School Closings

Dozens rally to protest closing high schools in Indianapolis Public Schools

PHOTO: Hafsa Razi

On the eve of learning which Indianapolis high schools could face closure, about 50 protesters rallied outside the Indianapolis Public Schools central office with a demand: Hold off.

Parents, teachers and community members gathered ahead of an IPS board meeting. The protest was organized by a loose coalition of groups including Concerned Clergy.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee will announce Wednesday which three of the seven high schools the administration recommends closing. The board will vote on the final plan in September.

Chalkbeat spoke to several of the protesters about why they were there and what they hoped to accomplish.

Elaine Bultman

PHOTO: Hafsa Razi
Elaine Bultman

Indianapolis Education Association member, 27-year teaching veteran, former teacher at School 15.

“There are so many different plans that could be used with these schools to keep them open. They’re in the communities where people live. This is taking our kids away from public education and forcing them to leave the community. No one wins. Students are constantly being transferred here to there, teachers are being transferred here to there. We’re losing our home…(I want IPS) to slow down.”

Bultman said the district did not allow enough community input in the process. “Simply having community meetings (isn’t enough). The decisions have been made about which schools are closing. That’s not input from our community.”

 

PHOTO: Hafsa Razi
Stardust A

Stardust A

Parent of a student at Crispus Attucks High School.

“It’s about privatization and taking funds away from the public … I’m all about accountability. When you put money into private hands, they’re not accountable to us. They don’t have to provide the same services. The money should go straight to the kids. (I hope) maybe that (the school board members) see some dissent and slow it down. The board needs to know that their constituents are paying attention.”

 

PHOTO: Hafsa Razi
Muhammad Siddeeq

Muhammad Siddeeq

Former science teacher at Shortridge and John Marshall high schools.

Siddeeq said IPS is now struggling with high school enrollment because of its own mistakes.

“You created this situation. They bomb our school populations, and then say, ‘You know what, we don’t have enough students to go to school!’ We’re really being invaded. And then they come to us and say, ‘You have a choice.’ Well, yeah, we have a choice, after you already wiped out any way of us possibly resisting.”

“The main thing is to alert the public and to hopefully put in the conscience of the school board to take a second look at how they’re conducting themselves.”

 

PHOTO: Hafsa Razi
Antonio Cardenas

Antonio Cardenas

Sophomore at Shortridge High School.

“It just breaks all of our hearts at Shortridge … A couple weeks before school let out, they were there talking to us, and they stopped taking questions from us after one of our kids said, ‘You’re trying to pack us into a can of sardines.’ They stopped the interview right there with the whole school and wouldn’t take any more questions. They refused to talk to our teachers afterward, and they just left out of nowhere.”

Cardenas said Shortridge is a successful school academically. “It’s growing really rapidly, but IPS isn’t looking at that. It’s looking at the student ratio to the building, but it’s not about that, it’s about how well we’re doing as a school.”

 

PHOTO: Hafsa Razi
Michelle Sanders

Michelle Sanders

Member of Concerned Clergy of Indianapolis from Purpose of Life Ministries.

“(There’s) a lack of communication and involvement of the community. … (We need) a new transition team of folks that have community voices and not just consultants to make the decisions on what to close if there are closures.”

Sanders said IPS can’t expect to be able to move students around the city easily. “Indianapolis is a large community that’s spread apart. You can’t necessarily just close half the high schools — you’re going to create transportation issues, you’re going to create cultural issues. It just creates a lot of different issues that I don’t think they’ve addressed.”

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.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: