Future of Schools

Indiana superintendent hoping film will launch an education movement

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
West Lafayette School Corp. Superintendent Rocky Killion promotes his him "Rise Above the Mark," a rallying cry for public schools, at a screening in May at Anderson High School.

Superintendent Rocky Killion, standing on stage in an unfamiliar auditorium at Anderson High School late last month, was trying to galvanize a couple dozen teachers and public school activists.

“You may like this movie,” he said. “You may get mad about this movie. That’s fine. This is not about a political party.”

Killion was introducing a screening of the documentary film “Rise Above the Mark,” a film that says its goal is to expose the “corporate takeover of public schools.”

It was Killion, while serving as superintendent of the affluent, high-performing West Lafayette public schools, who led the film’s creation and then persuaded a tiny foundation attached the district to pay for it.

The movie has taken on a life of its own. The original vision — spending about $40,000 to feature some of the best attributes of West Lafayette schools — has long since been eclipsed.

The movie, narrated by Peter Coyote, who played the key-shaking scientist tracking an alien in “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial,” showcases frustrated teachers, experts and others complaining about recent changes in education funding and other new pressures placed on schools.

The film paints former state Superintendent Tony Bennett as a primary villain. Bennett, ousted by voters in 2012 by teacher champion Glenda Ritz, pushed many of the changes the film opposes.

Awkwardly for Killion and West Lafayette schools, Bennett worked in concert with the state’s then-Gov. Mitch Daniels, who now is president of West Lafayette’s economic lifeblood Purdue University.

Killion is now balancing his day job running the district with cross-country trips to promote an issue-driven documentary with a political bent. The foundation is still spending to promote the film, which it thinks will ultimately cost at least twice the budgeted amount.

“Rise Above the Mark” may have the exact opposite message of the popular 2010 education documentary “Waiting for Superman,” which starred education reform advocates including former Washington D.C. schools leader Michelle Rhee and Bill Gates, but Killion is hoping for the same result — increased attention for a point of view he believes has not been adequately represented.

Through the film, Killion joins an unofficial cadre of high-performing local education superintendents nationwide who often are caught on a delicate political tightrope, balancing leading their districts with advocating for them financially at the state or federal level.

“I have great interest in trying to influence the national conversation about education,” he said.

“Rise Above the Mark” has captured the attention of high-profile opponents of the hottest school reform initiatives being pushed by lawmakers in a host of states — school choice, more testing and greater accountability for schools, teachers and students. It has excited local public school activists who hope to reverse the trend.

But three months after its premiere, questions remain about whether the movie ultimately will make the impact Killion is hoping for in Indiana: a return of trust and funding to public schools like his that are succeeding.

“I haven’t heard one legislator say anything about the film – positive or negative,” said Randy Truitt, R-Lafayette, a lawmaker who at times straddles the fence on touchy Indiana education legislation. He was interviewed for “Rise Above the Mark” but didn’t make the final cut.

“Most of them haven’t seen it,” Truitt said of his legislative colleagues. “I don’t think most of them want to see it, because it’s a topic where there’s so much more to the story than one person or one group can illustrate.”

How, then, did Killion manage to convince West Lafayette school supporters to spend tens of thousands of dollars on an anti-education reform documentary that had a chance at alienating the legislature the school district is financially dependent on?

It all started when the West Lafayette school district faced deep cuts to their award-winning music, fine arts and athletic programs as a result of the state’s funding model.

What follows are the lengths that Killion went to protect his schools — from a referendum to restore West Lafayette’s lost state funding to the rallying cry for public schools that is the film “Rise Above the Mark.”

An unlikely epicenter

The curious thing about West Lafeyette schools becoming an epicenter for revolt against Indiana’s recent changes to its education system is that the city’s children are doing very well.

With 91 percent of students passing ISTEP last year, the district was 18 points higher than the state average.

West Lafayette also isn’t poor, like many of the big urban and small rural districts that have been the most vocal opponents of changes like expanded teacher evaluation, testing and school choice. With only 15 percent of its students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, West Lafayette has the fourth wealthiest student body in the state behind only Zionsville (5 percent), Carmel (10 percent) and Hamilton Southeastern (14 percent).

But one of the reasons Killion argues that Indiana’s education changes have gone too far is that West Lafayette has suffered despite its success. The core of the district’s trouble was financial.

When state legislators in 2009 removed property tax revenue from school districts’ general funds for tax relief, shifting that responsibility to the state, Killion feared he’d have to gut the award-winning extracurriculars to balance the budget.

He estimated West Lafayette Schools would lose between $500,000 and $700,000 per year based on the new funding formula, he wrote at the time. The district soon launched a campaign to pass a seven-year tax referendum. Relying on West Lafayette political strategist Steve Klink for guidance, Killion succeeded: the referendum passed by a 2-1 margin.

