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Letter to the Editor: OurIPS responds to columnist Abdul Hakim Shabazz

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As Indianapolis Public Schools parents, we feel the need to respond to Abdul-Hakim Shabazz’s Sept. 16 column.

We are members of OurIPS, a grassroots movement of more than 300 parents, teachers and community members who are concerned that the current IPS school board members have sold their votes and abdicated their power to organizations that see dollar signs instead of children.

Board members elected in 2012 and 2014 received hundreds of thousands of dollars from groups including Stand for Children, along with donations from hedge fund managers and education reformers from across the country. The big money being pumped into our local school board elections is being used to purchase influence. These organizations are intent on making IPS profitable for a select few by giving our traditional public schools away to charters through the Innovation Network.

Mr. Shabazz clearly is uneducated regarding the reality of the state of IPS. Allow those of us with children in the system to share a more realistic view of the district.

In 2011, the Indiana State Board of Education gave the green light to for-profit charter management organizations (cmo) to take control of Arlington, T.C. Howe and Emmerich Manual high schools, plus Emma Donnan Middle School, beginning in the 2012-13 school year. Mr. Shabazz incorrectly claims these schools perform better today than they did under IPS leadership. In fact, the opposite is true. Profit was the reason EdPower wanted to run Arlington High School. In July 2014, just two years into its five-year contract, EdPower pulled out of the school, claiming it was too expensive to operate. Charter Schools USA, another for-profit cmo, was given control of Manual, Howe and Donnan. Despite lackluster performance at the schools, last year IPS agreed to allow CSUSA to open a K-6 housed within Donnan. At the board’s Aug. 16 meeting, members learned students at the school had made virtually no progress during the entire school year. These failures should help the public to better understand the myriad issues that urban school districts face, and that charters are not a silver bullet for improving poorly performing schools.

Here are other facts Mr. Shabazz leaves out of his column:

Graduation rates. It’s not often you see someone praise a graduation increase of less than 1 percent, as Mr. Shabazz does in his column. It’s important to note here that graduation rates can be artificially raised by awarding waivers and General diplomas instead of the Core 40 diploma.

Enrollment. In 2013, under the guidance of the previous administration (Dr. Ferebee did not arrive in the district until a month after students were in classes), IPS expanded preschool classrooms to more than just special needs students. Along with 739 preschoolers the district counted 61 Grade 12+/adult students for a total enrollment of 30,813 students. In 2014, despite having 785 preschoolers and 99 Grade 12+/adults students, the district lost over 700 students for a total enrollment of 30,097. Keep in mind any growth in enrollment this year will be due to the Innovation schools, which are charter schools run by outside organizations using non-IPS teachers (except for special education and English Language Learner students) and following a non-IPS curriculum. In partnering with charter schools, IPS gives all power over to the charter operator, but claims the school’s enrollment to pump up the district’s overall count.

Accountability. It’s hard to understand how Mr. Shabazz came up with the claim that the number of schools rated “F” have been cut in half under Dr. Ferebee’s leadership. According to the Indiana Department of Education’s Compass site, 10 schools have improved their letter grade from F to a higher grade from 2012-13 to 2014-15. At the same time, seven schools’ letter grades have dropped.

Test scores. While Mr. Shabazz touts the IREAD-3 passage rate for 2013-14 (70.5 percent) and 2014-15 (74 percent), the passing rate in 2012-13 (prior to Dr. Ferebee’s arrival) was 76.8 percent.

Fiscal responsibility. While praising the district’s financial stewardship, Mr. Shabazz clearly doesn’t know that three times over the past two years the school board has approved Dr. Ferebee’s request to dip into the district’s reserves to meet day-to-day operating expenses. IPS is in the midst of a financial meltdown. Much of this is brought on by the new Innovation schools.

So why is OurIPS against Innovation schools? Innovation schools have their own Board of Directors, so they have no accountability to IPS parents or taxpayers. The charter organization has a CEO who often earns more than a public school superintendent.

IPS Innovation schools operate using tax dollars that flow from the state through IPS to the Innovation school. OurIPS believes using tax dollars at select IPS schools to fund Innovation schools sets up a system of inequity within the district. For example, when Phalen Learning Academies – Indiana Inc. was given control of IPS School 103, it received $175,000 in startup funds, a per-pupil amount of approximately $2.9 million (383 students x $7,631 [per-pupil amount by contract]), and a 10 percent management fee of approximately $292,000 (383 students x $7,631 [per-pupil amount by contract] x .10 percent). The district provides transportation, food service, special education and ELL teachers and other services at no additional expense. The fact that this school received all of these resources and earned an “F” in its first year of operation shows how misguided this path to success is for our children.

OurIPS does not favor stepping back in time to former practices. We fully support change in IPS, so long as that change is based on educational research, not politics. We support change that includes more than token teacher representation on curriculum committees. We support change that includes the community’s voice before change is made.

OurIPS does agree with Mr. Shabazz that the incumbent board members need a break. That’s why we encourage parents and community members to vote the slate of candidates endorsed by OurIPS onto the school board on Nov. 8. The candidates are Christine Prince, District 1; Dr. Ramon Batts, District 2; Larry Vaughn, District 4; and Jim Grim, At-Large. Visit OurIPS.org for more information about what we do — and don’t — support.

Chrissy Smith

Marvin Hutcherson

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