School Closings

Four things you should know before Monday’s Indianapolis Public Schools Board votes on closing high schools

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Students and staff at four Indianapolis Public Schools will know their fate by Monday’s end — when the board votes on a plan to close and reconfigure high schools.

The proposal from the administration calls for closing Broad Ripple High School and John Marshall Middle School as well as converting Northwest and Arlington High School campuses to middle schools.

If the plan is approved, the district will keep open four high school campuses near the center of the district — Shortridge, Crispus Attucks, George Washington and Arsenal Technical high schools. They will all offer magnet programs in fields such as health sciences, the arts and the military. Students will be expected to choose a high school based on the focus area, rather than the location.

The board will meet at 6 p.m. Monday at the IPS central office, 120 E. Walnut St.

Here are some of the essential facts ahead of the vote:

1. It’s not over until the school board votes.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration produced the high school closing plan at the urging of the board. But while several board members have been clear that high schools must close, there have been some murmurs of discontent with the proposal’s details.

Board member Venita Moore, for example, wrote in the Indianapolis Recorder that she is concerned that the plan only keeps campuses near the core of the district, taking resources from the communities on its periphery.

Ultimately, it’s the school board that will make the final decision and board members could approve pieces of the plan or reject it altogether.

2. The district has about a quarter of the high schoolers it once educated.

At its peak in the late 1960s, IPS educated about 26,000 high school students. In the decades since, the district has lost students as families left for the suburbs or opted to send their children to private or charter schools. Now, high schools enroll a total of about 5,000 students, according to district data. For comparison, Carmel High School has nearly as many students in a single building.

Despite decades of shrinking enrollment, the district has kept most of its high schools open. As a result, they are vastly underutilized with more than twice as many seats as students, according to a district report.

All those empty seats can drive up costs in schools, as the district pays for services such as air conditioning and maintenance.

3. The research on whether closing schools helps or hurts students is mixed.

Parents and community members have raised many concerns over the high school closing plan, including fears that combining schools will push students to drop out, trigger violence among students and lead to long bus rides.

But when Chalkbeat looked at the research on school closings earlier this year, we found mixed results. In some communities, closing schools has had negative impacts. In Milwaukee and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, students were less likely to graduate when their high schools closed. But in other places, it has been positive for students. In New Orleans, for example, students had higher graduation rates after they moved to new high schools. And in New York, researchers found that when several high schools closed, graduation rates stayed stable for current students and future students had higher attendance and graduation rates.

“In short, the key to making closures and takeovers work is to ensure that directly affected students end up in better schools after the intervention,” wrote the authors of a paper on New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

4. There were other options.

The district is faced with two serious problems: They have far more high school seats than students to fill them and many of their schools are chronically underperforming. Ferebee’s administration is betting that they can tackle both problems by consolidating high schools so campuses can offer students more specialized options. Because the administration chose an all magnet system, they also chose to keep schools in the center of the city, where it will be easier to bus students from across the district.

But it’s not the only vision they could’ve pursued. The plan calls for keeping the Arlington and Northwest campuses open as middle schools and filling extra space with district administrators and special programs. Those same steps could’ve helped keep the buildings open as high schools. The district could’ve chosen to embrace its small high schools, refashioning campuses with that in mind and sharing buildings with other organizations.

Now, the question is whether the IPS Board likes the vision for high schools proposed by the administration.

blast from the past

Harkening back to earlier era, struggling New York City school fights closure but faces long odds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Kevin Morgan, the Parent Association president at P.S./M.S. 42, is leading a fight to keep the Rockaway school open.

A decade ago, teachers picketed P.S./M.S. 42 R. Vernam in Rockaway, Queens and declared the campus unsafe. Parents said the building was in horrible shape — some areas reeked of urine — and they petitioned the education department to close the school and start over.

But when Mayor Bill de Blasio took office, he had a different idea: Rather than shut its doors, he would revamp it. After three years in de Blasio’s “Renewal” improvement program, which injects troubled schools with academic supports and social services, P.S./M.S. 42 appeared to be making progress: Its test scores and quality reviews have steadily improved. Enrollment, while lower this year, has mostly been stable.

So when the education department announced plans last month to shutter P.S./M.S. 42 and 13 other low-performing schools, many in the school community were shocked.

“We think that this is a mistake,” said Donovan Richards, the local city councilman who said that when he met with schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña shortly before the announcement, far from declaring the school a lost cause, she praised its recent strides and discussed ways to celebrate them.

