After years of failure, school closings not always a bad option

By David McGuire

I started my teaching career at a chronically failing school that was chronically in danger of closing.

Most students at Thomas Carr Howe were two, three or even four grades below level. It was especially crushing for me as a Language Arts teacher, because my students could barely understand what they would read. Student fights broke out regularly, and the relationships between students and teachers were strained and disrespectful. There was a revolving door of teacher turnover, which meant students had multiple teachers over the course of a single school year.

We were operated by a national charter management organization, Charter School USA, which had seen some success with Florida-based schools but was out of its depth fixing a failing turnaround school in Indianapolis.

Looking back at that year I am not sure I can say we were truly educating students. It was not from a lack of effort from the staff, because the we tried to do the best we could. The school was not set up to be successful. The years of failing still lingered in the building, even with new management and new staff.

The school and surrounding community had gone through many changes since the school opened in 1938. TC Howe first closed its doors in 1995 and then reopened in 2000 as a middle school that gradually grew to serve students in grades 7 to 12. The following 12 years at the school were marked by a decline in enrollment and poor academic performance. According to Indiana Department of Education records, Howe’s 2010 enrollment of 1,028 students had dropped to 643 students by the time I started my first year there in 2013.

In 2012, the state board of education decided that TC Howe and three other schools in the Indianapolis Public School District (IPS) would be taken over. State takeover was seen as a far better option than closing the school, as a school closure would displace thousands of Indianapolis students to schools farther away from their community.

However, state takeover is not always an option. As difficult as it maybe to displace students and close schools that have been open for a long time, we cannot continue to send students to schools where they are not learning. That’s educational malpractice.

In the 2012-13 school year, the year I taught there, 92 percent of the Howe students who took the ECA Algebra 1 exam failed. So, only 10 students passed out of the roughly 130 who took the exam. Scores later improved to 30 percent passing, but that still left a large group of students who are not proficient for their grade.

A study done in Ohio found that three years after schools were closed, students who previously attended one of the closed district schools and moved to a higher-achieving school gained the equivalent of 49 additional days of learning in reading and 34 more in math. Students that attended charter schools grew the equivalent 46 more days of learning in math.

When news broke that Indianapolis Public Schools was considering closing schools due to low enrollment and performance, many families and community leaders were left to fear the worst. The district has since come up with a better option to fill at least two of these under-enrolled schools.

Starting next year, IPS will convert John Marshall High School into a middle school and move the middle school students from Arlington to Marshall and move the high school students from John Marshall to Arlington. This move seems to have satisfied many families, who feared the potential closure of two historical IPS schools.

A concerned relative who has a niece that attends John Marshall Community High School says:

“I am glad to see that IPS has decided not to close John Marshall. I am a little concerned with the moving all the high school students to Arlington. Arlington and John Marshall have both had some difficulties with fights and keeping students safe. I surely hope IPS provides both schools with resources to be successful.”

Whenever a district takes a dramatic step to close or merge schools, they need to back that up with the kind of resources that will help students catch up and thrive in their new environment. I know from experience that big changes–even at the worst schools– doesn’t translate into good outcomes if the staff and students don’t embrace the change as positive.

I’m crossing my fingers for both Marshall and Arlington.

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David McGuire

Mr. McGuire is a middle school teacher in Indianapolis, Teach Plus Policy Fellow, and currently enrolled in a doctoral program at Indiana State University for Educational Leadership. Driven by the lack of having an African American male teacher in his classrooms growing up, David helped launched the Educate ME Foundation, which is geared towards increasing the number of African American male teachers in the classroom. A born and raised Hoosier, he is dedicated to improving educational outcomes for all students in Indianapolis. He describes his educational beliefs as a reformer grounded in the best practices of traditional public schools, where he was mentored by strong leaders. David graduated from Central State University with a degree in English and also holds an MBA from Indiana Wesleyan University.