Future of Schools

IPS high schools are empty, but some elementary buildings are bursting at the seams

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

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.”

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awards season

For the first time in two decades, New York’s Teacher of the Year hails from New York City — and West Africa

PHOTO: New York State Education Department
Bronx International High School teacher Alhassan Susso, center, is New York State's 2019 Teacher of the Year.

An immigrant from West Africa who teaches social studies to immigrant students in the Bronx is New York State’s newest Teacher of the Year.

Alhassan Susso, who works at International Community High School in Mott Haven, received the award Tuesday, becoming the first New York City teacher to do so since 1998.

As the state’s Teacher of the Year, Susso will travel the state to work with local educators — and will represent New York in the national competition at a time when federal authorities are aggressively seeking to limit immigration.

A decorated teacher with significant vision impairment since childhood, Susso came to New York from Gambia at 16 and had a rocky experience at his upstate high school, which he chronicled in an autobiography he published in 2016. Assuming that he would struggle academically because he was an immigrant, even though English is the official language of Gambia, his teachers assigned him to a remedial reading class. There, he found a compassionate teacher who was attentive to the diverse needs of her students, who came from all over the world.

Now, Susso is playing that role at his school. International Community High School, part of the Internationals Network for new immigrants, has a special program for students who did not receive a formal education before coming to the United States.

“Alhassan Susso exemplifies the dedication and passion of our 79,000 New York City teachers,” city Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a statement. “Using the obstacles he’s overcome and lessons he’s learned in his own life, Alhassan has changed the trajectory of students’ lives and helped them pursue their dreams.”

New York City teachers make up nearly 40 percent of the state’s teaching force but have won the Teacher of the Year honor only six times since 1965, the last in 1998. This year’s winner had a strong chance of ending the two-decade shutout: Two of the three finalists teach in the Bronx. In addition to Susso, Frederick Douglass Academy III chemistry teacher William Green was up for the award.

regents roundup

Regents support a new way of evaluating charter schools and soften penalties for schools with high opt-out rates

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York’s top education policymakers tentatively approved new rules Monday on two hot-button issues: the penalties for districts and schools where many students opt out of state tests — and how nearly 100 charter schools across the state will be evaluated.

Here’s what you need to know about the new policies that the state’s Board of Regents set in motion.

Potential penalties for high opt-out rates were softened

After criticism from activists and parents within the opt-out movement and pushback from the state teachers union, the Regents walked back some of the consequences schools and districts can face when students refuse to take state exams.

Among the most significant changes, which state officials first floated last week, is that districts with high opt-out rates will not be required to use a portion of their federal funding to increase their testing rates.

“I do not ever want to be the person who takes money away from children,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said.

The regulations are part of the state’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and stem from a federal mandate that 95 percent of students take the state’s annual reading and math exams.

The Regents tweaked other rules requiring schools to create improvement plans if they fall below the 95 percent threshold. Schools with average or higher test scores will not have to come up with those plans.

Still, some parents who support the opt-out movement and who attended Monday’s meeting said the changes don’t go far enough and that schools with lower test scores should also be exempt from coming up with plans to boost participation rates.

“There’s still so much left to be addressed,” said Kemala Karmen, a New York City public school parent who attended the meeting.

The new regulations will likely not have a major effect in New York City, where opt-out rates have remained relatively low. Although New York State has been the epicenter of the test-boycott movement — with roughly one in five students refusing to take the tests, according to the most recent data — less than 4 percent of the city’s students declined to take them.

The Regents unanimously approved the changes, although their vote is technically preliminary. The tweaks will still be subject to a 30-day public comment period and will likely be brought to a final vote in December.

New criteria for evaluating charter schools

The Regents also narrowly approved a new framework for evaluating the roughly 100 charter schools that the board oversees across the state, 63 of which are in New York City.

The new framework is meant to bring charter schools in line with how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the Regents have moved away from emphasizing test scores as the key indicator of a school’s success.

In keeping with that shift, the new charter framework will require schools to have policies covering chronic absenteeism, out-of-school suspension rates, and other measures of school culture to help decide whether they are successful enough to remain open.

And while the new framework does not spell out specific rates of chronic absenteeism a school must fall below, for example, it does explicitly add those policies to the mix of factors the Regents consider. (Officials said that test scores and graduation rates would still remain among the most important factors in evaluating charter schools.)

At Monday’s meeting, discussion of the charter framework prompted broad complaints about the charter sector from some Regents. The state’s framework for evaluating charters was last updated in 2015; the board has added several new members and a new chancellor since then.

The current board has repeatedly sent mixed messages about the sector, approving large batches of new charters while also rejecting others and raising questions about whether the schools serve a fair share of high-need students.

“We’re giving money away from our public schools to charters,” Regent Kathy Cashin said, emphasizing that she believes the state should more deeply probe when students leave charter schools and survey families to find out why.

Charters receive some freedom from rules governing most district-run schools, but in exchange the schools are expected to meet certain performance benchmarks or else face closure.

State officials said the new framework does not include new standards for how New York judges enrollment and retention. Under the current rules, schools must enroll a similar number of students with disabilities, English learners, and low-income students as other nearby district schools. If they don’t, they must show that they’re making progress toward that goal.

Ultimately, the new framework was approved eight to five in a preliminary vote and will be brought back to the full board for approval on Tuesday.