Three years ago, Indianapolis Public Schools had a chance to tackle one of its most stubborn problems: the lack of diversity in its schools.

The city’s segregated history left the shrinking district more racially and socioeconomically segregated in 2016 than when busing for integration began more than three decades earlier. Select IPS schools remained highly coveted by privileged families, while many struggling schools had high concentrations of poverty.

But a federal grant offered the opportunity to craft a powerful strategy to better integrate IPS schools.

Indianapolis Public Schools zeroed in on a few potential key activities already underway that officials hoped would promote integration, such as using its innovation strategy to partner with charter operators and leveling the playing field in the magnet school lottery, according to its grant application made public for the first time through a records request from Chalkbeat.

But after IPS applied for just under $500,000 through the federal grant, the political tides changed. In early 2017, the Trump administration canceled the Obama-era $12 million school diversity grant program.

Without the federal incentive, about half of the 17 largest districts that applied failed to follow through with their integration plans, Chalkbeat found. Indianapolis Public Schools, however, had submitted a plan that tracked with its existing priorities and moved forward with several decisions in the years since. District officials say those steps and other changes led to some improvement in school diversity, though the work is far from over.

Not getting the grant “did not impede our efforts,” said Patrick Herrel, IPS director of enrollment and options. “From the start, we knew this core idea of equity, as it relates to race, systemic racism, bias, and inequities, was something we would do regardless.”

While integration is tough to tackle, it holds the potential to lead to better academic outcomes for the district’s low-income students and students of color, who continue to significantly trail and face more obstacles than their more affluent and white peers. Race and poverty, the district’s application noted, are closely connected in Indianapolis.

The district didn’t follow the playbook it laid out in its application — without funding, it couldn’t pay for consulting, trips to other cities that officials considered models for integrated schools, or focus groups. But it did follow through with key changes to the way school choice worked in the district.

For the 2018-19 school year, the district started using a new common enrollment system,  known as Enroll Indy, for its magnet school programs. Enroll Indy targeted its outreach in low-income neighborhoods, and the number of families applying for magnet programs significantly increased.

Combined with an earlier decision to give fewer families priority based on how close they live to magnet schools and keep some seats open for later applicants since low-income families were more likely to choose schools later in the year, IPS has seen its most sought-after programs grow more diverse.

Still, the district hasn’t completely equalized the magnet lottery, with some families still receiving advantages based on where they live and with more options concentrated on the north side of the city.

It’s more difficult to say what impact the innovation school strategy has had on diversifying the district. The grant application highlighted Global Preparatory Academy, a charter school that partnered with the district to attempt to turn around School 44. As a dual language program, Global Prep also attracts students from outside its neighborhood boundary.

Because the district uses charter partnerships as a strategy to improve low-performing schools, the grant application notes the potential for “developing high enrollment demand in low-demand areas.” Supporters note that innovation schools can be “diverse by design” through their curriculum, recruitment, and location. But innovation school partners bring different models, so it’s hard to draw blanket conclusions on how innovation schools affect school diversity.

Although it was not part of its original grant proposal, IPS also closed three high schools and moved to an all-choice high school system in 2018. The strategy was largely driven by budget constraints, but consolidating high schools helped diversify some campuses, such as Shortridge High School, according to a recent IPS presentation. It also put an end to some students choosing schools and others getting assigned based on which neighborhood they lived in, Herrel said.

“By that very structural change, we forced everyone to participate in a process where they control the program,” Herrel said, “which goes from choice advantaging those with social capital, to choice advantaging everyone.”

Still, diversity efforts take time, and it’s clear that there’s much more work to be done, both district officials and community leaders acknowledged. And regardless of school demographics, the district needs to better serve students of color and students from low-income families, advocates say.

“We want to make sure all of our students in the neighborhood, especially those from low-income families, are afforded high-quality opportunities,” said Barato Britt, executive director of the Edna Martin Christian Center’s Legacy and Leadership Academy.

Housing patterns and neighborhood segregation pose major obstacles, but schools can still undertake intentional equity efforts, said Mark Russell, director of advocacy and family services for the Indianapolis Urban League. This year’s standardized test scores showing significant gaps in passing rates based on both race and socioeconomic status underscored how critical those efforts are.

“What we have here is nothing short of a crisis for students of color, students who are low-income, and disabled students, based on test performance county-wide,” Russell said.

IPS Superintendent Aleesia Johnson, who started leading the district this year, has named racial equity as a top priority and wants to take on tough conversations on how race and racism affect education. The district plans to highlight racial equity in its upcoming strategic plan and continue to expand its racial equity training.

“It feels like racial equity is now the thing that undergirds all of the decisions that we make, and there is a very intentional and constant focus of filtering everything through that equity lens,” Herrel said.

While IPS is taking some steps, truly integrating schools will necessitate bigger change and not “tinkering around the edges,” said Brandon Brown, CEO of The Mind Trust, a charter advocacy group that works with IPS on its innovation school strategy.

“It’s going to be hard conversations with folks who live in our community about race and class,” he said. “And it’s going to be up to people with the privilege to choose where they send their kid to school, either via their resources or ability to move. Without them helping to lead the integration effort, it’s never going to be successful.”