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Two students sit at a black desk working on a project.

Students at Harshman Middle School, where Jack Hesser is a teacher, work on science projects.

Scott Elliott / Chalkbeat

IPS board to Ferebee: Discontinue 7-12 high schools

The end could be near for Indianapolis Public Schools’ combined middle and high schools.

The Indianapolis Public School Board directed Superintendent Lewis Ferebee at a board retreat last Friday to develop a plan to phase out school designs that result in 7th and 8th graders sharing space, schedules and sometimes even teachers with high school students, a controversial legacy from former superintendent Eugene White’s tenure.

“We’ve got clear direction that we have to explore options that would move us away from that model,” Ferebee said. “We’ll get it vetted and get community input.”

Instead, board members said they want to see well-developed middle grades programs at elementary schools and to expand successful magnet programs, which they hope will help increase student safety and bolster grades and test scores.

Middle schoolers have some of the lowest test scores in the district: Seven IPS high schools serve grades 6 to 12 or 7 to 12. In many of those schools, high school test scores are on the rise while middle school students’ ISTEP scores last year made little growth or even fell farther behind.

Nothing is expected to change next year but the district could start the transition toward more K to 8 elementary schools as early as the 2016-17 school year. Ferebee has said since he arrived at IPS in 2012 that the district’s 12 grade configurations scattered among more than 60 schools is “convoluted” at best and unsafe at worst.

“When you have students going through that phase in life, it’s not appropriate to have them with high school students who are in a different phase in their lives,” Ferebee said. “It’s best that those experiences be separate for a lot of different reasons, but primarily safety and social and emotional (development).”

Ferebee said combined middle and high schools also present instructional challenges. In some schools he’s seen 11th-grade Advanced Placement Calculus teachers be simultaneously responsible for teaching 7th-grade Pre-Algebra, a very different challenge.
“That’s a very unique skill set,” Ferebee said. “What happens is we have teachers who really enjoy one group and not so much the other. When I talk to the students, they don’t like being around each other. The middle grade students aren’t too fond of the high school students. It’s a real challenge for staff to manage.”

He said he’s exploring a new approach to organizing staff to avoid those situations next year.

Switching to more K to 8 schools may also help IPS compete with neighboring township and charter schools. The district often loses students as they approach middle and high schools. IPS has more than twice as many students in its elementary schools as it does in its middle and high schools.

Board member Kelly Bentley said she consistently hears from parents that they want their kids in K to 8 schools. She said IPS should expand its existing successful magnet programs such as the Center for Inquiry schools.

“We’ve got to respond to the market,” Bentley said. “A lot of these people are just walking.”

Board member Gayle Cosby said she wants to make sure IPS expands its successful programs in vulnerable neighborhoods as well as in places where parents are vocal.

“What’s great about Center for Inquiry 84, we need to make that available on other sides of town,” Cosby said.

The combined middle and high schools, called “community high schools,” were a major initiative of former superintendent White, who said the retooled schools would help reduce dropouts in the district and increase graduation rates. And graduation rates did rise dramatically after they were instituted.

But some of those gains were fueled by the use of graduation waivers, where students are allowed to graduate even if they have failed state tests.

School board President Diane Arnold said she supported the community school concept initially, especially at George Washington High School. She said she saw wayward middle schoolers blossom when they were able to participate in high quality high school athletics and music programs.

“It rescued some of those kids,” Arnold said. “I know there’s times it hasn’t worked well at Washington. I did see a few snippets of where it worked well for some kids.”

But Washington’s middle schoolers have continued to struggle. A new principal there this year created a separate program for older middle schoolers to try to get them back on track and reduce behavioral issues.

Unfortunately, said Butler University researcher Flo Barnes, there is “no magic bullet” when it comes to grade configuration. There are pros and cons to each model, she said. But she said the fewer transitions a student has between schools, the better they seem to do on a social and emotional level.

One benefit to having a K to 8 school is that elementary and middle school teachers may be better able to collaborate, Barnes said.

“I liked the thought that if you are in a K-8 setting, you can really enrich professional development,” said Barnes, a former Spanish teacher and instructional coach. “Having your elementary school teachers thinking on that middle school playing field. On the contrary, your secondary teachers … really see the value of (teaching) the whole child.”