State of Indiana to take over troubled schools

State of Indiana to take over troubled schools
Dr. Myrtle Campbell (right), superintendent of the Gary Community School Corp., speaking during a Thursday night meeting. WBEZ/Michael Puente
State of Indiana to take over troubled schools
Dr. Myrtle Campbell (right), superintendent of the Gary Community School Corp., speaking during a Thursday night meeting. WBEZ/Michael Puente

State of Indiana to take over troubled schools

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Indiana’s top education official proposed Thursday that the state assume control of four troubled high schools and a middle school in what would be the state’s first takeover of underperforming public schools under a 1999 law.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett said he had mixed emotions in asking the State Board of Education to approve the takeover of a Gary high school and three Indianapolis high schools and a middle school. But he said the step is necessary for the students’ sake. The schools have been on academic probation for five years due to poor test scores.

The State Board of Education is scheduled to vote Monday on Bennett’s proposals.

Bennett’s first stop was in Gary, Indiana, to announce a proposed takeover of Roosevelt Career and Technical Academy, a high school with about 1,600 students.

“It’s a difficult decision. But I can be very sad and forlorn; you can be very sad and forlorn or we can look at this as how I can begin the conversation,” Bennett said. “My interest is a new beginning for this school.”

Bennett said he just wants to make the schools better. Closing them, as the law allows, isn’t something he wanted to do.

“This is not about blame, this is about the future,” Bennett said. “Our intent is to use everything we have in this state to restore these schools to what they should be for the students in these communities.”

Bennett said he’s proposing Roosevelt be operated by a private firm from New York City called Edison Learning. The company operates schools on the East Coast and in Chicago.

Gary schools superintendent Myrtle Campbell expressed shock and sadness over the takeover, especially in light  of ongoing changes at Roosevelt. At a special meeting of the Gary School Board on Thursday evening, Campbell wondered if Edison Learning can do a better job with Roosevelt than the district.

“We are doing our research to see where they are located. We know of some places, Chicago, and we know they have not always been successful,” Campbell said.  “So, there has to be some guarantee from that company that they can actually bring about the change that we would like to see in the district.”

Dr. Eugene G. White, superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools, has threatened to sue the state if it moves to take over schools in his district. He urged the corporation’s commissioners in an email Wednesday to begin legal action against the Department of Education.

“It is truly time to stand up for our children,” White said in the email. The commissioners are scheduled to meet Friday night.

Under Bennett’s proposal, the four Indianapolis schools and the Gary school would be run by school management firms that will evaluate each school’s performance for the remainder of the current academic year. Starting in the 2012-2013 academic year, those companies would take over full operation of each school and receive the state’s per-pupil aid for each school. Bennett said that if the Board of Education agrees, the companies would receive a one-year “transitional” contract followed by a four-year operations contract to run each school, with benchmarks to chart school improvement still to be determined.

Charter Schools USA and EdPower are the two school-management companies Bennett wants to run the four Indianapolis schools. He recommended that school management company Edison Learning operate the Gary school.

Indiana’s schools are placed on probation based on the percentage of students who pass statewide tests. A 1999 law allows the state to intervene if a school has not improved its test scores after five years on probation.
Bennett said Thursday he considers that five-year time frame too long and that lawmakers need to put more pressure on underperforming schools to improve.

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard said he supports Bennett’s recommendations for the six IPS schools, calling them a “bold step.”

“These schools have been failing for many years,” Ballard said in a statement.

Jim Larson, the Department of Education’s director of school turnaround and improvement, said the five schools that would be taken over by the state would undergo a careful year-long review by their chosen operators.

“This is much more than just ‘Go in there collect some data, write a report, tell us what you’re going to do better,’” Larson said. “All these schools are at different places.”