Indianapolis Schools Divided

Panelist: Indianapolis should invite the suburbs to help integrate schools

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Ahmed Young (left), education director for the city of Indianapolis and Indiana University law professor Kevin Brown were among five panelists who discussed school integration in Indianapolis at an event co-sponsored by Chalkbeat.

In 2016, is there anything Indianapolis can do to promote integration in its schools?

The short answer is yes.

READ MORE: Find the entire series here.

Panelists at a community conversation co-sponsored by Chalkbeat, WFYI, the Central Library and the Indianapolis Star said Wednesday suggested a range of strategies worth exploring. Some could be small, school-level changes designed to attract more diverse students and teachers. Other options they suggested would be broad challenges, like inviting suburban schools to commit to enrolling large numbers of black and Hispanic children.

The conversation capped a months-long discussion triggered by a series of stories from Chalkbeat and the Indianapolis Star since June that have explored the 21st century challenges of integrating schools by race and income while ensuring all students have equal opportunities to learn. About 140 people attended the discussion.

The series began as Indianapolis ended three decades of court-ordered busing that was designed to integrate city schools. Township schools have become more diverse in the years since busing began, but Indianapolis Public Schools have, in many ways, become more segregated.

The panelists at Wednesday’s event included Carole Craig, an Indianapolis education advocate; Louis Norris, associate director of student services for Perry Township; Mary Ann Sullivan, Indianapolis Public Schools board president; Ahmed Young, education director for the city of Indianapolis; and Kevin Brown, an Indiana University law professor who has studied school integration.

Panelists discuss school integration in Indianapolis at an event co-sponsored by Chalkbeat.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Panelists discuss school integration in Indianapolis at an event co-sponsored by Chalkbeat.

The panel agreed that there is much work to do, and that the city has not always taken the most productive steps to promote diverse and high-quality schools.

“We have done a disservice to Indianapolis,” Craig said. “We don’t have the resources because we have separated the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. We need to look at all of our interests as a big village that is all together as a community.”

Sullivan said IPS is taking steps to promote more school integration in the wake of stories in the series that examined inequities in magnet schools.

The board is moving toward a new funding system aimed at making schools more equitable and transparent, she said. It is working on changes to magnet school admissions to allow more kids from around the city to access the coveted programs and is changing the district’s lottery system to promote magnet options to more children who are poor, black and Hispanic.

“These are marketed to the public as districtwide options and they have not been working that way in practice,” she said of magnet schools. “We know many of our lower income families don’t even apply.”

But Craig said schools must also address internal inequities. High-poverty schools, she said, not only tend to serve more black, Hispanic and poor children, they also have less experienced teachers and more turnover for both students and teachers.

“Teachers with the best credentials do not, for the most part, want to go to segregated schools,” she said. “A critical factor is the teachers. You’ve got to be sure your teachers understand race, white privilege and what happened in America to make inequities and want to see it changed.”

With an explosion of charter schools in the city in the last decade, the panelists said promoting integrated schools has become even more complex. Some charter schools are among the city’s most racially isolated and others do not reflect the racial makeup of their neighborhoods.

Young called for stronger oversight by charter school sponsors. For example, he said the city is working closely with Herron High School as it expands to a second campus in the Riverside neighborhood to encourage enrollment practices that will attract students who reflect the neighborhood.

“How do we approach an enrollment system that is truly fair to make sure we can have a diverse school that reflects our community?” he said of the challenge. “It’s important to confront issues of race head on, even if it’s an uncomfortable issue.”

Really confronting the issue of school integration, Brown said, would require an especially uncomfortable conversation because it would have to include participation by suburban school districts. Just 21 percent of IPS students are white, making racial balance all but impossible without participation of suburban districts.

Because of court decisions, the suburbs can’t be forced to participate in such a plan, Brown said. But they could do so voluntarily. For instance, what if large suburban districts committed to enrolling 15 percent of students who are black, Hispanic or poor?

“The question is whether they would see it as something they want to do,” he said. “But if you really want to talk about integrating the schools in Marion County you have to be talking about the schools outside the county. There is nothing that prevents that but political will.”

One other integration approach the panel discussed was pushing for balance in schools among students from different income levels, a strategy that has drawn praise in Louisville.

Craig noted that The Oaks Academy, an Indianapolis private school, has successfully integrated by race and income by making a balanced enrollment a central academic strategy.

“I think it’s admirable what I have seen there and what they have done by intentionally having a certain percentage from each income group,” she said. “They have intentionally made it a point to have diversity. Those models are out there based on income.”


Indianapolis schools divided

Admissions changes are diversifying Indianapolis Public Schools most popular magnets. Now, the district may go further.

PHOTO: Provided by Indianapolis Public Schools
The magnet priority admission boundaries adopted by Indianapolis Public Schools in 2016.

New rules designed to make Indianapolis Public Schools’ most sought after schools more accessible for low-income families and children of color appear to be working. But with admissions still skewed, the administration is proposing going even further.

Across IPS, just one in five students are white and nearly 70 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for meal assistance. But at three of the district’s most sought after magnet schools, white students fill most of the seats and the vast majority of students come from middle class or affluent families.

At a board meeting last month, district staff highlighted School 60 (the Butler University lab school), School 84 and School 2 (both Center for Inquiry schools) as three schools where seats fill up fast and enrollment doesn’t reflect the demographics of the district.

