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Merger talks surprised John Marshall High School community

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

Kimberly Bostic lives on the East side and cares for the students she’s mentored at John Marshall High School. It matters to her whether or not the school has a future.

So Bostic was troubled by the Indianapolis Public School board’s enthusiasm Thursday for the idea of closing Marshall and merging its roughly 1,000 students into Arlington High School, about five miles away.

While John Marshall has long been among the lowest-scoring high schools in the state, she thinks it’s gotten better in the two years since it narrowly avoided state takeover for low performance. Students seem more engaged, she said, and a newly installed principal seems genuinely eager to help them succeed.

“We’ve worked really hard to try and champion around the school and support the staff,” said Bostic, who attended hearings about the school’s future back in 2012 as director for a nearby community center. “We’re at a point where we have the right people in place.”

The notion of closing Marshall came out of the blue for Bostic as news reached the East side Thursday. It was one of several options Superintendent Lewis Ferebee offered at a school board retreat for how to deal with a totally separate problem: repatriating Arlington High School back into IPS.

Arlington, like Marshall, triggered a discussion about its future when it reached six straight years of F grades from the state in 2011. Ultimately, it was one of four IPS schools, along with Howe High School, Manual High School and Donnan Middle School, that were taken over by the Indiana State Board of Education and handed off to be run by outside operators, the Tindley Schools charter school network in Arlington’s case.

That hasn’t worked out well.

While test scores at Arlington have made some gains two years later, the schools enrollment plummeted by hundreds of students, down to about 400 for a building big enough to hold more than 2,000. Because state aid is tied to enrollment, officials from Tindley Schools told the state board this summer they could no longer afford to manage Arlington and proposed turning it back over to IPS.

It’s not certain that will be the state board’s final decision. It could also find a new outside operator for Arlington, or it could look at options like turning it into a charter school. But Ferebee was invited to present ideas for how IPS would bring the school back into the fold.

At the retreat, the size and quality of the building at Arlington and its proximity to Marshall quickly became part of the discussion. It might be easier and more cost effective, board members said, to consolidate the two East side high schools at the Arlington site then either to try to operate them both or merge them at the Marshall site.

“We’re trying to think through every options that works financially,” Ferebee said. “By no means have any decisions been made. We wouldn’t merge a school, close a school without having a conversation with the community.”

But already that conversation has begun, and the situation at Marshall is, to some, also a compelling reason to think about a radical change.

For example, Marshall saw just 14.8 percent of its middle school students pass ISTEP, worst out of nearly 60 IPS schools that took the test.

“This warrants further discussion,” said Justin Ohlemiller, executive director of Stand for Children, an Indianapolis organization that advocates for change and improvement in IPS. “East side parents have expressed real concerns to us about (John Marshall) being the current pathway for their kids in IPS.”

Both schools face facilities concerns as well as academic ones. Marshall has maintenance and mold concerns and at Arlington, the school is paying to maintain lots of empty space.

“You’ve got John Marshall and its struggles that have been well-documented throughout the years and you’ve got Arlington and the fact that it’s not sustainable,” Ohlemiller said. “It makes sense to look at those two challenges to figure out a path that hopefully leads to a high-quality high school option.”

Crafting a plan that makes sense for IPS is one problem. Another is that the plan will have to pass muster with the state board, which has been skeptical of IPS’s ability to manage its low performing schools in the past.

State board member Gordon Hendry, who lives within the boundaries of IPS, said he is ready to listen to any good ideas.

“IPS has so many facilities issues that they are trying to find efficiencies,” Hendry said. “Having 400 students in such a large school building (at Arlington) is hugely inefficient. I don’t have a specific reaction to the idea of closing one school versus another but I have a lot of confidence in the team … and I look forward to hearing more about these proposals.”

Bostic admits she was pretty unhappy when she heard closing Marshall was getting serious discussion from the IPS board. The last thing the East side needs, she said, is another blighted, empty building. And she worries about the difficulty for students transitioning to a new place and a new routine.

Even so, Bostic said she thinks she and others could be persuaded to support such a plan, but only if it takes the East side community’s concerns into account.

“We understand you have to do what’s in the budget and have it make sense,” Bostic said. “If you do it in a way where you can get the community behind you, you will have a much better chance.”

Do you have a reaction to IPS leaders’ idea to merge John Marshall and Arlington High Schools? Tell us in the comments.

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