Indianapolis Public Schools’ administration wants to remove the leaders and most staff of two failing schools and replace them with independent operators because students struggled for too many years without academic results on par with other city schools.
The IPS Board made the case this week to restart Louis B. Russell Jr. School 48, in the Fall Creek neighborhood, and Stephen Foster School 67, on the Near Westside. Principals at both schools were hired in mid-2017 to turnaround the schools.
Superintendent Aleeisa Johnson says the time to improve has run out.
“I think three years is a significant amount of time to make sure you have an upward trajectory,” Johnson says. “While you may not be totally, you know, out of the place you want to be -- and be where you want to be, in terms of proficiency and absolute achievement."
Johnson says there’s a point where families should not be asked to remain at a failing school.
“I am just not comfortable making that ask of a family,” she says. “I wouldn't feel comfortable if a school asked it of me as a parent of my three children.”
A final vote on the issue by the board is expected in March.
Johnson’s recommendation to restart the schools is based on the district’s School Quality Review, a process where a struggling school’s academics, culture, student and family surveys, and other factors are assessed.
For School 48, the review found “incremental positive progress” during the past three years. But despite five years of extra classroom support, the school was rated F for five consecutive years on the state’s accountability scale and will post another F when 2019 grades for all schools are soon approved by a state board.
For School 67, the academic proficiency declined during the past three years and 13 percent of students are grade-level proficient in math and 14 percent grade-level proficient in English. The school was rated F for the past two consecutive years and will receive a third when state accountability scores are released.
The restart would change the status of the schools from a traditional neighborhood model to the so-called “innovation restart,” where a non-profit board would oversee a management team or charter school operator to run the school and hire staff outside the district’s union contracts.
Jamie Vandewalle, IPS portfolio officer who oversees the district's innovation school network says, “there are undoubtedly bright spots in the gains that students made that can and should be celebrated,” at both schools.
“However, when our team took into account the level of change needed to accelerate student achievement, we believe an innovation restart is the tool to leverage this time,” she says.
Charter operator Phalen Leadership Academies, Adelante Schools and The PATH School are the independent managers IPS staff could recommend to the board to restart the schools. Phalen and Adelante are already under consideration to operate Emma Donnan.
'We need the right data'
During Thursday’s IPS Board of Commissioners meeting, families and teachers refuted the recommendation for both schools to be restarted.
Arthur Hinton, principal of Louis B. Russell Jr. School 48, says news of the restart plan “shook our team to the core.” He says he and the teachers believe standardized test scores and school climate would continue to improve during this third year at the helm.
“No two-week test window can create a clear picture of who our children are and what they need to be their best,” Hinton said. “However, we do understand this is part of a system we have to navigate through.”
Hinton detailed the interventions for student academic, social and emotional growth. He also pointed out the Indiana Department of Education agreed with the improvement plan at the school.
After about 40 minutes of public comment Thursday, board commissioners questioned the review process.
Taria Slack, Commissioner for District 5, and Susan Collins, At-Large Commissioner, both brought concerns about data cited by district staff to recommend the restarts and conflicting data offered by School 67 staff during public comment.
They questioned whether the impact of adding grades seven and eight to School 67 during the past two years was factored into evaluating the challenges.
Both asked for more details, such as which teaching positions remain open and what types of support the schools received from the district.
“We need the right data and all the data to make sure we are making the right decision,” Slack said.
“We need to really look at what is a true improvement. What do we, as a district, have with assets to support our schools,” Collins said. “We want stability and we want performance.”
Board president Michael O’Connor repeatedly used his gavel to quiet the room, when some attendees shouted out and clapped when comments were made.
The IPS Board will be asked to approve a resolution in February for district staff to negotiate restart contracts with two of the independent operators.
About School 48 The Fall Creek neighborhood School 48 earned its fifth consecutive F in 2018 and IPS revealed it will earn another when the State Board of Education approves grades soon. Enrollment at the PreK-6 school dropped by 29 percent since 2015-16, to 290 students this year. Seventy-five percent of the students are black and 80 percent of all students qualify for free meals, based on family income.
About School 67 The Near Westside School 67 earned its second consecutive F in 2018, after four consecutive D grades. IPS says the school will again be rated F by the state for 2019. Seventh grade was added to the school in 2017 and eighth grade followed in 2018. Now, 60 percent of the 602 students in grades K-8 are Hispanic. Nearly 75 percent of the students qualify for free meals. The school also has the 25th highest rate of English language learner students in the state, at 45 percent. The state average is 6.4 percent.
Legislation passed in the General Assembly this month, and expected to be signed into law, would hold schools “harmless” on accountability and temporarily prevent these IPS schools from state takeover.