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George Washington High School.

George Washington High School.

Scott Elliott

IPS board supportive of plan for 2 high schools, but Cosby has doubts

Most of the Indianapolis Public School Board tonight cheered a plan that keeps IPS in control over two of its high schools while working with the state and a consultant to improve them, even with a $2.1 million price tag.

But at least one board member had concerns about the district’s proposal, which the school board will vote on Thursday.

Board member Gayle Cosby said she is worried that the contract will result in a more fragmented school district by creating separate governing boards for schools under the state’s new “transformation zone.”

There should be more community engagement before such an undertaking, she said.

“I always prefer to get the community involved on the front end rather than the back end,” Cosby said. “There were some clear parallels between the transformation zone work and what you could define as decentralization. I don’t have 100 percent clarity on that issue, but there are some murky points in the scope of work.”

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee pitched the plan for IPS to work with Boston-based Mass Insight to create transformation zones for George Washington and Northwest high schools, a school improvement approach that groups troubled schools and schools that feed into them with a goal of identifying struggling students early and giving more power to principals.

Unlike the state takeover, a process that has severed other schools from district control, IPS would remain in control of, and responsible for, the schools — something that Ferebee has pushed state leaders to permit more widely since taking charge of the district in 2013.

“Two years ago, the only course was for the state to take over more and more of the IPS schools,” board member Sam Odle said. “Now, with what Dr. Ferebee has negotiated with the state … IPS isn’t losing control of any more schools. We’re getting additional state resources to help us improve those schools.”

The company’s plan for the two schools proposes that all staff members in transformation zone schools to reapply for their positions and to work under a “modified collective bargaining agreement.”

Ferebee said that is not part of the plan, or at least not yet. But he noted that increasing autonomy for schools throughout the district is a newly defined priority for the school board.

“I wouldn’t say it changes anything materially,” Ferebee said.

If the contract is approved, Mass Insight’s work will start at George Washington High School and Northwest High School starting next fall. Cosby said she was concerned the district might not have enough oversight of its work.

The debate comes as state policymakers rethink how the state should treated the state’s lowest scoring schools.

The transformation zone model originated in Evansville. The Indiana Department of Education has also tried pairing IPS schools that repeated have been rated an F have with outside consultants as “lead partners,” but that has met with little success.

IPS has gone through several failed relationships with lead partners, causing Ferebee to ask the state board last year to drop the concept entirely. The state board responded by letting IPS act as its own lead partner for one school and by assigning Denver-based Marzano Research Laboratories to work with two other high schools.

State takeover also has been rife with problems. The state board voted last week to let IPS regain management of Arlington High School after months of debate over what would happen to the Indianapolis high school since its state-assigned operator, the charter network Tindley Accelerated Schools, announced last year it couldn’t afford to run the school anymore.

Ferebee said he prefers the transformation zone model to state takeover or lead partners.

“This model that we’re proposing where the district takes the lead in working with schools that have been underperforming is a more favorable model,” Ferebee said.