“You have this glimmer of hope and turnaround in the building,” he added, “and yet we’re reversing the progress.”

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Parents used to complain about poor conditions at P.S./M.S. 42, which has since built a new addition.

Now, parents, teachers and local political leaders are vowing to fight its closure. The coalition has launched an aggressive social media campaign, printed highlighter-yellow T-shirts declaring the school “strong and united,” and planned rallies at the school and in Albany, where the school’s supporters traveled Tuesday to make their case to state lawmakers.

On a recent morning, Kevin Morgan, the school’s parent association president, went to his local congress member’s office to appeal for help, and brought in a motivational speaker to inspire students as they drafted essays in defense of their school.

“It’s not fair,” he said. “They need to rethink what they’re about to do. How is this going to affect these children?”

The fight puts the mayor in the uncomfortable position of defending the closure of a low-performing school despite signs of improvement and vocal opposition from some parents — a scenario he railed against when running to replace then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. At the time, de Blasio blasted Bloomberg for disregarding the will of parents in his zeal to shutter and replace troubled schools without first giving them a chance to rebound.

Now, after investing $582 million in a program meant to offer bottom-ranked schools the second chance he said they had been denied, de Blasio finds himself coming to the same conclusion as his predecessor: Some underachieving schools simply can’t be resuscitated — at least not quickly enough — so better to pull the plug and start fresh.

“After a serious effort, we do not think, with their current structures, they can make it,” de Blasio said on NY1 the day the closures were announced. Still, he defended the turnaround effort, saying that, without it, “we would have continued to see closures without an honest effort to fix the problem.”

In the case of P.S./M.S. 42, the education department is proposing to replace it with two new schools — an elementary school and a middle school — in the same building.

It’s likely they will serve many of the same students as the school they’re supplanting, though some parents worry the new schools may deploy admissions criteria that will screen out some of P.S./M.S. 42’s current students. An education department spokesman said the new schools would not turn away any P.S./M.S. 42 students. The new schools may also employ many of the same teachers, under a contract rule that says at least half the positions in replacement schools must be offered to teachers at closed schools who apply and hold the right qualifications.

P.S./M.S. 42 boosters hope the new schools never have a chance to open. But they face long odds: Under de Blasio, very few schools on the chopping block have managed to escape.

Last year, the Panel for Educational Policy — an oversight board where the majority of members are appointed by the mayor — signed off on all of the city’s proposed closures. Even when parents at J.H.S 145 in the Bronx mounted a campaign to keep the middle school open, only five of the 13 panel members voted against its closure.

The city’s plan to shutter P.S./M.S. 42 follows a yearslong, grassroots effort to save it.

Today, one of the leaders of that campaign is an unlikely champion: a parent named Queen Makkada, who called for the school’s closure in 2010 when her two children went there. At one point, her daughter was attacked by a group of boys, and students were known to roam the hallways unsupervised.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Queen Makkada says P.S./M.S. 42 has struggled in the past, but is now showing improvement.

“We literally had first graders cutting class,” Makkada said. A joint city-state report from 2011 said teachers there “demanded little” from students and parents complained about unchecked bullying among students.
Makkada says things began to turn around when the current principal, Patricia Finn, took over about seven years ago. Finn did not respond to a request for comment.

The principal smoothed over relations with teachers, who have filed far fewer grievances under her than the previous administration, according to their union. And she forged relationships with skeptical parents, Makkada said. Last year, 90 percent of parents who responded to a school survey said the principal works to build community.

“All the stakeholders had to come together and change it,” Makkada said. “These parents went through the process to improve a failing school.”

At the same time that parents were getting more involved, the school facilities were getting an upgrade. In 2011, a gleaming new addition was built onto the building, and there are plans for a new $7 million playground, according to the city councilman.

The Renewal program, which launched in 2014, marked a new wave of investment in P.S./M.S 42. A community-based nonprofit — Family Health International, which goes by FHI 360 — brought much-needed mental health supports for students, including one-on-one counseling. The school day was extended by an hour. And the school has launched several initiatives aimed at improving school culture, including training students to help resolve conflicts among their peers, parents said.

Since 2014, the school has received improved “quality review” ratings from official observers, and its test scores have ticked upwards. In fact, elementary students at P.S./M.S. 42 earned higher scores on the state English and math tests last year than the average among Renewal schools that the city is keeping open. Its middle-school students perform just below that average.

