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School 43 may become a visual and performing arts school

A blue school sign reading “James W. Riley” sits on a grassy lawn with a red stop sign in the foreground.

James Whitcomb Riley School 43 would be the latest school to join the Indianapolis Public Schools innovation network.

Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat

James Whitcomb Riley School 43 could transform into a visual and performing arts school next year under an innovation agreement with Edison School of the Arts that Indianapolis Public Schools commissioners will consider on Thursday.

Under the agreement, Edison School of the Arts would operate School 43, which would gain innovation status that gives it autonomy from some district and union rules. 

The vote would change the direction once more for School 43, which has cycled through multiple principals,  faced staffing challenges, and reconfigured its grades. 

If approved, School 43 will be led next year by James Hill, whom the Edison school has been preparing to head its next campus. Hill recounted his previous experience as principal improving academic performance at the struggling Andrew J. Brown Academy in Indianapolis. 

“They call me a turnaround principal, but I don’t believe any school should have to be turned around,” Hill told the IPS board on Tuesday. “I think if we just do the job, we’ll get rid of that term someday.”

The change is part of the district’s Rebuilding Stronger plan, which seeks to improve educational equity by expanding specialized academic programs to reach more students of color. 

State law gives innovation schools operational autonomy and an exemption from union contracts. Most innovation schools within IPS are run by charter operators, which are independent entities but receive public funds to run schools. Edison was a district-run school that became an innovation school without inviting in a charter operator.  

The school serves students in the Butler-Tarkington neighborhood and will keep its neighborhood boundaries in 2023-24. Beginning in 2024-25, it will open to students in a broader area, known as Zones 1 and 2 in the district’s new Rebuilding Stronger plan. Zones 1 and 2 encompass the western and northern parts of the district.

School 43 will remain K-8 through June 2027. The Rebuilding Stronger plan will break up other K-8 schools into separate elementary and middle schools next school year.

Thursday’s vote would place School 43 under the direction of Edison, which runs one of the district’s most popular schools. It has received more than 2½ applications for every seat available, officials said Tuesday.

Like other schools, Edison saw a drop in proficiency levels in both math and English on the state ILearn test from 2019 to 2021. Even so, its proficiency levels mostly have remained above the districtwide average. Now 12.7% of Edison students score proficient in both math and English. 

By contrast, School 43 had among the lowest combined proficiency rates in the district — just 1.5%. 

Officials are banking on arts programming to engage more students of color and help boost academic outcomes. This school year, roughly 79% of School 43’s students are Black, according to state data. 

Officials noted that Edison’s academic performance for students of color outpaces the district’s. A higher percentage of Hispanic and Black students passed the English and math sections on the latest 2022 ILearn than in the district as a whole. 

School 43 is also in line to receive roughly $5.5 million in capital referendum funding — if voters approve a district ballot measure in May — that would help renovate the school for arts and academic programs. Those improvements would include a black box theater, sound booth, and a science lab.  

Board to consider renewing Matchbook as restart school

On Thursday the school board also will consider renewing its innovation agreement with the Matchbook Learning charter school at Wendell Phillips School 63. Matchbook is one of nine innovation “restart” charter schools assigned to improve academics at underperforming schools.

The school has had mixed academic scores. Students in all racial and ethnic subgroups performed below IPS and statewide average on the English section of last spring’s ILearn tests. 

But in math, Hispanic students and English language learners performed above the IPS average. Pass rates for Black students, white students, and students receiving subsidized meals, a measure of poverty, fell below the district and statewide averages. 

The proposed five-year agreement with Matchbook would include stronger accountability measures, including the district performing mandatory school visits and reviews of data. 

District officials pointed out that the innovation school increased enrollment and has a staff retention rate similar to the IPS average. 

“It’s a really positive school culture environment. You feel it when you walk in there,” Innovation Schools Director Brian Dickey said. “It’s a school where the [English language learner] population has increased over time, and I think we saw evidence of really consistent bilingual outreach between families and school staff.”

Amelia Pak-Harvey covers Indianapolis and Marion County schools for Chalkbeat Indiana. Contact Amelia at apak-harvey@chalkbeat.org.

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