Madeline just finished her sophomore year in high school and is doing great.
From kindergarten through 8th grade, she attended the Rousseau McClellan School 91, a Montessori magnet school within Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS). Madeline (whose last name we’re not including here, on request), received a top-notch primary education from one of the best magnet programs in the district. The school has received an A rating, according to the state’s accountability measures, for four consecutive years. Her school has also won a national merit award — Magnet School of Distinction — six times in a row.
Madeline loves to sing, and she knew she wanted music to be a big part of her high school experience. When it came time for her to attend high school, she knew where she wanted to go and she had the support of her family.
One might assume that she would attend Broad Ripple Magnet High School for the Arts and Humanities within IPS. After all, her family has history there as alumni who enjoyed the same activities as Madeline’s interests, while there.
But that’s not where Madeline attends school.
Instead, she just completed her sophomore year at North Central High School, the public high school for the Metropolitan School District of Washington Township. Madeline lives within the IPS school district boundaries, but also within the township government lines of Washington Township.
Broad Ripple High School and School 91 are also within the Washington Township government lines.
Madeline’s story isn’t unique. And it’s a sign of some of the struggles in education school administrators all over the city are grappling with. As IPS as a school district prepares to close three high schools after the completion of this school year, we’re examining the boundaries that divide district and township schools, the population shifts at schools across the county, and the historical precedent for the unique challenges facing administrators.
THE EDUCATIONAL LANDSCAPE
Understanding the educational landscape of Indianapolis is the first step to comprehending the difficulties schools face in the city. The geographical makeup of the school districts in Marion County is the last tangible piece of evidence showing life before Unigov. Marion County is broken up into nine townships arranged like a tic-tac-toe board. Moving from left to right: Pike, Washington, and Lawrence make up the top row; Wayne, Center and Warren create the middle row; and Decatur, Perry and Franklin complete the bottom row. The breakdown of school districts, however, are another story entirely.
Now is probably the time to make a blanket statement that will be obvious to some and quite the revelation to others. Although Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) gets a lot of media attention and has a lot of influence in setting public education policy, it is not the only school district educating children in Indianapolis/Marion County. There are 11 public school districts in Marion County. All nine townships have a corresponding school district as well as the towns of Speedway and Beech Grove. Technically, IPS could be considered the public school district for Center Township.
Here is another fun fact that may blow your mind: IPS is no longer the largest school district in the state. According to data maintained by the Indiana Department of Education, the number one title goes to Fort Wayne Community Schools, which boasted a population of 29,377 students for the 2016-2017 academic year. IPS only had 28,767 students officially on the record books.
Two schools are technically not included in IPS count due to their status as “turnaround” schools. Thomas Carr Howe Community High School and Emmerich Manual High School are currently managed by USA Charter Schools based in Florida. The state took control of both schools after six consecutive years of a failing grade and turned operations over to the private company.
That takeover was a stunning blow to the history and legacy of Indy’ largest school district. 50 years ago, IPS held the title of the state’s largest school district without question — nearly 109,000 students attended IPS schools in 1967. The district built its 11th high school the following year and its population has declined with each year since that time.
So what happened between 1967 and 2017? Several things.
The boundaries of IPS reflect the boundaries of the city of Indianapolis — the city of 1967 before Unigov, when Indianapolis and Marion County consolidated operations in 1970. The consolidation at its core combined municipal and county government function and service. But it incorporated more land into the city limits. Indianapolis went from 81 to 388 square miles. The city’s population increased from 475,000 to 750,000. The boundaries of IPS nearly mirror the boundaries of the old city, with the school district covering over 79 square miles.
As Unigov took root, the city and the county changed. The population shifted. People who grew up in the old Indianapolis (and IPS) moved into the new Indianapolis, surrounding counties and even out of state. The population of Indianapolis has grown over the last 50 years, but the population of families within Center Township and boundaries of IPS have dwindled.
So what if IPS focused its resources on the core of its geographical center? What if IPS became a metropolitan school district focusing on Center Township?
That hypothetical scares a lot of people.
Center Township is 42 square miles compared to the 79 square miles of IPS. A focus on just Center Township would cut the district in half. The rest of IPS resides in Washington, Wayne, Lawrence and Warren Townships.
The Metropolitan School District of Washington Township was incorporated in 1955. The school district maintains 13 educational facilities to service over 11,000 students. Total enrollment for the 2016-2017 school year was 11,482 students. On average, around 800 students attending Washington Township schools live outside of the district.(For the 2016-2017 school year, the district had 407 out-of-district students). Almost half of those out-of district students, like Madeline, are attending North Central High School. Out of the 48 square miles that make up the government township, only two-thirds of that area is part of the school district. The northernmost tier of IPS carves into the township.
