Indianapolis’ Commitment to Small High Schools: Finding New Ways to Say Yes

“Indianapolis Public Schools operates some of the worst dropout factories in the nation. Hundreds of students each year quit school, most landing in dead-end jobs or prisons. In some families, dropping out has become a way of life with neither parents nor children completing high school,” begins the first paragraph of a May 2005 eight-part editorial series published in the Indianapolis Star, which pegged Indianapolis’ graduation rate between 28 to 47 percent, “depending on the formula used” – a shocking statistic, even in the best case estimate. Produced in cooperation with Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) district officials, the Star series aimed for public engagement in district’s plight of school shortcomings and student failure.

As the Star published its disturbing series, IPS, in conjunction with the Center for Excellence in Leadership of Learning (CELL) at the University of Indianapolis and the City of Indianapolis, was propelling all of the city’s comprehensive high schools toward one of the most dramatic small school conversion efforts yet attempted in a large urban district. Building on a planning year during which Indianapolis’ five large comprehensive high schools were structured into small learning communities in order to shift cultures to maximize readiness for small schools, the large high schools are slated at the start of the 2005-6 school year to divide into a total of 21 autonomous high schools with a maximum of 400 students each. In addition, IPS and various partners, including the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office, are debuting a range of new small start-up high schools, bringing the city’s total of small high schools to more than 30.

As Horace goes to press, the conversion and most new small schools are not yet open; this story, then, is not about results. Rather, it explores how a troubled urban district is attempting to leverage intensive professional development designed and led in part by the National School Reform Faculty (known for promoting the use of Critical Friends Groups), support from external partner CELL, a well-timed community passed facilities bond measure, and student leadership to establish a foundation for district-wide small high schools designed for equity, academic challenge, and personalization.

How Indianapolis School Transformation Began

In 2003, CELL’s Small School Initiative, known as the Network of Effective Small Schools in Indianapolis (NESSI), received an 11.3 million dollar grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for creating small schools in the Indianapolis region. CELL invited the National School Reform Faculty (NSRF), based at the Harmony School (a CES Mentor School) in nearby Bloomington to join the effort as a professional development partner. Daniel Baron, NSRF’s co-director, says, “We brought the NSRF small schools theory of action with us to the table. One of the components of that theory of action is the co-construction of design with the people you’re serving.” Starting in 2003, NESSI and NSRF trainers worked with a small district leadership team comprised of the associate superintendent, the IPS director of professional development, small learning communities directors, and high-level union leaders to develop the parameters for schools to become involved. Subsequent district leadership teams included the leaders of most of the teaching divisions of the IPS central office, the five large high school principals, and a senior union representative from each campus. According to Baron and other regional reform leaders, union participation and leadership has remained a key constant as the IPS small schools work has moved forward.

Reviewing data collected during district leader interviews, student achievement data, and teacher questions, the district leadership teams used a collaborative process to organize issues into five workgroups: District Transformation and Moral Imperative, Autonomy, Roles and Responsibilities, Teaching and Learning, and Equity. The workgroups, each with up to 12 participants, met monthly, using NSRF protocols to construct policy recommendations to the district to support the proposed small schools. The workgroups eventually made over 50 recommendations for change, of which IPS accepted nearly all.

As this process unfolded, the five large high schools formed small learning communities to create the structure for their conversion to small schools the following year. An academic dean and a facilitator of teaching and learning were chosen for each small school, with the building principals remaining as campus administrators and supervisors. Engaging in leadership training throughout the 2004-05 school year, these 42 new leaders honed their skills and prepared for their new roles and responsibilities, working within the existing small learning communities to establish structures, norms, expectations, policies, and school culture. As well, small school design teams and workgroup participants traveled to see examples of conversions and new school start-ups in New York, Boston, Chicago, Oakland, and elsewhere.

Professional Development and District-Level Engagement

From the outset, responding to its high schools’ immediate crisis, the school board and the union supported IPS’s decision that all of its five large high schools undergo simultaneous conversion. Undertaking such a massive conversion effort without this support – and without access to considerable professional development and facilities funding – would have been futile. But in many stakeholders’ minds, given such support, simultaneous conversion would create a necessary, tremendous jolt to the entire system and ensure equity. “It was important for IPS to move forward with the district-wide conversion,” says Margaret Means, Small Schools Coordinator at Arlington High School. “It’s not equitable to make some wait. We have to do it together and support each other. We can’t afford to lose any more students.”

