After years of shrinking its footprint to match lower enrollment, Indianapolis Public Schools has a surprising plan for next year: It intends to open two new schools.
Recent conversations around closing IPS schools have centered on high schools where the number of available classroom seats far exceeds the number of students. But at the elementary school level, it’s a different story.
IPS last year had just enough elementary seats for the kids who needed them but the district is planning to break up many of its 7-12th grade middle-high schools over the next few years. That will put more seventh and eighth graders into schools that serve grades K-8, potentially crowding the halls of the lower-grade schools.
The state’s largest school district has about 24,548 seats in elementary schools, which serve kids from kindergarten through sixth or eighth grade, and there were about 20,600 students in those schools last year, according to district data obtained by Chalkbeat.
If those kids were spread evenly across IPS schools, each building would be about 84 percent full. That’s almost precisely the 85 percent target set by the district, which leaves space for classrooms to be repurposed and used for things like parent centers, according to IPS planning supervisor Tricia Frye.
But the district anticipates it will need to find room for over 2,000 seventh and eighth graders currently in combined middle-high schools.
In fact, some elementary schools are already overflowing with children. School 82, for example, has space to educate about 352 students. But last year, the neighborhood school on the east side of Indianapolis crammed in nearly 430 kids, about 120 percent of the building capacity.
“I don’t know how you operate a school at 120 percent,” school board member Kelly Bentley said. “They must be having class out on the pavement.”
Although School 82 was the most overcrowded elementary school in the district, it was one of seven schools the were above capacity, including five neighborhood schools and two of the Center for Inquiry magnet schools. (Scroll down for a breakdown of enrollment by elementary school.)
The solution? Add new schools.
The board voted last week to create two new schools for middle schoolers by converting John Marshall High School to a middle school and opening a new medical science magnet middle school in the Longfellow building. Those schools would serve grades seven and eight and open next fall.
The district is also looking to make more space for kids in earlier grades by creating a new elementary school (with a location to be determined). The planned new elementary would be a Reggio Emilia magnet school, built around a philosophy used at the popular Butler Lab program at School 60, which has a waitlist.
One other reason why the district is faced with the prospect of opening a new elementary school at the same time that it is planning high school closures is because high schools have lost nearly 40 percent of their enrollment over the last decade, while elementaries have fared comparatively well, losing just 13 percent of their students over the same time.
Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said that ninth-grade enrollment has already begun slowly rising in the past few years and separating middle and high school is one way the district is looking to draw students back to its secondary schools.
“The biggest thing that we need to do to improve middle school and high school is already in process,” Ferebee said. “It’s not a good idea to have middle and high school students on the same campus. I think that in itself will dramatically change how middle school students are served.”