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New plan for turning around an Indy high school: add elementary kids

Charter Schools USA once proposed expanding Howe High School to add elementary grades.
Charter Schools USA once proposed expanding Howe High School to add elementary grades.
Scott Elliott/Chalkbeat

Five years after taking over management of three failing Indianapolis schools, Charter Schools USA is doubling down on an unusual strategy for improving student outcomes — adding younger students to the school.

The for-profit charter management company’s latest proposal for revamping Howe High School, which has been under state control due to poor performance since 2012, would convert the 7-12th grade school on the Eastside into a K-12 school serving children as young as five.

The same management company made a similar change at Emma Donnan Middle School this year, saying the approach makes it easier for schools to reach kids before they fall too far behind.

“Students are coming in to us at seventh grade below grade level and so the question becomes, what do we need to do to make sure that the intervention that is in place is successful?” said Sherry Hage, chief academic officer for Charter Schools USA.

The idea is not without precedent. KIPP, a national charter network that operates middle and elementary schools in Indianapolis has made similar changes to schools in Indianapolis and around the country but the plan for Howe could face resistance. The Indiana State Board of Education, which oversees the school, has ruled in the past that state law does not permit adding grades to schools in takeover.

Plus, there’s little research on whether adding earlier grades improves outcomes for students.

“I can make intuitive arguments for it,” said Ron Zimmer, a researcher at Vanderbilt University who studies charter schools and middle school grade configuration. “I’m just not sure if there’s any evidence to support those arguments.”

It’s fairly common for charter schools to add upper grades as students progress, enrolling kids initially in kindergarten or first grade and then adding new grades until eventually becoming K-12 schools, Zimmer said. Expanding schools downward from high school is rare.

KIPP made the unusual move with the Indy College Prep Middle school it opened in 2003. After a decade, the charter network decided in 2014 to add an elementary school, Indy Unite Elementary, at the same location.

The idea is to “build out a full K-12 feeder system here in Indianapolis,” KIPP leader Emily Pelino wrote in an email, adding that the school realized there was demand for an elementary school and leaders wanted to improve results.

At a school with a distinctive educational program or discipline strategy, it can make sense to try to capture students earlier, Zimmer said. But he was not aware of any research into whether adding grades or creating K-12 schools like the one Charter Schools USA is proposing at Howe improves student test results.

“I don’t know any urban, traditional public schools that are K-12,” Zimmer said. “It’s fairly unique to the charter dimension.”

Expanding into lower grades could be a cost effective move for Howe. With just 548 students, the school is serving less than half the 1377 teens it educated just ten years ago. In part that’s because enrollment dropped precipitously when the failing IPS high school was taken over by the state in 2012. With such low enrollment, the building is expensive to maintain. Charter Schools USA told the Indiana State Board of Education that it costs $1 million just to pay for utilities at the school.

“The building right now has a lot of capacity,” Hage said. “Our conversations are about how are we being efficient and how are we being effective with the resources that we have?”

At a public hearing on the status at Howe and other takeover schools last week, Charter Schools USA — which proposed the expansion at a Indiana State Board of Education meeting in March — pitched the idea of adding elementary students to Howe. But there is no timeline for making a decision.

Charter Schools USA expanded the grade configuration at Emma Donnan Middle School to include lower grades this year by forming a separate elementary school within the IPS “innovation network.” The company continues to manage Emma Donnan, but IPS now gets credit for the school’s scores on state tests.

Charter Schools USA could use a similar partnership to create an elementary school at Howe but so far Superintendent Lewis Ferebee has been noncommittal about the possibility for another agreement.

“We also want a better understanding of what the logistics would be for a K-12 campus, how we would ensure safety and those types of things,” Ferebee said. “Whether we will partner at Howe or not remains to be determined.”

The idea faces some criticism from educators who spoke out against Charter Schools USA management of Howe at last week’s hearing. Tasha Jones, who said she taught English at Howe before leaving amid conflict with the administration last year, said that the school is already struggling with discipline problems because middle school students share the building with high schoolers, and it should not expand to include an elementary school.

“We don’t have a stable facility or a stable place for seventh-graders and 12th-graders to remain,” Jones said. “I don’t necessarily know that I should invite my babies for that.”

But Paige Pittman, an instructional coach at the school, said that getting students earlier could help students catch them up or prevent them from falling behind. The challenge for Howe is winning over families, she said.

“When it first became a takeover school, people were scared of that and left,” Pittman said. “Now it’s saying, ‘this is not a bad thing,’ and we are successful and we are growing.”

Correction: April 12, 2016: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of researcher Ron Zimmer.

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