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Choice Plan Problems Place Indianapolis Officials Under Fire

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Indianapolis school officials are ducking brickbats because foul-ups in the implementation of a new "controlled choice'' student-assignment plan have the district tied in knots.

One month into the school year, the district's "Select Schools'' plan remains hampered by widespread transportation problems and overcrowded classrooms, and has increased racial segregation in schools.

Hundreds of parents reportedly are keeping their children home. Neighboring districts, meanwhile, are reporting a surge in applications from Indianapolis students wishing to transfer.

"Right now, we are in utter chaos,'' Lou DeBruicker, the president of the Indianapolis district's Parent Advisory Council, said last week.

"There have been serious problems in planning and implementation,'' Ms. DeBruicker said. "It has been one excuse after another for not providing the education our children deserve.''

Superintendent Pledges Action

Getting children to school remained the greatest obstacle last week.

Hundreds of parents complained of erratic or nonexistent bus service, despite repeated attempts by the district to revise its transportation plan.

Superintendent Shirl E. Gilbert 2nd told school board members last week that local business and civic leaders have helped him recruit a team of computer and transportation experts to come up with short-term solutions to the busing problems.

"We have the means to solve our transportation problems, and we will,'' said Mr. Gilbert, who pledged to send new bus schedules home with children late last week.

Mr. Gilbert asked the school board to be patient while he develops long-term solutions to problems in the student-assignment plan.

"There remains no question that, from an educational perspective, Select Schools is a success,'' the superintendent assured the board.

Will Heads Roll?

The board members remained skeptical, however, and some said a staff shake-up is likely.

One board member, Thomas Brown, has called for Mr. Gilbert's resignation. Another, Hazel Stewart, has said the superintendent should be "punished.''

Stephen J. Hyatt, the school board's president, said that while the panel plans to give administrators a chance to clean up the mess, it also plans to get to the bottom of the administrative shortcomings that fomented the crisis.

"One of the things that surprised me was the lack of checking of work that went on,'' Mr. Hyatt said.

District administrators failed, for example, to check computer-generated bus assignments before school began. If they had, they would have discovered that 2,000 students had been mistakenly dropped from the bus schedules.

When officials revised the schedules, they failed to take into account the extra time needed to pick up the 2,000 students, insuring that buses would run late, Superintendent Gilbert acknowledged.

Joke Falls Flat

In a presentation to the board this month, Mr. Gilbert also reported:

  • In June, when he told board members only five or six new buses would be needed, he did so "jokingly.'' The board missed his humor and later was caught off guard by his request for 158 buses.
  • So far, the student-assignment plan has exacerbated racial-balance problems rather than solve them, as had been intended. Half of the district's schools are now out of compliance with federal-court guidelines, compared with 30 percent before the plan took effect.
  • Some parents have persuaded district employees to violate district policies and change their children's school assignments after the school year began.

Mr. Gilbert said it appears that some members of his staff simply are not up to implementing the plan.

He also has alleged, without offering any proof, that the plan's implementation may have been sabotaged.

Ms. DeBruicker noted that the superintendent was warned repeatedly that he was moving too quickly with the plan. (See Education Week, Feb. 17, 1993.)

"The board needs to rethink the freedom they have allowed this superintendent, because clearly he has not been up to the challenge of this system,'' Ms. DeBruicker asserted.

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