By Ronak Shah
Each morning after announcements, our students discuss a question of the day. Recently, one of the questions was, “If a genie gave you three wishes, what would they be?” After being reminded that, “no you can’t just wish for three more wishes,” students got creative — a pet elephant that could fly, a house that could go to the moon, a coin that could buy anything. One student asked, “Mr. Shah, what would your wishes be?”
I’m a middle school science teacher, so the first two were easy: cheap and plentiful nuclear fusion and a lightspeed engine. I kept the third one to myself: I would have wished that the Indianapolis Public Schools Board had voted to approve their operating referendum.
Stability is key to student success, but it’s in short supply. We just have too many schools now — a school bubble — with more classrooms than teachers and more desks than students. Over the past few years, Indianapolis Public Schools took an important step toward stability by trying to right-size the district in a plan called Rebuilding Stronger. To fund this plan properly, the board considered two new referendum questions. The first one was approved, but the second, under massive political pressure, was rejected.
I’ve taught at charter and innovation schools for over a decade, and I know firsthand how important funding is to sustaining an educational experience worthy of our students. So I was surprised at the amount of opposition to the referendum, especially by groups I’d considered champions of public schools in the past. I scratched my head, asking, “What am I seeing that they’re not?”
Every year, teachers in Indy have to work harder just to stay fully enrolled. We host enrollment fairs rivaling college fairs, we canvass neighborhoods, we call parents over the summer. You can see the desperation in the sheer number of billboards and media ads for public schools these days. A decade ago, you wouldn’t have seen a single one.
Even so, last month, only 18% of the over 100 public schools in IPS’s district boundaries were fully or mostly enrolled. In Indiana, state funding follows the student, so empty desks mean less funding for teachers, electives, extracurriculars and student supports. Under enrolled schools face program cuts and layoffs and are too small to support a robust variety of classes and options for students. Every year, many of them close.
Despite this, more new schools open every year, often in the place of a closing school in neighborhoods that don’t have enough students to attend. So again, they are typically under enrolled, understaffed, and under-resourced. The closing of HIM by HER is just the latest example. These closures have massive impacts on students. As they hop from school to school, students face learning gaps and increased dropout rates, especially if they already face economic or social barriers.
So, maybe instead of wishing for the referendum to pass, I’ll send my three wishes to the roots of the problem.
First, I wish we had the right number, size and location of schools for the students we serve. For this, we need to use data to make sustainable decisions on where schools are located. This includes demographic data to make sure planning is done equitably. Enroll Indy offers a platform to make these recommendations, and it should be empowered to do so.
Second, I wish our many schools were united. It’s no secret that the weird, octopus-like shape of IPS is a remnant of historic lines of segregation. These lines were recast in UniGov, “[turning] Indianapolis into one city with 11 school districts.” But in the last few decades, things have gotten even more divided. There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen, including competing authorizers based outside Indy, that let aspiring schools shop around without sustainability in mind. A better system would have only one authorizer based within a district, as is done in many other states around the country, required to use data to make sustainable decisions about where schools go. Through its existing system of Innovation contracts, IPS is already poised to fill this role.
Third, I wish the district was right sized for schools to last. What makes a school are the people who work in it, and the students who learn in it. People give a school its identity, and sustaining those people turns identity into legacy. But our current system has too much chaos, churn and mobility to build that legacy. What if we focused our energies on building a sustainable district with enriching and exciting opportunities for all students? And what if we took the resources we spent opening and closing schools and reinvested that in existing schools to make them better?
It may be too late for the referendum this year. But it’s not too late to achieve a stable future for our district.
Ronak Shah is seventh grade science teacher and a Teach Plus Senior Writing Fellow.
This article originally was posted by The Indianapolis Star on March 22, 2023.