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George Washington High School.

George Washington High School.

Scott Elliott

A third of George Washington High School’s teachers won’t return

Indianapolis Public Schools’ George Washington High School has lost more than a third of its teachers this summer after what the district acknowledged was a difficult transition year under a new leader.

Of the embattled West side school‘s 56 teachers, 20 won’t be returning when school starts back up Aug. 3, according to the district. Nine left IPS to take other jobs outside the district.

The change wasn’t confined to teachers. Of the 116 total staff — teachers, administrators and support workers — nearly 40 won’t return, including vice principals, front office secretaries and a dean.

George Washington, a combined middle school and high school, is led by first-year principal and Teach for America alumna Emily Butler.

Jesse Pratt, an academic improvement officer for IPS that oversees George Washington, said the turnover was normal — and expected — under a new leader. This will be Butler’s second year leading the school.

“We’ve got to challenge ourselves, we’ve got to push our students,” Pratt said. “Everything has to be better. We’re changing the culture and the climate of a school. What’s difficult is changing people’s mindsets about things. Educators in particular are very rigid about their beliefs.”

One longtime IPS teacher who decided to leave George Washington said lack of control and oversight was a motivator to look elsewhere.

Debra Aquino, who has taught high school English at the school for 10 years, recently took a job at a Lighthouse Academies charter school in Indianapolis.

“A lot of things were just swept under the rug, safety concerns, fighting,” Aquino said. “The first semester (of last year) was a nightmare. Everyone was in survival mode. I feel bad for the students because I don’t think they’re getting the high school experience they deserve.”

Butler said she was working around the clock — including scheduling multiple interviews on weekends — to get all the positions filled by the first day of school just two weeks from today.

The same problem happened last year, after Butler was hired late in the summer. Students and parents complained of substitutes filling in for months until teachers were hired.

The staff shortage meant that some students, including those receiving special education services, didn’t receive the support they needed. IPS acknowledged teachers were being pulled away from special education students to cover other classes, possibly in violation of federal law. But they said they have since stopped that practice.

That wasn’t the only issue. More than one in five Hispanic students had left the school in a single year, with some citing fights and racial tension. The school — located in one of the city’s most heavily Hispanic neighborhoods — no longer had the district’s highest share of Hispanic students after more than five years at the top of that list.

Nearby community groups called for changes at the school. But IPS dismissed the concerns, releasing a statement written by students calling them “rumors.”

IPS officials say they are looking ahead, not back.

Butler said being fully staffed will ensure the year gets off to a strong start. She’s also looking forward to a staff training session next week for new and returning teachers.

“Obviously, it’s a positive thing,” Butler said. “It’s going to be a great opportunity for all of the staff to get to know each other, to build relationships with each other.”

Pratt said he will be monitoring the school’s progress over the next year but was fully confident he’d see results.

“It will be the best opening in George Washington history,” Pratt said. “We’re expecting great things out of Emily’s leadership. We’re expecting great things out of the teachers. Anything less than that is going to be considered unacceptable.”