Indianapolis Public Schools plans to end agreements with two of its innovation network schools that are slated to merge with two other schools under the district’s proposed Rebuilding Stronger reorganization plan.
The move would mean that current students would be educated in schools firmly under district control, while most staff would be forced to reapply for their jobs.
The district’s more than 25 innovation network schools are given more autonomy through an innovation agreement. Staff in these schools are not unionized. The majority of them are charter schools, but some — such as SUPER School — do not have a charter.
If their innovation agreements end, Urban Act and SUPER School 19 would be the third and fourth schools to be removed from the innovation network by the district since the creation of such schools under state law in 2014.
The two schools joined the network for the 2018-19 school year amid high hopes. But both schools oversaw a drop in student achievement since taking over two traditional public schools in 2018-19.
District officials plan to recommend that innovation agreements with the two schools should not be renewed at a board meeting in November, citing the poor academic performance.
The recommendation for non-renewal comes just as the board considers merging the schools with two others under the Rebuilding Stronger plan.
The mergers are among the many sweeping recommendations outlined in that plan, which attempts to bring a more equitable education to students while also addressing declining enrollment and challenging finances.
Under the plan, students and staff at Center for Inquiry (CFI) at School 2 would move to Urban Act to create a new CFI school. Paul Miller School 114 students, meanwhile, would move to SUPER School 19.
The mergers would alleviate issues at both School 114 and the CFI at School 2, which have buildings in poor condition. School 114, which has dwindling enrollment, could see a boost in student population by taking over SUPER School. Merging the CFI at School 2, meanwhile, would bring the academic program to a school building in better condition in a different part of town.
IPS Superintendent Aleesia Johnson acknowledged that while the pandemic may have disrupted learning at the two innovation network schools, they are still not showing the level of progress officials want.
“We still have students who are being served in a building, and we need to be able to say we believe that they are best positioned for success,” Johnson said. “And right now if you look at the data it just has not [borne] that out, the progress that we would want to see after five years.”
Declining scores drove IPS proposal
Morgan Galbreth, the chair of Urban Act Academy’s board of directors, expressed disappointment with the potential end of the school’s innovation agreement.
“In the last four years, we’ve been able to transform a school that was completely different when we opened our doors,” Galbreth said.
SUPER School did not comment on its non-renewal recommendation.
The suggested removal from the network would mean an end of autonomy for the schools, which joined the innovation network in 2018 under different circumstances.
Urban Act Academy — which is run by a charter operator and authorized by the mayor’s office— took over the failing Washington Irving School 14 as one of the network’s “restart” schools. It was tasked with the challenging job of improving achievement at a school that, under the state’s previous A-F school accountability system, received D’s and F’s.
SUPER School 19, meanwhile, converted to an innovation school amid significant pushback. The school’s principal at the time, John McClure, offered to convert to innovation status as a way to stress its theme of action-based learning. He also received roughly $25,000 in startup grant funding from the Mind Trust, an Indianapolis nonprofit that grows and supports charter and innovation schools.
But test scores at both schools have declined since they joined the innovation network.
The share of third graders at Urban Act who passed the state’s IREAD test dropped from roughly 76% in 2017-18, before Urban Act took over, to 50% 2018-19. And after skipping a year in 2019-20, when the state did not administer the test due to the pandemic, the passing rate was roughly 46% in 2020-21. Its latest passing rate is 50%.
ILearn proficiency rates in both English and math have also remained low — starting at roughly 1.4% in 2018-19, dropping to 0% in 2020-21 and inching back up to 1.6% in 2021-22.
Galbreth said she is not necessarily elated about Urban Act’s scores, but argued the school has something special beyond just numbers.
“It’s got culture and community, and we really believe that had it not been for the pandemic, we would be further along than we are now,” she said. “But what we can say is our school community stands on its own and is a truly transformed educational institution.”
SUPER School, meanwhile, posted a roughly 84% IRead passing rate for third graders a year before its transformation, but the latest scores from last spring show roughly 30% of students passed. ILearn scores also dropped: Roughly 8% of students were proficient in English and math in 2018-19, but just 3% were in 2021-22.
“These downward trends are more accelerated than at other schools, even when taking COVID into consideration,” the district said in a statement. “The purpose of Innovation conversion was to accelerate academic outcomes. In this case, that did not happen.”
Staff would have to reapply for jobs
Ending the innovation agreements and merging the schools could leave staff at Urban Act and SUPER scrambling to find jobs.
Although the district said there would be no reduction in staff under the Rebuilding Stronger plan — its human resources department will extend offers to staff forced to move elsewhere — that job guarantee would not extend to staff at innovation schools.
In general, staff would need to reapply for their jobs since both schools currently hire them separately from IPS. However, special education and English-language learner staff at SUPER School would be exempt from that requirement, since they are hired by IPS, according to the district.
School 114’s principal would lead the consolidated SUPER School next year, the district said, and the current SUPER principal would need to reapply for another position at the school or elsewhere. The principal at Urban Act Academy would need to apply to IPS in order to keep her role at the school.
The school board is expected to vote on the broader Rebuilding Stronger plan in November.
Correction: A previous version of this story included incorrect IREAD and ILEARN test scores for SUPER School 19.
Amelia Pak-Harvey covers Indianapolis and Marion County schools for Chalkbeat Indiana. Contact Amelia at firstname.lastname@example.org.