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Ferebee asks: Where do middle school kids belong?

Harshman Middle School has seen a major turnaround in test scores.
Harshman Middle School has seen a major turnaround in test scores.
Scott Elliott

(Lewis Ferebee, superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools, sat down with Chalkbeat Indiana Bureau Chief Scott Elliott Monday night at the downtown public library for a one-on-one interview sponsored by WFYI. The full interview will be broadcast online next week and Chalkbeat will publish more excerpts from the conversation over the next few days.)

Since his arrival in Indianapolis seven months ago, IPS superintendent Lewis Ferebee has expressed some concerns about the grade configuration and set up of the district’s middle and high schools. The district has two magnet middle schools for students in grades 7 and 8: Harshman and Longfellow. But students in grades 6 to 8 can also attend three 6-12 magnet high schools: Broad Ripple, Crispus Attucks and Shortridge. Or students in grades 7 and 8 can attend one of three 7-12 community high schools: George Washington, Northwest or John Marshall.

There’s even more options. Key learning community serves grades K-12. Two elementary schools serve grades K to 7: School 106 and School 27. Nine elementary schools are K-8: School 2, School 19, School 31, School 43, School 46, School 56, School 84, School 87 and School 91. There’s even a school for grades 2 to 7, Sidener Academy, a magnet school for gifted kids.

IPS’s lineup of schools was dramatically changed by state takeover in 2012. Now four former IPS schools are independently managed by outside organizations under contracts with the state: Donnan Middle School for grades 7 and 8; Manual High School for grades 9 to 12 and Howe and Arlington high schools for grades 7 to 12.

That leaves IPS with just one 9 to 12 high school in Arsenal Tech. High school students can attend the three 6-12 magnet high schools or the three 7-12 high schools. Plus K-12 Key Learning Community and the new Gambold Prep High School (serving grades 9-10) have high school students.

In the interview, Ferebee said he is considering how to reorganize middle and high schools, including grappling with ways to create clearer paths for students to follow from elementary to high school. Among the potentially big questions is whether IPS should have separate middle schools at all or if all non-magnet high school students should be on one campus.

Finally, Ferebee address concerns about Harshman Middle School, an IPS showcase for its big test score turnaround over the past four years, in the wake of the news Principal Bob Guffin and Assistant Principal Dana Altemeyer both are leaving the school.

Here’s what Ferebee had to say:

Where do middle school students belong?

It’s very challenging for our families and students because we have multiple configurations of grade for our schools. So we have K-5, K-6, 7-8, 7-12, 6-12 and so what we are seeing in our stakeholder feedback, and what I’ve heard from our constituents through the town halls and our focus groups, was there are not clear pipelines for students to matriculate from elementary school through secondary.

For example, If I want to go to Crispus Attucks Magnet High School, I’ve got to leave my K-6 to go their in 6th grade and I go there from 6 to 12. If I’m attending a K-8 school we really don’t have any 9-12 schools for the students to attend. So you’re asking that eighth grader to transition to a high school where some students have been since the sixth grade or some students have been since seventh grade.

It’s very convoluted for students and families. There could be clearer streams for students to flow through as we think about our K-12 continuum. I also think it’s very challenging for the few middle grade stand alone schools we have. As a middle school principal, it was very challenging for grade 6 to 8. And in some cases we got them in one year and got them out the other year. That’s difficult.

As a middle school principal, one of the things I enjoyed was having students for multiple years. So I believe we need to create models where we give families options that will provide a clear continuum of K-6, 6-8, 9-12 where parents can see this is where we’re going to start and this is where we’re going to graduate. Right now I don’t think that’s really clear for a lot of our families.

Honestly, we’ve done some grade configurations based on keeping students in IPS or to address the takeover challenge we had a few years ago. I just don’t believe that is the right way to configure. It has to be more strategic and thoughtful for our families.

IPS’s high school students all could fit in all one high school. Should we do that, perhaps at Arsenal Tech?

We’re having those conversations now. Grade configuration is one part of the domino, but efficiency is the other side. It’s more efficient to have more students at one site, but is that the best learning environment is what we have to ask ourselves. What we’re finding in the feedback we received from our stakeholders, and it’s very documented as well in research, is that in smaller learning environments, typically students do better. It costs more, but typically the students perform better.

Those are decisions we have to grapple with going forward. What is the right grade configuration? What is the right setting for our students? Do we want the massive traditional high school or do we want smaller learning environments? Or do we want to land between the two? Those are discussions we are having right now.

What’s important for us to consider is what the curricular needs are, and what the academic needs are, for our students and create programming for our families around that. That’s important when you think about the conversation we had about middle school because we’re bleeding at middle school and high school. We start with about 3,500 kindergarteners. Gradually that number over time gets smaller and smaller and it gets almost to 1,500 to 1,000 students who get to ninth grade.

What that tells me and our commissioners is we don’t have the right options when we begin to lose students in middle grades and we don’t have the right options that are attractive for students when they matriculate to high school. I am very excited about doing our work differently there to retain those students and give those students options to get them ready for career and college.

Sustaining success is a real challenge for IPS. People are talking now about Harshman Middle School. The assistant principal left recently and now the principal has announced plans to leave for another job. This has been an example of an IPS school that made a remarkable turnaround. How can it be sustained?

I think our efforts need to be more grassroots oriented. What we did at Harshman was we took advantage of a school improvement grant that provided a boost of resources for the school and its been difficult to sustain that now that we are at the cusp of the funding cliff.

The other challenge is that as you do good work, people look at you as possible candidates for other roles. In the case of Harshman, we had two leaders who were doing great work and were tapped to go to other organizations. We wish them well. But I think that’s a call for us to be competitive in our compensation particularly at our schools that have been struggling where our turnaround work is going on.

But I think it’s also a sign that we need to be more grassroots in terms of developing and empowering our educators in developing school reform because I believe empowering from within is more sustainable and we’re not relying on booster shots to get toward the outcomes that we’re seeking.

I am very pleased with the work that is taking place at Harshman. I believe there are teachers there who will continue the charge.

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