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.

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.