildings and academic programs:

Buildings

In a move that may appease some critics, the plan also calls for closing two administrative buildings and colocating staff at school campuses: Forest Manor, at 4501 E. 32nd Street, and the Facilities Maintenance Department, at 1129 East 16th Street. Forest Manor houses offices for staff in several departments, including special education, English as a second language and school turnaround. Under the plan, they would relocate to the Arlington campus where they would share a building with a new middle school. The facilities department would also move to school campuses, with some of the department moving to the Francis Bellamy preschool center and some sharing space with a new middle school at Northwest.

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Arlington High School is one of three schools the administration recommends closing

If the district follows through with the reshuffling in the proposal, it would result in four empty buildings: Broad Ripple, John Marshall, Forest Manor and the Facilities Maintenance Department. Both Broad Ripple and the Facilities Maintenance Department are in economically thriving areas, and the district expects that it could sell those properties for several million dollars each.

The plans for Forest Manor are less clear. They call for selling the building to eliminate the cost of maintenance. But it could also be used to house a charter school that joins the district innovation network. In its application for a charter, the proposed KIPP Indy High School listed Forest Manor as its first choice for a location.

Finding a new use for John Marshall could be more challenging: The administration does not yet have a redevelopment plan, and the report calls for working with community partners “to ensure a viable reuse to add to the community.”

Academic Programs

Each of the four remaining high schools would offer several career academies.

Shortridge: The humanities and visual and performing arts magnet programs at Broad Ripple would move to Shortridge, which would continue to offer the International Baccalaureate program. It will also offer computer science and engineering programs.

George Washington: As the only traditional high school that would remain, the near west side high would have several new academies programs, including advanced manufacturing, information technology and business.

Crispus Attucks: The storied high school near downtown would continue to offer the health science magnet program, and it would add a teacher training career track.

Arsenal: The district’s largest high school already houses several magnet and career and technical education programs. Under the current plan, it would offer programs in career technology (which includes subjects from cooking to diesel service), military training and construction. It would also maintain the magnet programs for law and public policy, math and science, and New Tech, a project-based learning school.

exclusive

Shelby County Schools wants to shutter charter school that opened outside district limits

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Brad Leon, chief of strategy and performance management

Shelby County Schools is recommending the closure of a charter school situated in a Memphis suburb, outside the district’s limits.

Gateway University High School, which just concluded its first year, found building space in Bartlett just two weeks before the beginning of the 2017-18 academic year. The charter school’s leader, Sosepriala Dede, had planned to open in downtown Memphis, but had trouble finding a suitable space there.

Dede, the founder, president and CEO of Gateway, told Chalkbeat on Thursday that the school is just days away from securing a facility in Memphis. The charter network has signed a letter of intent — but not yet a lease — for a building now occupied by National College on Thousand Oaks Boulevard, Dede said.

“We’re aware we needed to move. We have every intent to be within [the district’s] boundaries this fall,” he said, adding his team vetted “at least a dozen” buildings this year before settling on this one.

Tennessee’s attorney general in September said charter schools do not have authority to open outside the district in which they were authorized. And earlier this year, the state legislature passed a law requiring charter schools to secure school buildings inside their home district’s borders.

In a September letter, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen directed Shelby County Schools to “support Gateway’s effort” to relocate within the district’s boundaries based on the attorney general’s opinion. The decision to locate Gateway in Bartlett also drew opposition from the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, the local funding body for district schools.

Brad Leon, the district’s chief of strategy and performance management, said the district also warned Gateway that if it did not find a building within district boundaries by May 31, he would recommend revoking its charter.

“You have the commissioner getting an attorney general opinion, saying you guys gotta move; you have our contract that says you got to be in our boundary, and third, you now have a Tennessee code saying you’ve got to do this,” Leon said. “And despite all of that, the leadership at Gateway hasn’t been able to do this yet.”

The recommendation will be on the agenda for the school board’s work session Tuesday. A vote would follow on June 26. Dede was part of the Tennessee Charter School Center’s fellowship to train leaders of new schools. He is also is a former charter network leader for Gestalt Community Schools and a former principal at Humes Preparatory Academy Middle School when Gestalt operated it.

Below you can read the letter Shelby County Schools sent to Gateway’s board chair Anthony Brown on June 1.

Update, June 15, 2018: This story has been updated to reflect what Education Commissioner Candice McQueen sent Shelby County Schools in regards to Gateway and copies of correspondence between Shelby County Schools, Gateway, and the Tennessee Department of Education.

A new approach

Denver’s school board is taking a break from its school closure policy

PHOTO: Craig F. Walker, The Denver Post
A teacher returns test scores to her class at Lake International School in Denver in 2012.

The Denver school board will hit pause this year on a controversial policy that calls for closing low-performing schools, as board members embark on a citywide listening tour that has the potential to change how the district defines school success.

The pause would be in effect for the 2018-19 school year. It would impact schools with chronically low test scores. The district has sought to replace such schools with new ones deemed more likely to get kids reading and doing math on grade-level – a policy that has generated significant pushback and even shouts of “shame!” at board meetings.

Instead of facing closure or replacement, low-performing schools this year would be required to give the board “written and verbal reports regarding their ongoing or proposed improvement strategies,” according to a memo written by board member Lisa Flores and district official Jennifer Holladay, who oversees the department that makes school closure recommendations.

