IPS board to Ferebee: Discontinue 7-12 high schools

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Students at Harshman Middle School, where Jack Hesser is a teacher, work on science projects.

The end could be near for Indianapolis Public Schools’ combined middle and high schools.

The Indianapolis Public School Board directed Superintendent Lewis Ferebee at a board retreat last Friday to develop a plan to phase out school designs that result in 7th and 8th graders sharing space, schedules and sometimes even teachers with high school students, a controversial legacy from former superintendent Eugene White’s tenure.

“We’ve got clear direction that we have to explore options that would move us away from that model,” Ferebee said. “We’ll get it vetted and get community input.”

Instead, board members said they want to see well-developed middle grades programs at elementary schools and to expand successful magnet programs, which they hope will help increase student safety and bolster grades and test scores.

Middle schoolers have some of the lowest test scores in the district: Seven IPS high schools serve grades 6 to 12 or 7 to 12. In many of those schools, high school test scores are on the rise while middle school students’ ISTEP scores last year made little growth or even fell farther behind.

Nothing is expected to change next year but the district could start the transition toward more K to 8 elementary schools as early as the 2016-17 school year. Ferebee has said since he arrived at IPS in 2012 that the district’s 12 grade configurations scattered among more than 60 schools is “convoluted” at best and unsafe at worst.

“When you have students going through that phase in life, it’s not appropriate to have them with high school students who are in a different phase in their lives,” Ferebee said. “It’s best that those experiences be separate for a lot of different reasons, but primarily safety and social and emotional (development).”

Ferebee said combined middle and high schools also present instructional challenges. In some schools he’s seen 11th-grade Advanced Placement Calculus teachers be simultaneously responsible for teaching 7th-grade Pre-Algebra, a very different challenge.

“That’s a very unique skill set,” Ferebee said. “What happens is we have teachers who really enjoy one group and not so much the other. When I talk to the students, they don’t like being around each other. The middle grade students aren’t too fond of the high school students. It’s a real challenge for staff to manage.”

He said he’s exploring a new approach to organizing staff to avoid those situations next year.

Switching to more K to 8 schools may also help IPS compete with neighboring township and charter schools. The district often loses students as they approach middle and high schools. IPS has more than twice as many students in its elementary schools as it does in its middle and high schools.

Board member Kelly Bentley said she consistently hears from parents that they want their kids in K to 8 schools. She said IPS should expand its existing successful magnet programs such as the Center for Inquiry schools.

“We’ve got to respond to the market,” Bentley said. “A lot of these people are just walking.”

Board member Gayle Cosby said she wants to make sure IPS expands its successful programs in vulnerable neighborhoods as well as in places where parents are vocal.

“What’s great about Center for Inquiry 84, we need to make that available on other sides of town,” Cosby said.

The combined middle and high schools, called “community high schools,” were a major initiative of former superintendent White, who said the retooled schools would help reduce dropouts in the district and increase graduation rates. And graduation rates did rise dramatically after they were instituted.

But some of those gains were fueled by the use of graduation waivers, where students are allowed to graduate even if they have failed state tests.

School board President Diane Arnold said she supported the community school concept initially, especially at George Washington High School. She said she saw wayward middle schoolers blossom when they were able to participate in high quality high school athletics and music programs.

“It rescued some of those kids,” Arnold said. “I know there’s times it hasn’t worked well at Washington. I did see a few snippets of where it worked well for some kids.”

But Washington’s middle schoolers have continued to struggle. A new principal there this year created a separate program for older middle schoolers to try to get them back on track and reduce behavioral issues.

Unfortunately, said Butler University researcher Flo Barnes, there is “no magic bullet” when it comes to grade configuration. There are pros and cons to each model, she said. But she said the fewer transitions a student has between schools, the better they seem to do on a social and emotional level.

One benefit to having a K to 8 school is that elementary and middle school teachers may be better able to collaborate, Barnes said.

“I liked the thought that if you are in a K-8 setting, you can really enrich professional development,” said Barnes, a former Spanish teacher and instructional coach. “Having your elementary school teachers thinking on that middle school playing field. On the contrary, your secondary teachers … really see the value of (teaching) the whole child.”

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.