Ferebee asks: Where do middle school kids belong?

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Harshman Middle School has seen a major turnaround in test scores.

(Lewis Ferebee, superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools, sat down with Chalkbeat Indiana Bureau Chief Scott Elliott Monday night at the downtown public library for a one-on-one interview sponsored by WFYI. The full interview will be broadcast online next week and Chalkbeat will publish more excerpts from the conversation over the next few days.)

Since his arrival in Indianapolis seven months ago, IPS superintendent Lewis Ferebee has expressed some concerns about the grade configuration and set up of the district’s middle and high schools. The district has two magnet middle schools for students in grades 7 and 8: Harshman and Longfellow. But students in grades 6 to 8 can also attend three 6-12 magnet high schools: Broad Ripple, Crispus Attucks and Shortridge. Or students in grades 7 and 8 can attend one of three 7-12 community high schools: George Washington, Northwest or John Marshall.

There’s even more options. Key learning community serves grades K-12. Two elementary schools serve grades K to 7: School 106 and School 27. Nine elementary schools are K-8: School 2, School 19, School 31, School 43, School 46, School 56, School 84, School 87 and School 91. There’s even a school for grades 2 to 7, Sidener Academy, a magnet school for gifted kids.

IPS’s lineup of schools was dramatically changed by state takeover in 2012. Now four former IPS schools are independently managed by outside organizations under contracts with the state: Donnan Middle School for grades 7 and 8; Manual High School for grades 9 to 12 and Howe and Arlington high schools for grades 7 to 12.

That leaves IPS with just one 9 to 12 high school in Arsenal Tech. High school students can attend the three 6-12 magnet high schools or the three 7-12 high schools. Plus K-12 Key Learning Community and the new Gambold Prep High School (serving grades 9-10) have high school students.

In the interview, Ferebee said he is considering how to reorganize middle and high schools, including grappling with ways to create clearer paths for students to follow from elementary to high school. Among the potentially big questions is whether IPS should have separate middle schools at all or if all non-magnet high school students should be on one campus.

Finally, Ferebee address concerns about Harshman Middle School, an IPS showcase for its big test score turnaround over the past four years, in the wake of the news Principal Bob Guffin and Assistant Principal Dana Altemeyer both are leaving the school.

Here’s what Ferebee had to say:

Where do middle school students belong?

It’s very challenging for our families and students because we have multiple configurations of grade for our schools. So we have K-5, K-6, 7-8, 7-12, 6-12 and so what we are seeing in our stakeholder feedback, and what I’ve heard from our constituents through the town halls and our focus groups, was there are not clear pipelines for students to matriculate from elementary school through secondary.

For example, If I want to go to Crispus Attucks Magnet High School, I’ve got to leave my K-6 to go their in 6th grade and I go there from 6 to 12. If I’m attending a K-8 school we really don’t have any 9-12 schools for the students to attend. So you’re asking that eighth grader to transition to a high school where some students have been since the sixth grade or some students have been since seventh grade.

It’s very convoluted for students and families. There could be clearer streams for students to flow through as we think about our K-12 continuum. I also think it’s very challenging for the few middle grade stand alone schools we have. As a middle school principal, it was very challenging for grade 6 to 8. And in some cases we got them in one year and got them out the other year. That’s difficult.

As a middle school principal, one of the things I enjoyed was having students for multiple years. So I believe we need to create models where we give families options that will provide a clear continuum of K-6, 6-8, 9-12 where parents can see this is where we’re going to start and this is where we’re going to graduate. Right now I don’t think that’s really clear for a lot of our families.

Honestly, we’ve done some grade configurations based on keeping students in IPS or to address the takeover challenge we had a few years ago. I just don’t believe that is the right way to configure. It has to be more strategic and thoughtful for our families.

IPS’s high school students all could fit in all one high school. Should we do that, perhaps at Arsenal Tech?

We’re having those conversations now. Grade configuration is one part of the domino, but efficiency is the other side. It’s more efficient to have more students at one site, but is that the best learning environment is what we have to ask ourselves. What we’re finding in the feedback we received from our stakeholders, and it’s very documented as well in research, is that in smaller learning environments, typically students do better. It costs more, but typically the students perform better.

Those are decisions we have to grapple with going forward. What is the right grade configuration? What is the right setting for our students? Do we want the massive traditional high school or do we want smaller learning environments? Or do we want to land between the two? Those are discussions we are having right now.

What’s important for us to consider is what the curricular needs are, and what the academic needs are, for our students and create programming for our families around that. That’s important when you think about the conversation we had about middle school because we’re bleeding at middle school and high school. We start with about 3,500 kindergarteners. Gradually that number over time gets smaller and smaller and it gets almost to 1,500 to 1,000 students who get to ninth grade.

What that tells me and our commissioners is we don’t have the right options when we begin to lose students in middle grades and we don’t have the right options that are attractive for students when they matriculate to high school. I am very excited about doing our work differently there to retain those students and give those students options to get them ready for career and college.

Sustaining success is a real challenge for IPS. People are talking now about Harshman Middle School. The assistant principal left recently and now the principal has announced plans to leave for another job. This has been an example of an IPS school that made a remarkable turnaround. How can it be sustained?

I think our efforts need to be more grassroots oriented. What we did at Harshman was we took advantage of a school improvement grant that provided a boost of resources for the school and its been difficult to sustain that now that we are at the cusp of the funding cliff.

The other challenge is that as you do good work, people look at you as possible candidates for other roles. In the case of Harshman, we had two leaders who were doing great work and were tapped to go to other organizations. We wish them well. But I think that’s a call for us to be competitive in our compensation particularly at our schools that have been struggling where our turnaround work is going on.

But I think it’s also a sign that we need to be more grassroots in terms of developing and empowering our educators in developing school reform because I believe empowering from within is more sustainable and we’re not relying on booster shots to get toward the outcomes that we’re seeking.

I am very pleased with the work that is taking place at Harshman. I believe there are teachers there who will continue the charge.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”