But already he was thinking about what came next.

“We know that we have a small window of time to prepare ourselves for our future,” Killion wrote after the referendum passed. “If we don’t find additional funding opportunities by the time our referendum ends, we may face the reality other school districts are currently facing.”

The first blueprints for “Rise Above the Mark” were drawn up shortly after, said West Lafayette school board president Alan Karpick.

“I think it’s realistic to say we had hoped that there would be some ability to raise a fair amount of money from (producing a film),” Karpick said. “Did we think it could solve our funding problems? No.”

From promotional film to politics

A local school foundation isn’t usually the sort of organization that financially backs films meant to help fan the flames of a national movement. In West Lafayette, most of the West Lafayette Schools Education Foundation projects pay for backpacks for poor children, school improvements or other supports for teachers and students.

“We’re not a political group,” said Beth Bangs, a school nurse for West Lafayette’s Happy Hollow Elementary School who is a member of the foundation. “We fund the backpack program.”

The film was paid for entirely by donations to the foundation, with gifts anywhere from $50 to $12,000. The foundation’s development director Sally Miller, who also applied for grants to fund the film, declined to release the identity of the organizations who donated.

“We have donors across the political spectrum,” she said. “What’s been interesting is that because people made donations while we were in the process, they didn’t all know how it was going to turn out.”

Miller estimates so far Rise Above the Mark has cost about $72,000 and she expects more spending. They won’t know the final costs until the showings and events die down, she said.

“Rise Above the Mark” did not turn out to be what the foundation’s first leaders expected it to be: a film to promote the district’s schools.

“The idea from the foundation was we wanted to do a video that said, ‘look at our school and what a unique school system this is,’” said Brad Cohen, the foundation’s immediate past president. “Not all public schools are failing. All of a sudden our mission started twisting, or changing. It became a much bigger project.”

As he developed the film, Killion looked to a former partner: Klink, the strategist who helped with the referendum.

Steve Klink became executive producer of “Rise Above the Mark” and his son Jack Klink, a 23-year-old Purdue University student, became the director. Steve’s wife and Jack’s mother, West Lafayette author Angie Klink, wrote the narrative for the film.

The Klinks didn’t mind being at odds over the film with Indiana Republicans, who are driving most of the education reform legislation in Indiana, even though self-proclaimed conservative Steve Klink worked on the reelection campaign for West Lafayette’s Republican Mayor John Dennis and previously served on the Lafayette City Council.

“We didn’t want to hold ourselves back because we were scared,” Jack Klink said. “That’s what so many people are doing. What we wanted to do was point out these issues and provide a platform for others to come forward.”

One potential partner quickly got cold feet.

A Lafayette marketing firm the foundation had sought out to help produce the film backed away because of its blunt tone.

“What we began to realize is this is a politically charged endeavor,” said Miller, the development director. “I mean, like lightning in a bottle.”

Unlikely political bedfellows

So far, the film’s donors seem to be OK with the tone of the film.

“Indiana’s a conservative state, and when you have businesses and chambers of commerce who are rolling in a conservative manner, you’re going to step on some toes,” Miller said. “Nobody so far has withdrawn their support, or demanded their money back.”

“Rise Above the Mark” has the support of Dennis, West Lafayette’s Republican mayor, who described his school corporation as the “crown jewel” of the community.

“When you engage in discussions that challenge things, sometimes the conversation has no choice but to turn political,” Dennis said.

The doesn’t mean everyone in West Lafayette is thrilled with the foundation’s intense focus on producing and marketing the film.

Truitt, the Republican legislator, said he has heard from community members who are upset about the cost of the film.

“A lot of people were trying to figure it out,” Truitt said. “We’re spending 60, 70, 80 thousand on this, and that’s a lot of education scholarships for kids. The proof will be somewhere down the road when it turns into something.”

Cohen said he understands those concerns.

“Can we question the time spent? Sure,” Cohen said. “Did it cost a little more time than we planned? Yes. Is it perfect? No. But I celebrate what we have.”

Some people started feeling anxious about the tone of the film when Daniels, who recruited Bennett and backed his run for state superintendent, became president of the nearby Purdue University a day after he left the governor’s office in 2013.

The West Lafayette school district and Purdue, the largest employer in Tippecanoe County, are inextricably connected. Many of the district’s children have at least one parent who works at the university.

“It could be a little uncomfortable,” Miller acknowledged.

Daniels has not seen the film, according to his spokeswoman Shelley Triol at Purdue.

“The movie is not meant to kick Mitch out or throw Mitch under the bus,” said Cohen, who was a founding director of the foundation. “It’s just meant to spark a conversation and hold our legislators accountable.”