IPS operates eight schools within the Washington Township boundary, including Broad Ripple High School. The town of Broad Ripple first established a school in 1886. The school grew as the town did, and officially became a part of IPS when the town was annexed into the Indianapolis city limits in 1923. BRHS is one of the oldest high schools in the IPS family, serving the northernmost part of the district. At the peak of the district’s enrollment in 1968, Broad Ripple High School had a population of 1,813 students — the school’s capacity is 2,400; this year’s population is 635.
MSD Washington Township was established in 1955 and the first North Central High School was built in 1956. The NCHS structure that exists today was built in 1963. Like most of the township school districts, MSD of Washington Township was established to educate the growing population of families moving into the outer reaches of Marion County after World War II. Now NCHS is Marion County’s largest single structure high school with a population of 3,772 students.
Wayne Township is the next township that shares a large chunk of its government township property between two school districts. Ben Davis High School is just six years younger than Broad Ripple as a school. The school was founded in 1892 to serve families located on the western side of the county settled around a railroad stop. The railroad stop, developing community and school were all named after Vandalia Railroad executive Benjamin Davis. The current school structure was built in 1965.
The northeasternmost edges of the Wayne Township government boundaries are within the IPS school district boundaries, accounting for approximately one-tenth of the township’s square mileage. However IPS operates 10 schools within that tight geographical area, including Northwest and George Washington High Schools. While Washington High School is technically in Wayne Township, it is relatively close to the boundary line with Center Township. Northwest High School is further north and west and closer to the town of Speedway, which has its own school district. Speedway and the IPS footprint take up a little more than a quarter of the government township boundaries, giving the rest to the MSD of Wayne Township.
George Washington High School was one of new three high schools IPS built in 1927 as a part of the district’s expansion plans. George Washington, Crispus Attucks and Shortridge were approved for construction by the Indiana General Assembly. (Shortridge had already been around since the dawn of the state, but had outgrown its downtown structure and needed room to grow.) Northwest was completed in 1963 — as the district was reaching toward its highest boon in population — specifically to relieve some of the pressure from George Washington. Northwest was built to be a sign of the future for the district and humanity. The school mascot, the “space pioneers,” was meant to reflect a time when space exploration was celebrated and the United States was driven to put a man on the moon.
At the height of IPS’ population boon, both schools suffered overpopulation issues. George Washington was built to accommodate 1900 students but held a population of 2,186 in 1968. Things were snug at Northwest too — the school’s capacity is 2,125 students but managed 2,497 students then. Unfortunately the success of both schools fell with the district. Today, George Washington and Northwest combined have a total student population of 1142 students — less than Ben Davis’ freshman tract.
Ben Davis High School (along with its new Ben Davis University High School, which has a student population of 389 students) has a total population of 3,526 students — but that number only includes only grades 10 -12. In 2008, the school district created a separate ninth grade center designed to meet the specific needs of freshman students. With 1,225 freshmen in the ninth grade center, Ben Davis’ total high school enrollment is 4,751. That is a lot of high school students technically spread among three buildings, but not equally. Ben Davis University High School — the district’s partnership with Vincennes University to create more dual credit opportunities for students — only has a population of 389. And Ben Davis is still second among the other township districts for the most total enrolled high school students and overall student population. (Lawrence Township has the highest total enrolled high school students combining Lawrence Central and Lawrence North for a total of 4801 high school students. Perry Township holds the title of largest school district in Marion County behind IPS with 16,128 students.)
With the westside of the Indianapolis Metropolitan area (which reaches outside of Marion County) continuing to grow, it’s unclear if Ben Davis has met its maximum capacity and overflow will recede more into Hendricks County.
The eastern edge of IPS lies mostly in Warren Township. The boundary locations are peculiar at best, with a thin line of the school district traveling along Warren Township’s government border with Lawrence Township, picking up neighborhoods on either side of the boundary along the way. John Marshall Community High School is IPS’ most eastern property — it is less than 2 miles away from the Marion County Hancock County border. In total, IPS operates seven schools inside of Warren Township’s government boarders. (George S. Buck Elementary School 94 operates as an island with a small circumference around the school still considered in the IPS district in surrounded by the MSD of Warren Township.)
John Marshall Community High School is the last high school building constructed for IPS. Built in 1968 when Indianapolis was experiencing rapid growth on the eastside of the city and IPS was at its peak enrollment, Marshall has experience a lot of growing pains over the years. Indianapolis and Marion County had consolidated just two years after Marshall’s opening. The high school was closed less than 20 years later because of declining enrollment in the district. The school re-opened in 1993 as a middle school and was redesigned again in 2008 to a community high school model serving grades 7-12. As a part of the facilities utilization plan, Marshall will go back to being a middle school with its 300+ high school students shifted to Arlington High School for the 2017-2018 school year.
