Indiana considers first schools takeover

Board of education could target four schools in Indianapolis, one in Gary

August 27, 2011

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(WBEZ/Michael Puente)
Gary's Roosevelt Career & Technical Academy could be the target of a state takeover.

When the Indiana State Board of Education meets in Indianapolis Monday morning, it will decide the fate of five public schools slated for state takeover. It won’t be an easy decision, despite the fact that board members have discussed the matter for months.

And, according to one board member, the takeover is still not a done deal.

“There won’t be any rubber stamping,” Daniel Elsener told WBEZ Friday. “Everybody on that board I served at, they are very, very thorough; they are very, very competent; and this is a very serious matter. There is no political, no religious, no race, no side agenda. The obligation to these children, that community and our state of Indiana — that’s what this is all about.”

If the nine-member board signs off, the move will mark the state’s first-ever school takeover.

Board members are expected to hear State Superintendent Tony Bennett recommend that five academically poor-performing schools have management, and possibly many teachers, replaced by the state beginning next year. Teachers union contracts would be nullified as well.

Four of the schools are in Indianapolis. Another, Roosevelt Career and Technical Academy, is a high school in Gary.

For nearly two years, the Indiana State Department of Education has considered taking over two dozen poor-performing schools. Such action is allowed under a state law passed in 1999.

The state had considered closing five schools within urban sectors of Northwest Indiana: one in East Chicago, two in Hammond, and another in Calumet Township. This summer each school held hearings where interested parties voiced why their school should be taken over or allowed to continue improvements without meddling from the state.

Four of the Northwest Indiana schools, however, showed enough improvement to avoid being taken over -- but Roosevelt didn’t.

Bennett visited Gary on Thursday to make his announcement. He said two other options — leaving things as-is or closing the high school —  weren’t acceptable.

“The easy track is to say let’s just continue and see if this gets better. It’s easy. It’s politically safe. It’s not the right thing to do. Track number two is to close the school but that would be taking away from this community, and that’s what we want to try to avoid,” Bennett said. 

Bennett announced that a privately-run school operator, Edison Learning of New York City, will be recommended to the board to run Roosevelt. Edison runs schools on the East Coast and two on Chicago’s South Side.

Elsener, who also serves as President of Marian University in Indianapolis, says the state has a duty to improve the schools performing at low levels.

“There’s a moral obligation to every child that they’ve been given an opportunity to succeed and participate fully in our economy and develop their talents to the very best of their ability,” Elsener said.

Elsener added that the state does not intend to browbeat school districts into thinking they failed at improving the schools, but after years of failure, a major shakeup has to occur.

“A lot of good people have tried very, very hard for a lot of years under the present system and they can’t seem to improve. Matter of fact, the schools are getting worse. They can’t even show as little as three percent improvement. Their graduation rates are abysmal,” Elsener said. “If people of good will and good intention have tried very hard, maybe it’s time to wipe the slate clean in some instances, and try something new, without all the rules and regulations, without the bureaucracy and say we’re going to give a new set of leaders an opportunity to try something different.”

Elsener says there are a number of implications with the decision to take over a school, the main one to make sure that a new operator gets the job done.

“We have some serious questions to walk through and get the details right. We don’t want to mess with kids and we don’t want to mess with communities,” Elsener said.

Gary School Superintendent Myrtle Campbell says her district will work with Edison Learning to ensure a smooth transition.
In contrast, the Indianapolis Public School system is threatening to sue the Indiana Department of Education if it moves to take control of four of its high schools, including one middle school.