Keeping the movement going

Perhaps the film’s apex came in early March at a showing at Butler University. The 2,000-seat Clowes Hall was mostly full with cheering teachers and others who were sympathetic to the film’s themes. A rollicking panel discussion afterward included education historian Diane Ravitch.

Once a champion of standards, testing and school choice, Ravitch has rejected that ideology and become the chief national voice in opposition to it. She drew wild applause during sometimes sharp exchanges with advocates for educational change.

“I’m opposed to testing and accountability,” she said. “The only thing we learn from testing is which families have the most income and most education and which have the least. Then we punish the children whose families have the least. Teacher evaluation by test scores is junk science.”

But the crowds haven’t maintained that size or energy.

The Anderson premiere panel discussion drew local anti-reform advocates, and a much smaller crowd.

Speaking to a crowd of not more than 30 people, Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson; Justin Oakley of the Just Let Me Teach radio show; and anti-corporate reform “Hoosier School Heist” author Doug Martin, who has been known to bust out his guitar at meetings and sing about how Tony Bennett and other Indiana reformers ruined education, made their case for public schools.

“You’re being duped,” Oakley told the audience. “You’re being bamboozled. Rome is on fire. We’ve got to fight back.”

Austin hasn’t give up hope that legislators will see the film and hear its message.

“I hope we can get a copy for every legislator in the Indiana general assembly,” she said.

Not everyone in attendance was convinced by its message, including Anderson English teacher Elizabeth Knost.

“It’s a little unfair, because legislators are doing the best they know how to do,” Knost told her colleague, fellow teacher Jordan Pridemore, who was more taken with the film’s message.

“Our students hear it,” returned Pridemore, who said she agreed with the film’s negative characterization of Indiana’s school accountability system. “They say things like ‘Oh, we’re a D school.’”

Driving halfway across the state to show the film to a sparse crowd is worth it for those conversations, Killion said. There’s a chance of reaching another voter, another politician, another teacher that can join his cause.

“The future is hard to predict, but I believe this documentary is going to continue to expand and conversation will definitely reach a national level,” he said “Twenty people here, 30 there. That’s what it takes.”

preliminary numbers

New York City’s (unofficial) graduation rate hits 74 percent, preliminary figures show

New York City’s graduation rate hit a record 74 percent in 2017, according to preliminary figures published on the education department website this week, a slight increase over the previous year.

The numbers continue an upward trend for the city — where the overall graduation rate has grown by nearly 28 points since 2005 — and are in line with previous increases under Mayor Bill de Blasio. This year’s unofficial rate is 1 percentage point higher than the 2016 preliminary rate, and 1.4 points higher than last year’s official rate.

City officials cautioned that the state has not yet verified the figures, which are still subject to change. State officials said they will not release official graduation rates until 2018. Last year, the city’s preliminary graduation rate was 73 percent, while the official rate was 72.6.

Graduation rates are widely considered to be an indicator of the school system’s overall health. Their upward trajectory — even if less steep than previous years — is a good sign for the de Blasio administration.

“This year’s number will be a record high,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College. “That’s something the administration can crow about and take pride in.”

The citywide graduation rate was included on the latest “School Quality Reports,” guides the city education department publishes online each year to help families evaluate schools and compare their performance to the city average. The 2017 reports were posted this week.

“The graduation rate in the School Quality Reports is preliminary and, as always, the official citywide graduation rate will be released by the state later this school year,” said department spokeswoman Toya Holness.

Among struggling schools in de Blasio’s high-profile Renewal turnaround program, the news was mixed. More than half of the high schools in that $568 million program — 19 out of 28 — missed the graduation goals the city set for them, the New York Times reported Thursday. Six of the schools saw declines.

A wide gulf remains between the share of students who graduate high school and those who are ready for college-level work. Just 46 percent of New York City students last year met the academic benchmarks necessary to avoid remedial classes at CUNY schools, according to numbers released this week.

“Historically, there are fears that it’s been possible for kids to graduate without necessarily demonstrating the skills and competencies they need to succeed in college without remediation,” Pallas said.

Mayor de Blasio set a goal of graduating 80 percent of students by 2026, a metric the city will achieve if the graduation rate continues to inch up by even 1 percentage point each year. He has launched several initiatives to advance that goal, including a plan to better prepare students for algebra — which is often a stumbling block for students.

Meanwhile, the state has made it easier for some students to earn a diploma.

Students with disabilities can now graduate by passing only two Regents exams, while most students must pass five. At the same time, more students are now eligible to appeal a failed Regents exam and students can substitute a skills certificate for a final Regents exam.

Monica Disare contributed reporting.

five years in

Tennessee’s two big school turnaround experiments are yielding big lessons, researchers say

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick
A student walks through the hall of Frayser Achievement Elementary School, one of five Memphis schools directly run by Tennessee's Achievement School District.