But how would the IPS central office transform its own attitudes and practices from top-down to collaborative? As small school leader and teacher training commenced, says NSRF’s Baron, NSRF staff worried about how to include the district in planning, concerns complicated by the fact that though there was grant-generated funding for educators’ professional development, “there was no district money. But as we started to work with district, it became obvious that they intended to convert all five of their high schools all at once, and this was a transformation that couldn’t be done in the absence of full district engagement. So we paid an extraordinary amount of attention to district development despite a lack of grant money.” The decision to place the words “Moral Imperative” in the District Transformation workgroup was, Baron, says, an intentional reminder for all of this crucial aspect of the process.

As the small school leaders met for training and planning sessions, they were joined by district personnel charged with listening, planning, and recreating district management to support the new small high schools. As Brandon Cosby, CELL/NESSI Senior Fellow for High School Conversions, says, “It was important that we have central office personnel in the room so they could see how their work would to have to change to support this. The expectation for central office staff is to co-construct, to be as engaged as small school leaders are. In most systems, there’s a top-down, central office bureaucracy that tells schools what to do. We’re trying to interrupt that practice and get those folks engaged so they have an opportunity to hear what schools are going to need and how their departments can bring resources to bear on helping accomplish that. The initial response, sometimes, is, ‘We can’t do that; we don’t have the capacity.’ One of the norms we operated by is finding new ways to say yes.”

Jerry McLeish, co-director of IPS’s Office of School Transformation, the district office heading up small school-related communication and coordination, agrees that the effort to increase cooperation between the schools and the district has already begun to change the usual ways of doing business. For example, small school teachers and leaders requested new and different ways to access student data to guide their work. “Previously,” says McLeish, “The management information systems mechanism was utilized at the principal and district levels, but not necessarily at the classroom level. This year, we engaged in new way of systems thinking get data to classrooms to inform instruction. We asked our Information Technology department for certain kinds of data that small schools leadership, teachers, and parents need to help them make good, viable decisions on behalf of the learners. We made requests month by month to help them figure out what information was important, and the technology data system has been one of the first divisions that began to move and become sensitive.”

Fortuitous Facilities Funding

Another impetus for change was that at the time the district committed to small high schools for all students, all Indianapolis high schools were under renovation or construction, funded by two school facilities bond measures totaling over a billion dollars; $450 million is aimed at high schools. “It was almost like the planets were in alignment,” says Barbara Gillenwaters, co-director of the Office of School Transformation. Leadership teams were able to architects to describe small school requirements. Gillenwaters’ colleague McLeish elaborates, “The most recent bond campaign was linked with IPS K-12 transformation with an emphasis on reforming high schools. Our community still believes in the public school system, so it’s our job to honor their aspirations.”

Each of the five existing large high schools is being reconfigured to house several small schools. Jacqueline Greenwood, campus principal of Arlington High School, says that Arlington’s renovations, due to be completed in 2007, will include many shared resources such as new air conditioning, new foreign language and science labs, and a new home economics area. Specific renovations to create distinction among the small schools include the use of specific colors for each school on lockers, ID cards, signs, and other features.

Student Leadership – What Kids Are Capable Of

According to Gillenwaters, students have played a vital role throughout the commitment to create small schools in Indianapolis. “Student-led student congresses helped decide what the small schools will look like and helped other students understand what being a part of them will be like.” The student congresses came out of work based at the Harmony Education Center through the Harmony/VISTA Service Learning Demonstration Project exploring how student voice could be a significant part of school culture. “At the start of the small schools teacher training,” says Daniel Baron, “These students had come to know much more about small school philosophies, theories of action, and different projects around the country than their teachers did.”

Baron continued, “When the project began in October 2003, there student facilitators at every table. Freshman and sophomores, kids of color from the inner city schools, were leading conversations about small schools. At those tables were the superintendent of schools of the state of Indiana, the IPS superintendent, the head of the Urban League, superintendents from outlying districts, lots of movers and shakers. When that evening was over and the students joined back up as a group, we knew by looking at those kids that they could accomplish anything that they put their minds too. The sense of efficacy was absolutely palpable. It demonstrated without any doubt what kids are capable of. These are the same kids that teachers and administrators believed were not capable of very much, whose schools had failed them miserably.” Subsequent student-led research on student engagement and attitudes about school has continued to play an active role in influencing the small schools planning process.

As the Indianapolis Public Schools hurtle toward creating a radically different structure for their high schools intended to support personalization, challenge, and equity, the imperative to create a better future for Indianapolis’ young people remains the central inspiration in the midst of uncertainty and tremendous challenges. “It will work, but we have to start thinking about what is best for children,” says Jacqueline Greenwood. “We already know that what we’ve been doing hasn’t worked, so if this is going to mean that more children will graduate and able to go to college and feel good about coming to school every day, won’t this be powerful?”


To see the full Indianapolis Star series on the city’s schools, published May 2005: pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20050515/OPINION /505150317/1002

For more information on student participation in planning Indianapolis’ small schools: center.pdf