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Bill gives failing schools options

– Failing schools taken over by the state in 2011 could be returned to their original school districts by 2016 or be allowed to become charter schools under a bill passed by lawmakers this year.

The legislation, which awaits Gov. Mike Pence’s signature, updates the 1999 law that allowed Indiana to seize control of schools that had failed for six consecutive years. It also clarifies how schools can emerge from the takeover process.

“This is a much more reasonable approach than we’ve seen in previous years,” Indianapolis Public Schools lobbyist Libby Cierzniak told the Indianapolis Business Journal.

IPS is home to four of the five schools the state took over in 2011. The schools are overseen by Mayor Greg Ballard’s office, which approves and oversees 25 charter schools in the city.

Dan Elsener, president of Marian University and a member of the State Board of Education, said the new legislation gives the board an option it didn’t have before: to convert the schools into charter schools.

“I don’t think we had that authority in the old language,” he said.

But it’s also heartening for districts like IPS, which worries about losing long-term control of the turnaround schools. But Cierzniak said the district is less worried now because another bill passed this session would allow IPS to partner with charter schools and count their students as part of its district.

That could help schools like Emma Donnan Middle School, which offers only seventh and eighth grades and has no formal connection to any elementary school below it or high school above it. The school has a high student turnover rate.

“No one in their right mind would ever start out a two-year middle school model with this kind of turnover in place on purpose,” said Jon Hage, CEO of Charter Schools USA. The Florida company was hired by the state to manage Emma Donnan. “You would never academically set up something like this, without a feeder school attached to it.”

Hage said he has approached IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee about partnering with IPS to have lower grades also housed in the school building. He said that could help create a common school culture that would carry into the middle school grades at Emma Donnan.

“One of the biggest reasons these schools have failed is that the community at large has failed to see them as their schools,” he said.