A national pioneer in school turnaround work, Tennessee this month received a report card of sorts from researchers who have closely followed its two primary initiatives for five years.

The assessment was both grim and promising — and punctuated with lessons that already are informing the state’s efforts to improve struggling schools.

The grim: The state-run Achievement School District fell woefully short of its initial goal of vaulting the state’s 5 percent of lowest-achieving schools to the top 25 percent within five years. This model, based on the Recovery School District in Louisiana, allowed Tennessee to take control of struggling local schools and to partner with charter management organizations to turn them around. But not only has the ASD failed to move the needle on student achievement, it has struggled to retain teachers and to build a climate of collaboration among its schools, which now number 33.

The promising: Innovation zones, which are run by several local districts with the help of extra state funding, have shown promise in improving student performance, based on a widely cited 2015 study by Vanderbilt University. The model gives schools autonomy over financial, programmatic and staffing decisions, similar to charter schools. While iZones exist in Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga, the most notable work has been through Shelby County Schools, now with 23 Memphis schools in its turnaround program. Not only have student outcomes improved in the iZone, its schools have enjoyed lower teacher turnover rates and greater retention of high-quality teachers.

One big lesson, according to this month’s report: Removing schools from their structures of local government isn’t necessary to improve student outcomes.

That explains Tennessee’s decision, under the new federal education law, to include partnership zones as part of its expanded turnaround toolkit. The model offers charter-like autonomy but is governed jointly by local and state officials. The first zone will launch next fall in Chattanooga, where the school board reluctantly approved the arrangement recently for five chronically underperforming schools that otherwise would have been taken over by the ASD.

The partnership model avoids the toll of school takeover, which the report’s researchers say contributed to community mistrust of the ASD, especially in its home base of Memphis.

“That faith in the ask of these schools going to the state operator came with the promise to raise student achievement,” said researcher James Guthrie. “To not see this achievement in the first round of results raises a crisis of legitimacy (for the ASD).”

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen

Guthrie is among researchers who have followed school turnaround efforts as part of the Tennessee Education Research Alliance, or TERA. The group’s work continues to guide the State Department of Education on what has worked, what has not, and why. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen requested their five-year summary as part of the state’s own self-analysis, as well as to inform school improvement work nationwide.

In interviews with Chalkbeat, TERA researchers emphasized that the final word hasn’t been written on any of the turnaround models in play in Tennessee. They continue to track students in struggling schools. And they emphasized that turnaround is a long game, one that the ASD’s founders underestimated.

“The cautionary tale of any reform is to be realistic about what you can achieve,” said Ron Zimmer of the University of Kentucky. “…If (the ASD) had been more realistic, people would have had more realistic expectations (about) what would have been deemed a success.”

The operators of ASD schools have had a steep learning curve amid daunting challenges that include high student mobility, extreme poverty, a lack of shared resources, barriers to school choice, and on-the-ground opposition.

Five years in, there’s still hope that the ASD can improve its schools with more time, said Joshua Glazer of George Washington University.

“We have seen that several providers have learned some hard lessons and are now applying those lessons to their models,” Glazer said. “Many have overhauled curriculum and taken a very different approach to supporting teachers. Across the board, providers have realized that much more robust systems of guidance and support are needed. These changes have the potential to lead to better student outcomes, but only time will tell if scores will go up.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A former superintendent for Jackson-Madison County Schools, Verna Ruffin became the ASD’s chief of academics in August.

The state recently recruited a new academic leader, and it’s looking for a new superintendent who can create a more collaborative environment within the ASD’s portfolio of operators and schools. The district also underwent a major restructuring over the summer, cutting staff to curb costs and streamline roles as federal money ran out from Tennessee’s Race to the Top award.

Funding will be among the biggest long-term challenges for both the state-run district and the local iZones, said Zimmer.

While the Memphis’ iZone has shown initial success, it’s an expensive model that includes educator bonuses and adds an hour to the school day.  

The ASD also needs adequate funding, but Zimmer said that became harder when its schools did not produce early gains. “It takes up to five or six years before see we significant benefit from a program like the ASD,” he said. “The problem is that people don’t have the political patience to wait for it.”

McQueen emphasizes frequently that all of the state’s turnaround models work together. She and Gov. Bill Haslam remain steadfast in their support of the ASD — a point she drove home again on Wednesday when asked about the embattled district.

“It is the state’s most rigorous intervention as noted in Tennessee’s recently approved ESSA plan,” McQueen said, “and is clearly a critical part of the state’s accountability model.”

For more discussion about the five-year brief, you can read blog posts in Education Week from TERA and the State Department of Education.