Warren Central High School started in 1925 has a school built as a consolidation of two smaller area schools that were too small to effectively service the growing farm community. The original site at 10th Street and Post Road was originally just on the outskirts of Indianapolis. The east side of the city grew around the small school and by 1958 the township had outgrown its school. The school district built a new school at its current location on 16th Street and has continued to grow.
The MSD of Warren Township is the 6th largest government township in Marion County in terms of population and is the 5th largest school district by population, including IPS. But Warren Central High School is always among the top three largest high schools in the city, competing with Ben Davis and North Central for that top spot.
Lawrence Township as a government entity is confusing to a lot of people, Hoosier-born or not. The township is different from the city of Lawrence, although the city of Lawrence resides completely within the Lawrence Township boundaries. Add to that the MSD of Lawrence Township, which represents the entire district minus a small section on its southern and southwestern borders, and you have a recipe for deep confusion. (Editor’s note: The author’s spouse is a member of the Lawrence Township school board.)
Within Lawrence Township’s government borders also reside four IPS schools — Arlington High School, two traditional elementary schools and one Innovation Network School, Phalen Leadership Academy. The Phalen Academy and one of the elementaries also follow the 38th Street border with Warren Township.
Arlington High School was built in 1961 to accommodate Indianapolis’ rapid growth on the east side. Built to hold 2,175 students, Arlington’s population in 1968 had swelled to 2,768. The school’s overpopulation is one of many reasons the school board at the time authorized the construction of John Marshall. But like the rest of the IPS district, that rapid growth reversed course as quickly as it began.
Lawrence Township as a school district has also seen its share of ups and downs. Lawrence Central High School was established in 1941 as the military families congregated around the former Fort Benjamin Harrison during and after World War I. The residential population associated with the military base continued to grow before, during and after World War II. Lawrence North High School was built in 1976 to accommodate the district’s growing population to the north-northeast as the housing market boomed around the southern edge of Geist Reservoir.
Lawrence Township — both the government entity and the school district — took a big hit when the Department of Defense deactivated the once-active duty base in the early 1990s. The tax base for the township left along with the enrollment numbers for the district. The Lawrence Redevelopment Commission — established through the Lawrence City Council to redevelop the for base land and property — has spend the last 20 years changing the landscape of the former Ft. Harrison to a more residential, commercial, industrial and recreational landscape.
That redevelopment investment is finally paying off. MSD of Lawrence Township is now the fastest -growing school district in the county. Between the two high schools in the district, Lawrence Township has the largest number of enrolled high school students at 4,809 (for the 2016-2017 academic year). Lawrence is also the third largest township school district (excluding IPS) behind Perry and Wayne Townships.
THE REMAINING TOWNSHIPS
While IPS has a small portion of land in Perry, Pike and Decatur government townships, the square mileage is insignificant. (The amount of land and location in Decatur Township may not even equate to a residential area.) IPS does operate one elementary school in Pike and in Perry, but no high schools.
Franklin Township is the only government township remaining untouched by the reach of IPS. The city of Beech Grove acts as a buffer between Franklin and Center Townships and the majority of Franklin Township has remained primarily an agriculturally driven area.
Communities like Acton and Wanamaker have created a larger residential draw over the last 20 years, but the township has remained true to its rural roots.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
Center Township remains the most heavily populated township in Marion County. And Indianapolis Public Schools is still projected to have a 9-12 grade population of over 5300 students for the 2017-2018 school year. But that is only about 550 students more than Lawrence Township. Center Township also has the highest concentration of “other” schools — charter schools (some of which operate under the IPS umbrella already) and private schools. IPS as a school district is preparing to close three high schools after the coming school year.
For the upcoming 2017-2018 school year the district will continue to operate seven high schools for just over 5300 kids. In the facilities utilization report, researchers acknowledge that based on the current building use trends in the township districts and current building space, IPS could operate its current high school population in just two and a half buildings. Of the seven IPS high schools that will operate next fall, only three of them are located within Center Township — Shortridge, Crispus Attucks and Arsenal Tech.
Let’s not forget that IPS has two other high schools in their stable that are operating under other management. Emmerich Manual and Thomas Carr Howe High Schools are currently operating as charter schools, run by Charter Schools USA as a result of the state’s Turnaround Academies program for low-performing schools. The contract establishing the program expires in 2020 when IPS will presumably take those schools back. Although Howe and Manuel combined account for about 1000 high school students, the facilities task force is recommending the two schools not be utilized as high schools when returned to IPS control. The recommendation assumes that the district will have already implemented the closure of three high schools prior to resuming control of Howe and Manuel.
