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KIPP Indy’s 1st graduation will mark historic moment for neighborhood

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Shariah Miller will always remember leading more than 100 of her fellow students on a Juneteenth Peace Walk through Indianapolis’ Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood this summer.

Their route passed by Miller’s school, KIPP Indy Legacy High, where she and 98 other students will become the first graduating class this spring.

Reflecting on the moment when she took the megaphone to address the crowd during the walk, Miller said the KIPP teachers and staff who have known her since freshman year “never fail to remind me of when I first started here how quiet I was and how much I kept to myself.”

That changed, she said, as she found a passion for social justice in high school, through events like the peace walk and in encouraging other young people to speak out.

“I spoke about how important it is for events like this to be student-led because it gives young people voices that deserve to be heard,” she said of the walk. “They felt like they were making a change and their voices were heard by being at this event.”

The Class of 2023 is not just Legacy’s first class, but the first class to graduate within the boundaries of Indy’s Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood, a historically Black, working-class area affected by industrial collapse, the construction of a highway that bisects the community and federally mandated busing.

That graduation will be a moment of pride for Martindale-Brightwood, where the school — part of the national KIPP charter school network and the Indianapolis Public Schools Innovation Network — has become a focal point in the neighborhood’s efforts to improve residents’ quality of life.

“It’s been amazing to watch as they have grown not just in the physical sense but in knowing who they are and the impact they want to make on the community,” said David Spencer, the school leader.

Adults working to improve Martindale-Brightwood have also been paying attention. Community leaders believe the students and the school have been a key part of efforts to boost the area’s long-term prospects.

“We want high-quality options for our kids, where kids do not have to leave our neighborhood to have access to high quality education and be able to compete,” said Barato Britt, executive director of the Edna Martin Christian Center, which provides social services in the neighborhood.

The school opened its doors to its first class of 121 freshmen in 2019, and closed for COVID-19 only a few months later. When it reopened in 2021, one-third of all students didn’t show up for in-person classes. Around 9% of all students didn’t return to the school at all.

As with students around the country, the pandemic had hit them hard. They were living on their own in cars or sleeping on park benches, said Robyn Russell, a KIPP Indy Legacy mom who volunteered to go find them. Some students and their families were going hungry.

Devon Wilson, a senior, said that while he kept his grades up, “The part I didn’t like about quarantine was the social part — you can’t be social.”

Miller, meanwhile, said she lost the motivation to do virtual school, which would later make an impact on her GPA.

“I always think about how I wish I didn’t. Because of the fact that I lost that motivation, I ended up ghosting school the rest of the year,” Miller said.

And some students took on additional work on behalf of their peers. Senior Jessica Torres found herself translating the constantly evolving situation for her fellow Spanish-speaking students.

“I feel like that kind of put pressure on me, but I didn’t mind helping them out because my parents have always shown me it’s like being human,” she said.

Having a high school that’s within walking distance has been a boon for many students, school and community leaders said.

Students gravitate to campus even when school isn’t in session, said Russell, the school operations manager. They walk from school to the nearby Frederick Douglass Park.

Just over one-third of the graduating seniors come from Martindale-Brightwood’s 46218 ZIP code, where the school is located and the median household income of $26,615 is around half that of the figure for Indianapolis. The remaining students come from adjacent ZIP codes.

It was important for KIPP to embrace Martindale-Brightwood as it considered opening schools in the neighborhood, said Britt, the leader of the Edna Martin Christian Center who also serves on KIPP Indy’s board.

The school hopes to host its graduation ceremony at Martin University, in the heart of Martindale-Brightwood, with enough space for students to bring as many guests as they wish.

Approximately 54% of the graduating class is interested in enrolling in a four-year college, while another 35% intend to pursue an associate’s degree, career technical education or military training, said YeVonne Jones, the school’s managing director of postsecondary counseling and social services.

After graduation, they’ll still have access to Jones and KIPP Indy counselors, who will make sure they’re on track with college enrollment deadlines and credits and even offer microgrants to students who are facing stumbling blocks.

Aleksandra Appleton covers Indiana education policy and writes about K-12 schools across the state. Contact her at aappleton@chalkbeat.org.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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