July 1, 2015

Arlington Returns To IPS But Students Fear Too Much Change

Arlington Community High School has returned to Indianapolis Public Schools Corp. after three years being run under a state contract by charter school company Tindley Accelerated Schools.  - Eric Weddle / WFYI Public Media

Arlington Community High School has returned to Indianapolis Public Schools Corp. after three years being run under a state contract by charter school company Tindley Accelerated Schools.

Eric Weddle / WFYI Public Media

This part of a series of stories about Arlington Community High School, the first school under state takeover to return to its home district, Indianapolis Public Schools. WFYI will follow the transition during the 2015-16 academic year.

INDIANAPOLIS -- Today Arlington Community High School officially becomes an Indianapolis Public School -- again -- three years since the state took control of it due to chronic failure and hired a charter school company to run it.

The company, Tindley Accelerated Schools, has faced criticism for its hard discipline and high dropout rates -- but changed the school’s culture from one of chaos to safety and instruction. In 2012, the school had been graded an F by the state for six years because of low test scores. It remains an F today.

Now, the question for many in the community is: can IPS remake Arlington into a new, succesful 7-12th grade school despite its past?

That’s what student Christian Smith worries about. But he’ chosen to stay at the Northeastside campus for his senior year and become an IPS student again.

The Arlington basketball player hopes other classmates who follow suit, can influence IPS staff and new students in the Tindley-way -- that means: no violence, no shenanigans and a serious focus on learning with an eye toward college.

“Probably be like a little shift but I am pretty sure it is going to be pretty much the same people that have been going here the past four years, so we are accustomed to how Tindley ran,” Smith said about his expectations for next school year. “So we are just going to keep it same, I feel like. So that is why I am staying.”

But IPS officials don’t yet know how many current Tindley students will stay at Arlington for the 2015-16 school year. They hope to double Arlington’s enrollment to 600 students, including adding around 300 new seventh graders from feeder schools.

And it remains to be seen how students will gel with new principal Stan Law, former principal of Shortridge Magnet and Broad Ripple high schools.

That’s because some students worry Tindley’s culture of “no excuse” discipline and academic expectations will vanish when IPS takes over again at Arlington.

'Just A Job'

Arlington students WFYI spoke to for this story agreed that safety is a paramount concern -- and under Tindley’s watch they say the relief of not worrying about violence allowed them to focus on class. They fear the assaults and other fighting reported the past year at IPS high schools Northwest and George Washington could manifest at Arlington’s vast campus.

But, they say, the quality of teaching is a concern too.

Tinisha Simpson, an incoming sophomore, has yet to decide if she’ll remain at Arlington or enroll somewhere else. A main reason: Most Tindley teachers won’t be returning to Arlington and she worries IPS teachers won’t be invested in her learning.

“I don’t think they are going to take it as seriously as Tindley is because (Tindley) are more accelerated than IPS schools,” she said.

Smith agrees.

“Teachers here, they really -- they really care and they want you to stay on top of your grades,” Smith said. “At IPS, I feel, it is just sorta like their job and they are going to give you the work. And if you do it -- you do it;  if you don’t do it -- you don’t do it.”

Both students agree they’re holding on to stereotypes about IPS but remain unmoved in their fears.

Funding And Enrollment

A year ago, Tindley CEO Marcus Robinson shocked the community when he told the State Board of Education that Tindley could no longer afford to run Arlington for the 2014-15 school year unless it received an additional $2.4 million in aid.

The company had signed a five-year contract with the state board to run Arlington.

IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee stepped in and offered in-kind relief for Tindley that kicked off the unlikely discussions that the district would regain control of Arlington. Tindley agreed to oversee the school for one more year, without that extra funding request, but faced an exodus of teachers due to the uncertain future.

But the upheaval at Arlington forced state officials to rewrite how school intervention works by building in more support for troubled schools before the state would consider a takeover.

Enrollment plummeted when Tindley, known as EdPower then, took control of Arlington in 2012 as students and the funding linked to them left for other IPS high schools. Nearly a 1,000 students transferred out of Arlington since IPS ran it in 2011-12 school year.

Only 317 students attended the school this past year.

With that few students, the cost of running the 380,000-square foot school was just too much for the local nonprofit, Robinson said. Last month he cut a $23,000 check to cover 30-days of electricity for the building.

Robinson still believes the state can fix a failing school if it’s funded properly and students are prevented from fleeing to another school unless the state approves the transfers.

“What you want to do is change the lives of these kids, not take over a building,” he said recently.

Robinson also believes groundbreaking advances could happen at Arlington if the school -- with its vast wings and courtyard -- became a K-12 center. And not just another high school.

“It’s just the right place to create a new model for urban education that isn’t a thousand poor teenagers who are struggling with underperformance, who are struggling with being underskilled and trying to make life kinda happen,” he said. “So under the circumstances I think there is a way forward that is better. I am afraid that might not happen (at Arlington).”

Yet, Robinson is confident that new Arlington principal Law is the right educator to rebirth the school.

‘People’s Perceptions’

There is the unmistakable feeling that Tindley students and staff fear their advancements -- no matter how small -- will be forgotten or never even recognized when IPS takes over.

Graduation rates remain dire -- just 43 percent of students graduated in four years in 2014 but all did so without a waiver. Yet 30 percent of seniors dropped out and 26 percent remained for another year at the school, according to state data.

The state graduation rate is nearly 90 percent.

But Robinson maintains strides were being made by Tindley. Seventh graders at Arlington were passing at a rate of more than 50 percent -- an increase of around 30 percentage points from when Tindley took over.

“But that is still an F, though,” he said. “That doesn’t make us proud or happy and doesn’t mean the work is done, it just means we are on a road toward some success. I’d say our experience at (other Tindley schools) is similar … in the first two years of Tindley we were 30 percent, 40 percent pass.

“I think that is the story of any school on that journey.”

Outgoing Principal Alicia Hervey agrees. As she walks down the hall on the last day of school last month, she says some people don’t realize how much Arlington’s culture has changed.

The hallways are empty because the students are in class.

“People would have thought five years ago there would have been kids everywhere -- there is not a student in this hall. We really take that seriously, right? But people’s perception of Arlington is not this. People’s perception is that -- it’s crazy, it’s out of control. That is what is frustrating”

When A-F grades come out for this school year, Arlington will likely again be an F, Hervey says.

But what that grade won’t show is how Tindley has driven students to succeed. That change -- illustrated by a story about two students here -- is one she hopes won’t disappear with IPS.

“Two girls were sent home but they were in tears because they wanted to stay, because they need to pull up a grade to ensure that they pass their classes. I want them to feel that way a year from now,” said Hervey, who has taken a new job with Christel House Academy charter schools. “I don’t want them to be lackadaisical about learning, I don’t want them to be apathetic. I want them to care as much a year from now as they do now about moving on academically.”

Even as Arlington returns to the IPS district, it remains under state intervention and the consultant company Mass Insight Education of Boston will assist in running the school. IPS must update the State Board of Education on student progress.

Arlington is one of four IPS schools that have entered state takeover but now the first that returned to the district. The three others are Emma Donnan Middle School and Manual and Howe high schools. The Florida-based Charter Schools USA runs those.

Gary’s Roosevelt High School is by Edison Learning of New York.

Contact WFYI reporter Eric Weddle at eweddle@wfyi.org or call (317) 614-0470. Follow on Twitter: @ericweddle.

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