If it was up to Indianapolis Public Schools, the district would opt to merge John Marshall and Arlington high schools for the 2015-16 school year.

The idea was presented as Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s favorite of three options he presented to an Indiana State Board of Education committee for what to do with Arlington High School next year. The school was taken over by the state in 2012 after six straight years of F grades for poor test scores but Tindley Schools, a charter school network brought in to run the school, said this summer it wants out of managing the school.

Ferebee said the best solution is to give IPS control over Arlington again, arguing a merger with John Marshall was an opportunity to offer students improved learning opportunities and better use the district’s building space.

“We believe (merging) provides a win for both John Marshall and Arlington communities,” Ferebee said. “And we believe that this particular option also provides greater consistency for students.”

Although Tindley and IPS worked out a deal for the 2014-15 school year, Tindley has said it cannot afford to keep running Arlington. State board members were surprised no one from Tindley attended the meeting, saying they had hoped to hear ideas from the network for transitioning Arlington to new management.

A network official said that was not the right role for Tindley to play.

“Until the state board decides how to transition Arlington High School, any predictions from Tindley on how a transition might work are premature,” spokeswoman Bev Rella said in a statement.

Merging the East side high schools would allow Arlington to grow its enrollment enough to better support the costs of its building, Ferebee said. Arlington today serves about 300 students, and adding John Marshall’s roughly 1,100 students would bring the school closer to its 2,000-student capacity.

John Marshall’s building, Ferebee said, was originally designed as a middle school and can’t offer students the amenities the more recently renovated Arlington could. If merged, the school likely would still serve grades seven through 12.

John Marshall has had similarly poor academic performance but narrowly avoided state takeover in 2012. Instead, the school was assigned a “lead partner,” or an outside group support the improvement efforts of the principal and staff.

But community members were surprised when the option to close John Marshall was suggested last month. Some said the transition would be too difficult for students and asked for more time for a new principal to make changes.

The details of the other suggested plans, which don’t involve closing John Marshall, are as follows:

  • Use a new law, created earlier this year by House Bill 1321, to encourage charter schools to partner with IPS to run the school. The goal would be for the new operator to attract at least 700 students to Arlington for 2015-16. This plan would likely remove Arlington from state takeover.
  • Close Arlington in 2015-16, sending students to other schools with an invitation to transfer back when it re-opens in 2016-17, possibly with a different grade configuration than seventh through 12th that it serves today.

Merging is also preferred, Ferebee said, because it helps IPS better estimate the future enrollment of the school, making financial planning easier and more stable.

Charter Schools USA, a charter network that already runs three schools in IPS, said it would consider taking over management of Arlington.

“If it’s better to work this through with IPS, we would support that as well and get right behind that,” said John Hage, CEO of CSUSA. “It’s not for us to say what’s in the best interest of those students. We would want to have the right to earn that.”

One key question from board member Tony Walker, an attorney from Gary, was about what happens to turnaround schools after their contracts with the outside operators end. What processes are in place to make sure schools keep progressing, and how do those ideas spread throughout the rest of the district?

Perhaps, he said, the state should consider changing the law to allow the state to take over entire school districts?

“We’re running into a situation where this group now that has made progress in those schools is going to leave, and there’s nothing in place to capture the progress,” Walker said. “So I think we need some changes in the law immediately for the state board to be able to put an exit strategy or transition in place whereby IPS or Gary Community School Corporation actually gets to benefit from what’s been done over the turnaround process.”

Carole Craig, education chairwoman of the Greater Indianapolis NAACP, said no matter what the district and state decide to do, the Arlington and John Marshall communities need to be involved.

“We care so much about our community, and we also, as professionals with our organizations, understand when you have urban districts, the families care so much, but they don’t have the social capital and resources to come forward as much as people would like,” Craig said. “Sometimes people interpret that as that they don’t care, but that is absolutely not true.”

The board has plans to discuss Arlington and its turnaround options at its October 15 meeting.

Making a decision sooner is better than waiting, Ferebee said.

“I think it’s great we’re having this conversation in October because that gives us an enormous amount of time to implement that planning process,” Ferebee said. “We can build relationships with students and plan transitional activities between now and the end of the year so that when school starts in August, students don’t miss a beat.”