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Closing John Marshall, absorbing students into Arlington may be IPS’ next move

Closing John Marshall High School may be the key to keeping Arlington High School alive.

That was the plan that got the most support today from the Indianapolis Public School Board as district leaders discussed the schools’ future. IPS could merge the two East Side schools into Arlington High School’s building as early as next school year if district leaders can get the state to follow their plan for removing Arlington from state takeover.

The idea had strong support, but board members were also cautious.

“I know how traumatic school closings are to communities,” board member Diane Arnold said. “I worry about what that impact is. I think it’s a good idea, but is there a way for us to make it a win-win?”

Arlington was severed from school district control in 2012 after receiving six straight years of F grades from the state based on low test scores and turned over to be managed by Tindley Schools (formerly EdPower), an Indianapolis-based charter school network.

Earlier this summer, Tindley officials shocked the Indiana State Board of Education by asking to be released from their contract to run the school, saying the state was not providing enough money. The move raised questions about whether state takeover can be effectively managed.

IPS would like to have Arlington back, but it needs the blessing of a skeptical state board.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee and school board members spent much of this morning considering how to craft a transition plan for Arlington to pitch the state when it takes up the question in October.

Closing John Marshall was the idea that got the most attention. Both schools serve grades 7 to 12 and Arlington can hold more than 2,000 students. John Marshall’s nearly 1,000 students could be merged with Arlington’s roughly 400 students at Arlington’s recently renovated East side building about five miles away. But details need to be worked out.

“I love the idea of combining John Marshall and Arlington,” IPS board member Caitlin Hannon said. “If I were the state board, my reaction would be (wondering) what’s the actual plan for making it successful.”

John Marshall also has experienced troublingly low academic performance. It narrowly avoided state takeover in 2012, and instead was assigned a “lead partner” to help improve the school. The partner is an outside group, The New Teacher Project, which helped Broad Ripple High School improve its performance after a similar stretch of F grades.

Other options for Arlington the board discussed included closing the school and reassigning its students to other schools or using a new state law that allows the district to partner with a different charter school management group to run the school.

Ferebee said working with a charter school operator to run Arlington High School could also work. So far, he said, one has expressed interest: Lighthouse Academies, which runs three local charter schools.

The idea to merge John Marshall and Arlington had the broadest support among board members, who considered ideas like a complete overhaul that would involve changing the school’s name, making the academic offerings technology- and career-focused, or eventually creating a magnet program there.

“I’d love to do it with a bang,” board member Gayle Cosby said. “I’d like it to be a grand reopening … powerful and positive.”

Ferebee said keeping the building open as-is with so few students would be difficult.

“There’s a small student population and a massive facility there,” Ferebee said. “That’s the challenge Tindley is in right now.”

If John Marshall closed, board members said they would likely shelve the building, which they said has fallen into disrepair with asbestos and mold issues, or lease it to another group such as a charter school operator.

But closing John Marshall, board members said, would not be taken lightly.

Board member Sam Odle said it would take careful planning and execution to make a merger successful.

“Consolidating is a good idea but how do we execute it in a way that’s going to be seen as an improvement?” Odle said. “Call it the Eastside Career Academy. Something new is not combining the old.”