The very discussion of closing schools is stressful, especially among those intimately involved with the school as it is. The IPS school board is expected to make a recommendation on which three schools to close at its June 29 meeting. Over the last 35 years, IPS has opened and reopened schools (such as Shortridge, Crispus Attucks and John Marshall) several times — flip-flopping between high schools and middle schools depending on the needs of the time. Other elementary and middle school buildings have been closed and sold to private and charter schools. The current discussion and the decision to close three high schools isn’t new.
District officials held several public meetings over the last month to educate parents about the state of the district and data that is leading them to this decision. At one meeting, State Rep. John Bartlett, D-Indianapolis, questioned the IPS board as to who selected the panel to look at the school district’s structure.
“The members of the taskforce were not from Indianapolis and not familiar with the city or its history,” says Bartlett. “Imagine if we went to Louisville [Kentucky] and were asked to look at their school system. It would not have the same effect as those who live there and are intimately familiar with the city and its system.”
Fifty years ago, IPS was the premier school district in the county as well as the state. Innovative programming and diversity in teaching methods were the norm for the school district. But the last 50 years have brought changes in education as well as the city that no one could have imagined then. Those changes are rooted in economic diversity, standards of living, and other obstacles affecting families. Children are one part of a family unit. Circumstances that impact the family also impact the individual child and that child’s education. The residential flight to the townships and surrounding counties has affected everything from enrollment numbers to the tax base. Economic hardships on a larger scale forced certain decisions in state government that led to property tax caps also affecting education funding. The ever-increasing competition from other education outlets (private and charter schools) has added to the developmental stress of an urban school system like IPS.
When faced with similar circumstances, businesses are designed and expected to make reductions in facilities as well as personnel. Strategic plans during hard times focus on how to make the company more efficient — determine how they can do more with less. Schools make some of the same decision, but not all of them. Teacher layoffs and building closures are always first on the table. But the thought of reducing the physical service area of a district never crosses the mind.
Bartlett acknowledges that the school district boundaries and the structure of public education haven’t changed since long before Unigov was ever a thing in the city.
“The legislature is just as guilty of not looking at education [in Marion County] as a whole,” says Bartlett. “The education system is broken and we aren’t looking at and doing the right things to fix it. Instead, there is an agenda."
Bartlett believes that agenda is linked to charter schools and the dismantling of the public education system. Trump administration and the actions of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos support that theory.
Bartlett says the taskforce looking at IPS facilities could have looked at the boundary lines of the school districts when considering potential closures.
“John Marshall [High School] will be changed to a middle school while Warren [Central High School] is busting at the seams,” says Bartlett. “There could be consideration for helping relieve some of the burden from that school and others around the city.”
Reducing IPS’ physical service area would affect so much more than just IPS. Shrinking the footprint would also affect the four school districts where IPS has the most reach.
When presented with the hypothetical question, Dr. Nikki Woodson, superintendent of MSD of Washington Township, couldn’t fathom the thought without any indication that such a hypothetical was actually being considered.
“I am not aware of any current plans nor discussions regarding this hypothetical. If this idea did begin getting discussed, Washington Township would have to do an intensive study on the details and study the issues in order to determine exact impacts to our district,” said Woodson in a written statement to NUVO.
Superintendents from the other township districts echoed similar sentiments, but declined to say anything about the hypothetical scenario.
Her hesitation doesn’t come without warrant. Washington Township Schools is currently in the middle of a developing a plan to handle the current and projected enrollment the district is facing from the area it serves now. Based on a demographic study of the district conducted in 2015, the school district is expecting to grow by 0.3 and 1 percent each year between now and 2025. Taking in another geographic third of the township all at once would greatly alter that strategic plan.
The other three districts are also projecting growth over the next 10 years and are planning accordingly. Lawrence Township is expecting the largest growth over the next 10 years. And the challenges plaguing public education in general — from charter/private school competition to proposed cuts in federal spending and support — are just as much of a threat to the township schools as they are to IPS.
Still, one can’t help but wonder if IPS had a smaller piece of the pie to work with, the tough decisions on where and how to allocate resources wouldn’t be easier. Bartlett believes that tackling education in Marion County is going to take a lot more than just opening and closing buildings. With the agenda of some to do away with public education entirely, there is even more to address. But he also believes that it will take more than just a taskforce or two to fix a broken system.
“We need to bring together teachers, students, parents and everyone together to make public education better. There is a movement to do away with public education and we cannot let that happen,” says Bartlett, “But we also can’t let legislators make all of the decisions without educators [involved]. The professionals need to look at the pieces as a whole.”
For decades education in Marion County has been handled in pieces — public, private and now charter schools make up those pieces and are treated as such. Public education in Indianapolis along has functioned as individual pieces all serving a single city. Maybe it’s time for those pieces to be looked at, as Bartlett says, as a whole.