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IPS board to Ferebee: Explore ways to save Key Learning Community

Key Learning Community, a K-12 school famous for its unique curriculum, will close at the end of the school year.
Key Learning Community, a K-12 school famous for its unique curriculum, will close at the end of the school year.
Scott Elliott

Indianapolis Public School Board members, moved by parent complaints, asked Superintendent Lewis Ferebee to consider alternatives to his plan to close Key Learning Community, a K-12 magnet school.

In November, IPS’s plan to close Key drew ire from parents, students and community members who didn’t want to lose the world’s first school with curriculum inspired by the Multiple Intelligences theory.

Among the ideas the board suggested were moving the program to another building and closing just the high school at Key.

“I’d like to see us consider some options,” said board member Diane Arnold. “Paying for a high school for 50 students is not efficient. If we could go K-8 somewhere, possibly that’s a win-win.”

Ferebee said he would be open to considering other options.

“There’s some really strong recommendations of what we could explore to get to a resolution on Key,” Ferebee said. “We’ll go back and explore the feasibility of a school-within-a-school model, or maybe looking at another facility. There are benefits to having a small, unique learning environment, but we also have to consider the operational challenges and the declining interest (in the program). Hopefully we can get to a point where we can find a solution.”

Ferebee proposed closing Key Learning Community in 2016 as part of a redesign of the district’s magnet program that included shifts of magnet programs among other schools, including Gambold Prep, Shortridge, Broad Ripple and Arsenal Tech high schools.

The Key schools is famous, and has often been studied, as one of the best real-world examples of the Multiple Intelligences theory applied to learning, but by 2012 it was struggling to get the results it needed to stay open. An effort to revive the school’s test scores, while preserving its unique history, has had mixed results, with some large test gains at some grades.

The district’s magnet redesign plan also included moving the International Baccalaureate program from Gambold to Shortridge, and moving Shortridge’s law and public policy magnet to Arsenal Tech. That was approved last month. The board will vote next week on whether to move the mass media and communications program from Broad Ripple to Arsenal Tech.

Key Learning Community was eyed for the chopping block, Ferebee said, because of an “alarming decline” in enrollment there which has made operating the building more costly. The school, which was transformed with the Multiple Intelligences-based curriculum in 1987, has 448 students in grades K-12 and is considered to be under capacity.

School board president Annie Roof said she wondered if closing Key — located just Southwest of downtown — would make room for the district to sell the school or partner with a charter school. A Chamber of Commerce report on the district’s facilities earlier this year cited Key as a property that might be valuable enough to sell for a profit.

“I’d hate to sell out one of the district’s first alternative programs because it’s profitable,” Roof said.

But Ferebee said that’s not part of his plan.

“It’s difficult to say how the campus would be used because it’s a very versatile campus that could be used as an elementary, middle or even perhaps a high school,” Ferebee said. “This is not an attempt to sell property or lease space to charters.”

If Key closes, Roof said she worried about what would become of its students. It’s likely, she said, many would want to join other magnet programs like the Centers for Inquiry, Sidener Academy for gifted students or a Montessori school. But the district already has more demand than it has seats in those schools.

“Our other programs are full,” Roof said. “Parents who choose Key are looking for that differentiated style of learning. Even if we have something close to that, we don’t have enough spaces for the kids that are at Key currently.”

Parents said moving Key to another building or reorganizing it would be far preferable to closing it altogether.

Amy Hardesty, a parent of Key students, thought hard about where to put her kids in school. She said she chose Key because it offered a curriculum and stressed community involvement unlike any other she had seen.

“It’s our home,” Hardesty said. “You can’t replicate that. Reorganize us. Move us.”

Late notice about plans to close the school continued to irk parents.

Alan Schoff, a Key parent, said the board’s plan seemed “out of touch with what’s really happening on the ground.”

“My biggest issue is not the actual closure of Key,” Schoff said. “The biggest issue I have is the process that got us here.”

Board member Sam Odle said he joined parents and teachers in being frustrated with how the changes were relayed to the community.

“We’ll do a better job of communicating changes in the future,” Odle said. “And there will be more changes, so we’ll have to learn to do that.”

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