And enrollment, a key factor that chancellor Fariña says the education department considers when recommending closures, grew by dozens of students the first few years of the program. This past year, its population declined to just over 660 students — but that’s still higher than before becoming a Renewal school.

Given the progress, parents don’t understand why their school is targeted for closure.

“This is ripping everything apart,” said Morgan, the parent-association president.

But despite the recent improvements, the majority of the school’s students still are far behind where they should be.

Only 17 percent of elementary students and 14 percent of middle schoolers passed last year’s state English tests — compared with 40-41 percent of students citywide. In math, 14 percent of elementary students and 6 percent of middle schoolers passed the tests, compared with 42 percent and 33 percent citywide.

Meanwhile, a stubbornly high share of students are chronically absent, despite a major push by the city to boost attendance at Renewal schools. More than 45 percent of P.S./M.S. 42 students miss 10 percent or more of the school year, compared to 36 percent among all Renewal schools and about 26 percent among all city schools, according to the education department.

“This decision to propose a school closure was made based on a careful assessment of the school community as a whole,” Aciman, the department spokesman, said in a statement. He added that community engagement is an important part of proposed closures, and said officials will respond to parents’ questions and concerns.

Officials will hold a public hearing at the school on Jan. 10, before the Panel for Educational Policy votes Feb. 28 on whether to approve the city’s closure plans.

Among the P.S./M.S. 42 parents who will ask the panel to spare the school is Willard Price.

He said teachers have given his son, William, extra help in math and handwriting, and principal Finn has invited him to eat lunch in her office when he felt overwhelmed by the cafeteria. Now, William earns high marks on his report cards and would like to remain at P.S./M.S. 42 for middle school, his father said.

“I think that’s messed up, trying to close the school,” William said. “This school is the only school I ever liked.”

ASD CLOSURE

Highest-performing state-run high school to close due to ‘sustainability challenges’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Tennessee
GRAD Academy Memphis will close at the end of the school year after graduating its second class of seniors.

For the third time, a state-run school will shutter in Memphis.

Officials with GRAD Academy announced Monday that they will close their South Memphis high school at the end of this school year. It is the only Memphis school run by Project GRAD USA, a charter organization based in Houston, as a part of Tennessee’s Achievement School District.

“This decision was made by Project GRAD USA’s board based on the sustainability challenges Memphis GRAD Academy has faced,” said Daryl Ogden, the charter organization’s CEO, in a statement. “The decision was not based on any performance issues.”

The announcement comes on the heels of major changes to the state’s turnaround district and signals the end of its highest-performing high school. GRAD Academy has the greatest percentage of ASD high students scoring on grade level, according to state data from 2017.  

But the high school has lagged in enrollment. About 535 students were enrolled during the 2016-17 school year compared to 468 at the start of the 2017-18 year, a drop of about 13 percent.  

Ogden said students and parents were informed about the upcoming closure on Monday morning. He added that students will receive support through meetings and information sessions as they prepare to find a new school.

Kathleen Airhart, the ASD’s interim superintendent, said the state-run district will support those efforts and help teachers there find new positions.

“We have appreciated GRAD Academy’s work to serve additional high school students and are now focused on ensuring those same students can transition seamlessly this summer into their next school or postsecondary institution,” said Airhart. “We want to create as much stability as possible so students’ progress continues over the course of this semester and into the future.”

Memphis GRAD Academy opened in 2013 as a “new start” school under the state-run district, meaning that it started from scratch and was not an existing low-performing school taken from the local district with the charge of turning it around.

KIPP Memphis University Middle School, also a new start in south Memphis under the Achievement School District, shuttered last May. Klondike Preparatory Academy Elementary shut down last spring after its operator, Gestalt Community Schools, pulled out of the ASD completely. Now, state legislation passed in 2017 prohibits the Achievement School District from creating new start schools. 

Both KIPP and Gestalt cited lagging enrollment as a challenge to long-term sustainability. Ogden did not immediately respond to questions on whether enrollment was the key issue behind the decision to close GRAD Academy.

The Achievement School District was established by the state in 2012 with the goal of vaulting the state’s 5 percent of lowest-achieving schools to the top 25 percent within five years, but test scores and research have shown it’s fallen short of that initial goal. After the closure of GRAD Academy, the state-run district will run 31 schools in Memphis and Nashville.

Reporter Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.