A new radio documentary that aired this week dove into Indiana’s radical experiment to take over and turn around failing schools, weighing whether the extreme intervention into four Indianapolis Public Schools was worth it.
“It is not a simple answer,” WFYI reporter Eric Weddle said in his report. “It’s complex, and it’s messy.”
The hour-long documentary looks back on the eight years of state takeover. Next week, the state is expected to make a decision about the future of three of those schools.
In 2011, the state took the long-failing Emma Donnan Middle School, Howe High School, Manual High School, and Arlington High School out of the district’s control and turned them over to outside operators.
Weddle focuses on two: Arlington and Howe.
Arlington’s outside operator quickly found it could not afford to run the school, and the far eastside high school was returned to the district three years in. Weddle was embedded at Arlington in 2015-16 and tracked the tumult of starting over — again.
The high school struggled to find teachers, let alone keep the ones it had. Student misbehavior ran rampant: “Students aren’t just skipping class,” Weddle noted. “They’re vandalizing the building, smoking pot, and just ignoring the rules and their education.”
Principal Stan Law talked about tracking students down to take tests and catch up on credits, in the hopes of leading them to graduation:
“I mean, for real, these kids come from some dire daggone situations, and they don’t see, they don’t even have an example at home to see that education is important. It is day-to-day survival. That’s all it is. Not about building a freaking future. And fortunately, that’s our task to be able to do it. And we’ve got to push through some of the minutiae in order to get that done.”
Despite making some improvements, Arlington was one of three high schools that closed last year as part of the district’s high school revamp.
On the near eastside, Weddle goes into the foundering Howe High School after its operator, Charter Schools USA, is given a deadline to prove the school is doing better.
Lloyd Knight is the school’s fourth principal in six years:
“We came in with some super simplistic stuff. So like when I came in, I told kids they couldn’t curse anymore. So, for the most part, they stopped, right? I told students that we’re going to expect them to learn every day. We’re going to supervise you every day. And when they saw those things happen, I think that had an impact. I don’t think there was ever like a magic bullet. I think it was more along the lines of, like, ‘Are you willing to go to the furthest degree to hold stakeholders accountable for the education of our children in this building?’”
Weddle reported that Charter Schools USA spent $5 million over six years to run Howe, Manual, and Emma Donnan.
Charter Schools USA founder Jon Hage acknowledged that it was a tough task, filled with problems, mistakes, and lessons learned.
“I don’t make any excuses. If there was a lack of know-how in turnaround, I don’t think anyone in the country had a lot of experience in it. If there were experts doing it, they’d be doing it all over the country successfully. And so we took a big chance.”