The district would provide the board with information about the school’s academics, culture, and operations, and the board would use it “to exercise oversight of struggling schools’ improvement plans and understand the needed supports, and make decisions to move forward with those plans or choose an alternate path,” according to a written presentation.

School closure isn’t entirely off the table. That “alternate path” could be closure – or, more likely, consolidation with another school – if a low-performing school also has dwindling student enrollment, Flores said.

At a school board work session Monday night, Flores pitched the new approach as a “third way” – a middle ground between the strict school closure policy in place for the past two years and the inconsistent way the district previously dealt with struggling schools.

The board would use the “third way” approach as it gathers community feedback on its planned listening tour about what student success looks like, how the district should define a “quality school,” and how it should respond when schools miss the mark.

Board members did not take a formal vote on it, but they informally agreed to move forward. The board’s policy of intervening when schools continue to struggle despite extra help and district funding would remain in place, but the consequences would be softened.

“I see this as a real opportunity for DPS to take a good intent here, which is really about serving kids, and take it to the next iteration, where we can do better for our communities,” board president Anne Rowe said. She said that while the strict policy was well meaning, it had unintended consequences that “can be really, really painful.”

Critics of the district’s policy have said closing a school is disruptive and communicates to students and teachers that they’re not good enough. Those critics are gaining political power. Last year, Denver voters elected one new school board member, Carrie Olson, who opposed the policy and two who questioned how it was being carried out.

Other board members have defended the policy by saying the district can’t let students languish in schools that aren’t working. The district is falling short of ambitious goals it set to improve academic achievement by 2020. It’s notable that Flores, the board member who proposed the new approach, has been a supporter of the district’s accountability policy.

Van Schoales, CEO of the education advocacy organization A Plus Colorado, which has supported the district’s school improvement efforts, is wary of the new approach.

“This sounds as if they’re going to say that kids can sit for another year in schools … not supporting them to read or write, which I think is unfortunate,” Schoales said. “I’m very concerned that they’re just kicking the can down the road.”

Denver Public Schools is seen as a national leader when it comes to holding schools accountable, a key part of what’s known as the “portfolio strategy” of managing both district-run and charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently managed. Before formalizing the current policy, the district closed or replaced struggling schools of both types, but without consistent criteria for when to do so. That led to complaints it was playing favorites.

In an effort to be more fair, the school board in 2015 adopted a policy called the “school performance compact.” It says the district should “promptly intervene” when struggling schools met certain criteria. The criteria were developed in a set of guidelines separate from the policy, and they have changed over the past two years.

Last year’s criteria were:

  • If a school was rated “red,” the lowest of the district’s ratings, two years in a row; or
  • If a school was rated “red” in the most recent year and either “red” or “orange,” the second-lowest rating, in the two preceding years; and
  • If a school’s students did not show enough academic progress on the most recent state tests, the school would be subject to closure or “restart,” meaning the school could get a new operator or a new academic model.

Only one school met those criteria last year: Cesar Chavez Academy, a K-8 charter school in northwest Denver. In a move that avoided a public battle, Cesar Chavez struck a deal with a more successful charter school, Rocky Mountain Prep, to take over its building and give enrollment preference to its students. Cesar Chavez shut its doors at the end of last month.

Three district-run elementary schools met the criteria the first year the policy was in effect in 2016: John Amesse, Greenlee, and Gilpin Montessori. Because of Gilpin’s declining enrollment, the school board voted to close it at the end of the 2016-17 school year.

The board decided to “restart” John Amesse and Greenlee, which both had healthy enrollments despite years of poor test scores. With input from the community, the school board chose new academic programs for both schools. Those programs will start this fall.

But the 2016 decisions were fraught with controversy. Parents at Gilpin accused the district of meddling with the school’s scores to seal its fate, a claim the district denied. A community process to pick new programs at John Amesse and Greenlee didn’t go as planned.

Flores and Holladay cited those and other issues in their memo. The memo says that while having strict criteria for when to close schools is helpful because the decisions can no longer come as a surprise to parents and teachers, such “bright-line rules” also have downsides.

“School staff and community members often did not feel heard about positive aspects of their schools,” the memo says, “and some board members, including Ms. Flores, felt restrained – unable to exercise judgment within these difficult decisions.”

The memo also says the policy put “significant additional pressure” on the district’s color-coded school rating system, which came under fire from the community this year on multiple fronts. The ratings – called the “school performance framework,” or SPF, ratings – are largely based on state test scores. The district typically releases school ratings each fall.

Nine low-rated schools are listed in the memo as potentially eligible for closure or restart in 2018-19 under the criteria the board is now set to disregard this year. Depending on their ratings this year, the nine schools could go through the new process outlined in the memo.

They are:

A tenth school, Venture Prep High School, was also potentially eligible, according to the memo. But Venture Prep, a charter school, decided on its own to close at the end of this school year after not attracting enough students for next year.

At its work session Monday night, the school board discussed picking two of its seven members to work with district staff to develop a “data dashboard” for every “red” school.

Board members would help determine which data – about a school’s academic progress, for example, or its culture – would be included in the dashboard. The board would then use that data to make decisions about the school’s future and its proposed improvement plan.

The idea, Flores said, is that “we would have our ‘red’ schools … come and present to the board on their path forward.” Those presentations, along with the data from the dashboard, would allow the board to “engage with each of those schools about what comes next,” she said.

As for how the policy would be carried out beyond next year, Flores told her fellow board members she expects the feedback they hear on their listening tour “is going to be important in informing what the ‘school performance compact’ looks like in the future.”