Emotions were running high at Indianapolis Public Schools headquarters Thursday as the administration laid out plans for closing three of the district’s seven high schools. There were pleas for other ideas from frustrated community members. At least one board member cried at the prospect of closing a beloved school.
But in the end, there was little indication that the plan to close Northwest, Arlington and Broad Ripple high schools would change. The board will vote on the proposal this September.
The room was crowded with alumni, families and staff from the schools facing closure and skeptics of the district’s collaboration with charter schools.
Community members understand that the district faces a weighty decision, said Yvette Coleman-Foreste, an alumni of Arlington and member of Delta Sigma Theta, a sorority that supports Northwest.
“But we want to also ask the question,” she continued, “Was this not purposed by design? Couldn’t there have been something that could’ve (been) done before we reached this point in time?”
Despite that criticism, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration focused on not only showing the necessity of change, but also laying out an optimistic vision for the future.
With fewer high schools, the district would be able to invest in specialized career academies that prepare students for college and help them develop in-demand, marketable skills, Ferebee said. That’s essential, he argued, because economic mobility is low in the city — poor children in Indianapolis have a far lower chance of achieving prosperity than in other metro areas.
“The status quo is not good enough,” he said. “We’re not doing our job preparing our students to take care of themselves and their families. … I refuse to continue to shortchange our students the best experience possible that will prepare them for the next phase of their lives.”
The administration also suggested that redesigning IPS high schools would help attract students who are currently choosing private, charter or township schools.
But in a mark of the distrust between some community members and the district leadership, IPS parent Chrissy Smith questioned whether the administration would use the money saved by closing high schools wisely.
“How is this board and administration going to guarantee students, parents and taxpayers that the savings from closing buildings and disrupting our students education will actually go back to the classrooms?” she asked.
Closing high schools is always painful for communities, but the issue is particularly controversial in Indianapolis because the district is adding a growing number of charter schools to its innovation network.
Innovation schools have the flexibility of charter schools but can receive district services such as transportation. IPS gets credit from the state for their results on tests and other measures, but it has little control over innovation schools’ daily operation — and their teachers work for the charter or nonprofit managers.
Like other community members and parents who spoke out at the board meeting, Smith is a frequent critic of the administration’s collaboration with charter schools. The decision to approve three innovation high schools earlier this year seemed to rub salt in the wound left by possible high school closures.
“Why are we supporting innovation and charter schools, while closing IPS schools?” Smith asked. “If IPS doesn’t have enough money to operate the high schools we have, why are we paying for three … new charter innovation high schools?”
The board members who spoke Thursday were supportive of the proposal for adding career academies to high schools, but some were emotional at the prospect of closing beloved high schools.
Board member Kelly Bentley, who graduated from Broad Ripple, was choked with tears as she spoke about the school.
“I do not minimize at all, not for one minute, your love of the school and the memories you hold so dear,” she said. But “emotions and memories aside, there is simply no way that our district can continue to grow and fund critical needs … while maintaining a 37 percent occupancy rate at our high school level.”
They also appeared keenly aware of the wave of criticism they have drawn in the weeks since the district revealed plans to close schools.
Board member Venita Moore, who graduated from Arlington, said that she has heard many times that the board is not listening, does not hear and does not care.
“I stand here to say before you today that I did hear, we are listening and we do care,” Moore said. “We will find a way to ensure … that you have an opportunity to help shape the district, but we all know that the district must change.”