School Closings

At painful meeting, Indianapolis superintendent makes case for closing high schools: ‘The status quo is not good enough’

PHOTO: Hafsa Razi
IPS leaders are considering a plan to close three high schools.

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.”

School Closings

Ahead of school closure vote, New York City families protest and anxiously await new options

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
P.S. 92 parent Jeanelle Valet protested that school's closure at recent rally in front of the education department's headquarters.

When Jeanelle Valet learned that the city planned to close P.S. 92, the Bronx elementary school her three children attend, she struggled to understand why.

She knew the school had a history of low performance, but it seemed to be working for her children. And it didn’t take much research to find other schools with lower attendance rates and similar test scores that avoided a spot on the closure list.

“I have gone through a lot of data for all these other schools,” Valet boomed through a megaphone as she stood on the steps of the education department’s headquarters, where advocates and parents gathered this week in protest. “There are other schools on the ‘Renewal’ list that aren’t getting closed that should be closed.”

On Wednesday, an oversight panel will vote on the city’s plans to shutter 13 schools — including P.S. 92 and seven others in the city’s “Renewal” improvement program — that officials decided are too low performing or have shed too many students to keep open. It’s the largest single round of closures since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office in 2014.

School closures are inherently disruptive and controversial — even schools with dismal academic records can inspire fierce loyalty from families and educators. The outcry against closures was loud and sustained under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who shut down dozens of low-performing schools and replaced them with new ones.

De Blasio has weathered a much smaller backlash because he has shuttered far fewer schools and on account of his $582 million Renewal program, which has flooded low-performing schools with extra social services and academic support rather than immediately closing them. Yet his approach has invited its own set of critiques.

The fact that de Blasio promised to “move heaven and earth” through his Renewal program to revamp troubled schools has prompted even some allies to question whether the program has fallen short. And the small number of closures has left parents like Valet wondering why their school was targeted when others were spared, and has fueled suspicions among some that de Blasio may be making space for more charter schools. (An education department spokesman denied that and said only four of 18 schools set to be closed or merged will be replaced by charter schools.)

Now, even as families at some of the schools rally against the closures, they are also wondering where their children will end up if the plans go through. While the city has promised to place them in higher-performing alternatives, many are skeptical — and still waiting for details.

“No one has told us anything,” Valet said.

The Panel for Educational Policy — an oversight board where the majority of members are appointed by the mayor — will vote on the closures Wednesday evening. In the past, it has signed off on nearly all of the city’s proposed closures, though five of the 13 members voted against shuttering a Bronx middle school last year. If the latest round of closures are approved, 26 of the original 94 Renewal schools will have been closed or merged with other schools.

Since launching the Renewal program in 2014, de Blasio has made clear that he would consider shutting down schools that failed to make “fast and intense” improvements after receiving extra support. Still, that has not insulated him from attacks from all sides: Critics of his approach say he should have closed the worst-off schools sooner rather than spending years trying to save them, while some ideological allies question his decision to close any schools at all.

“This administration, like its predecessor, relies too frequently on school closings as a remedy for failing schools,” Public Advocate Letitia James wrote in a recent letter to schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña. “Rather than helping students, closures disrupt whole communities.”

Even the union-backed Alliance for Quality Education — which has generally endorsed de Blasio’s turnaround strategy — implied in a statement last week that the city was partly to blame for some schools’ failure to improve, saying that the Renewal program’s support for schools has been “uneven.”

The group also argued that the education department “arbitrarily” targeted schools for closure — echoing a complaint made by many families and faculty members.

For instance, supporters of P.S./M.S. 42 in Queens have pointed out that the school has made gains on its test scores and quality reviews — even outperforming a number of other Renewal schools. Yet it is one of the schools slated for closure.

In the past, education department officials have said they consider a range of factors when deciding which schools to close.

“We look carefully at a school’s test scores, attendance, graduation rates, classroom instruction, leadership and the school’s overall trajectory for success,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman said in a statement. “For each school proposed for closure, we believe that students will be better served at a higher performing school.”

But critics say it’s often unclear how those criteria are applied to individual schools.

“There’s a lack of clarity, a randomness, in how schools are closed,” said Angelica Otero, executive director at Bronx Power, an organization that has organized parents against the closures. “That’s what feels really unfair.”

Adding to the frustration, de Blasio recently reversed his administration’s decision to close a Brooklyn high school. Because he cited community pressure, the reversal raised questions about whether politics play a role in closure decisions — while also giving other schools hope that protests might change the mayor’s mind.