In a bid to make those schools more accessible for low-income families and children of color, the board changed the admissions rules for magnets last fall. They shrank the boundaries that give priority to families who live near the schools, which is important because the three most popular schools drew from areas with more white, affluent families. And they changed the timeline for magnet admission to allow families to apply later.

“Magnet schools were born out of the civil rights movement and were intended to help school districts to re-integrate,” former-board member Gayle Cosby said at the time. “We want to make sure that magnet schools are not actually serving a different purpose in our district.”

The changes appear to have opened Schools 2, 84 and 60 to more students of color, according to data from the first admission cycle under the new rules. Next year, 32 percent of kindergarteners are expected to be children of color. That’s more than double last year, when just 14 percent of kindergarteners were not white.

But those demographics don’t come close to matching the district, where 72 percent of kindergarteners are children of color.

IPS director of enrollment and options Patrick Herrel said the goal should be for admissions at the most popular magnet schools to reflect district demographics.

“All kids, regardless of background, (should) have an equal chance of accessing some of our highest quality schools,” he said. “We moved in the right direction, but we are absolutely not there yet.”

The changes also aim to make the schools more economically diverse, but the data on income diversity among kindergarteners won’t be available until students complete enrollment and income verification paperwork, according to an IPS official.

District staff say IPS could do more. Last month, they presented the board with a plan to reserve more seats for students who apply late in the cycle. IPS data shows that students who apply later in the spring are more likely to come from low-income families and to be children of color.  

The move would double down on a change made last year, when the district switched from a single admissions lottery in January to three lotteries. Last year, 70 percent of seats were available in the January lottery, but 30 percent were held for lotteries in March and April. The new proposal calls for going further by reserving half the seats at magnet schools for the March and April lotteries.

When the board voted on the change to admissions rules last fall, there was strong momentum behind the move to change magnet lottery rules, following a Chalkbeat and IndyStar series on segregation in schools that found the district’s most popular programs primarily served privileged students. But there was also resistance from some parents, many of whom came from neighborhoods that lost their edge in gaining entry to popular schools.

It’s unclear whether board members will be willing to risk more backlash from parents who have the means to travel to other districts or pay private school tuition. The board did not vote on the latest lottery proposal, and it received mixed feedback.

Board member Diane Arnold said she supports holding more seats for later lotteries when more children of color apply.

“I like the fact that we are looking at playing with those percentages … connecting that to equity and trying to get more children engaged in those programs,” she said.

But board member Kelly Bentley was more skeptical. Equity is important, she said, but if parents don’t know whether their children are admitted to their top choice school until late April, they might choose another school.

“That’s a … loss of a student and a loss of revenue to the district,” she said. “I think we need to be very careful on making any changes.”

Indianapolis schools divided

School districts across the country are breaking apart, but Indianapolis is already divided

PHOTO: EdBuild
The report on school district secession was released Wednesday.

Communities across the U.S. are breaking away from larger urban districts, exacerbating segregation by race and class and draining money from school systems with the highest needs, according to a new report.

“This isn’t a story of one or two communities,” said Rebecca Sibilia, CEO of Edbuild, which released the report Wednesday. “This is about a broken system of laws that fail to protect the most vulnerable students.”

So far, the phenomenon of school district “secession” has largely bypassed Indianapolis, in part because the city’s schools are already separate — 10 districts surround Indianapolis Public Schools. That’s by design: State lawmakers wanted to avoid local backlash, so they chose not to merge school districts when Indianapolis and Marion County unified in 1970 under “Unigov.”

The national report from EdBuild, a nonprofit research group focusing on education funding and inequality, highlights districts across the country that have had some of the most dramatic secessions. A particularly egregious example is when six suburban towns within Shelby County split off from the Memphis school system. In Tennessee, municipalities with at least 1,500 students can secede if a majority of local voters approve.

Unlike Tennessee and other states where secession is common, Indiana law is less friendly to breakaway districts. If a community wants to split from a larger district, they must have the backing of a county committee, the Indiana State Board of Education and 55 percent of local voters, the report said. During that process, state and county officials have to consider how that move would affect school finances.

Since 2000, just one attempt at district secession has occurred within the state. The East Madison school district tried to secede from Anderson Community Schools in 2012, but the move was defeated.

There have not been any efforts for school districts to secede in Marion County, where they are already highly fragmented. In fact, the decision not to unify schools when the city and county merged has had far reaching effects.

As Chalkbeat reported in a story last year, the courts would later call that decision discriminatory, and it was a primary argument a federal judge cited in 1971 when he ordered desegregation busing of IPS students across school district lines into the townships. The program began in 1981 and ended last June.

The judge who ordered the busing, Samuel Dillin, stated bluntly that a merged city that left 11 separate school districts was racially motivated at a time when a majority of the region’s African-American and minority students lived in the city center while the surrounding school districts primarily enrolled white students.

“Unigov was not a perfect consolidation,” then-Mayor Richard Lugar told Chalkbeat. He went on to be one of Indiana’s most legendary political leaders as a six-term U.S. senator. “A good number of people really wanted to keep at least their particular school segregated.”

You can find EdBuild’s interactive graphic here and the entire report here.