“We were like, ‘Okay, it’s possible,’” Otero said when Brooklyn Collegiate was taken off the closure list. “Let’s keep working.” (Aciman, the education department spokesman, said the city reversed the planned closure after the community raised concerns about “limited high school options in Brownsville.”)

While families fight the closures, they are also worried about what will happen if they lose. City officials have promised to help students in the closing schools enroll in ones that are better performing. However, a Chalkbeat analysis found that students leaving closed schools often attend others that still perform below the city average.

Meanwhile, several parents said they are anxiously awaiting the individual enrollment help that city officials say is coming in early March after the closure plans are formally approved. For now, many parents like Magdalana Espinosa, who has children at two different Renewal schools slated for closure, do not know where their children are headed after their schools shut down.

“I’m not sure where I’m going to put my kids,” she said.

Empowerment Zone

In rare move, Memphis community council proposes school closure

PHOTO: Google Maps
Under the Whitehaven Empowerment Zone leadership council's proposal, Manor Lake Elementary would close and merge with Geeter Middle to create a K-8 school.

It isn’t every day that parent leaders press their school district to close a local school.

But that’s exactly what has happened in Memphis’ Whitehaven neighborhood over the last several months, as a group of parent leaders have reckoned with the challenges facing Manor Lake Elementary School.

Beverly Davis, whose child attends Whitehaven High School, first floated the idea of shutting Manor Lake and sending its 359 students to a nearby middle school next year, after staring down data showing low test scores, low enrollment, and high costs for building maintenance.

The leadership council she helps lead for a cluster of Whitehaven schools — made up of about 30 parents, teachers, students, and community members — liked the idea.

And this week, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson turned their idea into a proposal: This fall, Manor Lake should fold into Geeter Middle School, creating a new K-8 school that would be part of the district’s Whitehaven Empowerment Zone. If the proposal is approved, the new school would join four others in a group led by Whitehaven High School Principal Vincent Hunter and the leadership council.

The saga is surprising because decisions to close schools often meet fierce resistance from communities. Two common reasons for the pushback: Parents feel left out of the conversation until the last minute, and community members fear that their school will no longer be connected to the neighborhood.

The Whitehaven story escapes both of those pitfalls. Parents have long been involved in the Empowerment Zone, and the zone’s leadership is deeply rooted in the community. (Feedback from the wider community is coming soon.)

“In order for the model to work we need to keep it as a Whitehaven model,” Davis told Chalkbeat. “Under Dr. Hunter the Whitehaven model is parents, parents, and more parents. And that’s where these other schools come short. You let parents have a voice, you let parents come to the table.”

Whitehaven’s empowerment zone is unique within Shelby County Schools, where efforts to improve struggling schools have centered on a different model, the district’s Innovation Zone. In that model, schools get more resources, new leaders and teachers, and a longer school day — but district officials alone call the shots.

Under the empowerment zone, the district shares management with a leadership council that includes 11 teachers, nine parents, six community members, and four students in Whitehaven. The council meets monthly to talk about how schools are doing and how to address challenges school staff and students are facing.

The council has had both Geeter and Manor Lake — located just a half-mile apart — on their radar for months, after the district decided that both should enter the empowerment zone next year.

Geeter is coming from the Innovation Zone, where it was in the first cohort of schools to join and would be the first to exit. After five years in the Innovation Zone, the school’s performance on state tests has barely improved, and it remains solidly in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the state. Last year, less than 10 percent of students posted test scores suggesting that they are on grade level in math or language arts.

After appearing on the state’s first “priority” list in 2012 because of its low test scores, Manor Lake Elementary actually escaped the state’s most recent warning list of the lowest-scoring 10 percent of schools. Yet less than 15 percent of students were considered proficient in language arts on state tests last year.

Both schools have far fewer students than they are designed to serve. On Tuesday, Hopson said the two schools are each at less than 60 percent capacity.

And Manor Lake is especially expensive to operate. As of summer 2016, Manor Lake Elementary had more than $2.5 million in maintenance costs for the building.

Eddie Jones, the chair of the Empowerment Zone leadership council who is also a county commissioner for the area, said merging the two schools is not only financially prudent, but will result in a better environment for the neighborhood’s students.

“Now you free up resources to put in that building to adequately educate our kids,” he said. “By combining those schools … you have everything in one building.”

The school board is expected to make an initial vote on the proposal next week, kicking off community meetings before a final vote. One such meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 28 at Whitehaven High School.