Future of Schools

Dropping schools bolstered Ball State’s ISTEP charter scores

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
A Teacher challenge board with test results at Tindley Renaissance School. The Tindley network in Indianapolis include some of the state's highest scoring charter schools.

Ball State University’s decision to end its sponsorship of 11 low-scoring charter schools over the past two years contributed to the better overall ISTEP performance this year of 24 schools it still oversees.

Of the schools it still sponsors, about 16 percent rated in the top half of more than 1,800 schools that took the test. That’s better than the schools sponsored by Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office. About 10 percent of Ballard’s 24 schools that took ISTEP ranked in the top half. (For more Marion County charter school results go here.)

But it didn’t come easily. Ball State faced criticism in 2012 for sponsoring schools with long records of low performance. Its charter school office overhauled its review process, telling its schools to expect tougher evaluations.

“We’re performing a little better than we were,” said Ball State’s charter school director Bob Marra. “What people have seen is Ball State is serious about authorizing. We’re going to look at the data and take appropriate action steps.”

In 2012-13, seven schools were told their charters would not be renewed. Then four more met the same fate last year. Of those 11, five closed, two converted to private schools and one merged into a sister charter school. Three others remain open after finding new sponsors.

“It’s a lot of hard work,” Marra said. “We’re trying to get ourselves in a better position to make those decisions.”

Most charter schools in the state rank at the low end of the spectrum, and Ball State is no different, with about 54 percent of its schools ranked in the bottom quarter of schools for percent passing math and English. But for Ballard’s office, the percent of schools in the bottom quarter statewide was higher than 70 percent.

That’s still a step ahead of the state’s six other charter school sponsors: none of them saw any of their combined nine schools ranked higher than the bottom quarter. Those sponsors include the Indiana State Charter School Board, private colleges and, in one instance, a school district.

Most of those other sponsors have only gotten into the business of overseeing charter schools since a 2011 law created the state charter board and permitted private universities to charter schools as well as public universities.

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Out of more than 1,800 schools that took the exams in grades 3 to 8

Before that, only the Indianapolis Mayor’s office, beginning under then-Mayor Bart Peterson, and Ball State had taken advantage of state laws that allowed them to approve and supervise charter schools. Sponsors oversee the schools’ managerial, financial and academic performance and shut down those that fail to fulfill their promises.

All three former Ball State charter schools that stayed open by finding new sponsors this year fell in the bottom quarter of schools in the state for percent passing ISTEP.

Marra said the state’s three major charter school sponsors, Ball State, Mayor Ballard’s office and the Indiana State Charter School Board, have improved communication in an effort to set consistently high expectations for how the schools must perform.

Still, exercising accountability is tough, he said. At some of the now-closed schools emotions ran high about Ball State’s decision.

“It wasn’t easy,” he said. “The law talks about accountability. It’s pretty clear what you need to do. These kids only get one one shot at this. It has to be a quality school.”

Statewide, just three charter schools ranked in the top quarter in the state: Indianapolis’ Tindley Collegiate Academy, The Discovery Charter School near Gary in Chesterton and The Bloomington Project School. Ballard sponsors Tindley. The other two are sponsored by Ball State.

For Ball State, Marra said, tougher oversight meant a focus not just on academics, but also on management of the school and of its finances. For example, another Ball State-sponsored charter school, the International School of Columbus, closed last year for financial reasons despite good academic performance, he said.

“What I’ve learned is its a three-legged stool: fiscal, governance and academics,” he said. “You can’t keep your doors open without all three.”

Here’s how Indiana charter schools that took ISTEP last year ranked for percent passing this year and how their scores compared to last year:

 

Mixed messages

Is the Board of Regents hostile to charter schools? Depends upon whom you ask.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting.

When the Board of Regents took the unprecedented step of rejecting two new charter schools last week, it sent shudders through the charter school sector.

Even before the meeting last Monday, the Regents had been making charters “nervous,” said Andrea Rogers, the New York State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network. The rejections only heightened the anxiety.

“I think these denials skyrocketed the issue to the front of people’s minds,” she said.  

And yet, during the same meeting, the board praised and signed off on the opening of five other charter schools, which brings the number of new schools approved this year to more than any year since 2013.

The meeting was emblematic of the mixed signals that this Board of Regents have been sending over the last few months, feeding different interpretations among both those who advocate for charter schools and those who champion traditional schools

The board’s willingness to criticize and question charters have many believing the Regents are, at best, skeptics and, at worst, opposed to the publicly funded, privately run schools that they authorize and oversee.

At the same time, the Regents have not been without praise for charters, and some charters say they have appreciated the support of the body and the state’s support staff.

Chancellor Betty Rosa said the Regents’ decisions are evidence of nuance, not rigid ideology or partisanship.

“I think there’s too many times when people want to simply say ‘you’re for’ or ‘you’re against.’ It’s so much more complicated than that,” Rosa told Chalkbeat in an interview Wednesday. “To me, if it’s a wonderful opportunity for kids — you got me. If it’s not, I’m probably going to be your worst enemy.”

As an authorizer, the Board of Regents has the power to approve new schools and decide which of its 87 schools should remain open. In addition to deciding the fate of individual schools, the board is rethinking how it evaluates all of its schools   and whether they should take a closer look at measures like surveys or chronic absenteeism.

With several new members and a relatively new leader, the Regents’ actions have been under particular scrutiny for signs of partisanship. Some have seized on recent events, such as critical statements made by some Regents as charter schools have come before the board for approval or renewal.

One Regent suggested that charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students; another suggested a charter school in Brooklyn is contributing to segregation.

Rosa has fiercely opposed a proposal that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers, calling the idea  “insulting.” The board also rejected a batch of Success Academy renewals, arguing that their authorizer attempted to renew the high-performing but controversial charter schools too soon. (The move had little practical effect, since their authorizer, SUNY, can override the board’s decision.)

Rosa said the sum of these decisions does not mean either she or the board is anti-charter. Her opposition to the teacher certification proposal had nothing to do with the source of the proposal — a charter authorizer — but because, she said, she believes the idea is an affront to the teaching profession and will allow unqualified teachers to enter classrooms.

The Success Academy renewals, she said, were returned based on legal requirements — and were not an appraisal of the charter network.

But taken together, observers of different educational ideologies have concluded that the board is more likely to probe problems with charter schools than in the past.

“It is quite a change from a couple years ago, and it does show greater misgivings about charter schools than what we saw under the board as it was previously constructed,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. (Lowry said he appreciates that the board is paying more attention to how charter schools will affect the funding of surrounding school districts.)

The state’s teachers union has picked up on the change and praised the board for providing more oversight of charter schools, while calling on them to do more.

“The Regents, at this point, are providing much overdue scrutiny of the charter sector,” said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn. “We believe that the Regents and the state education department need to do more, but this is a good step.”

Charter school advocates agree, seeing the Board of Regents’ actions as worrying. Since the board’s philosophy is hard to pin down, schools are starting to wonder if they can switch authorizers, Rogers said.

Yet there are signs that charters’ fear are based on conclusions that are far too sweeping. As the board rejected two schools outside of New York City, they also lauded applications for schools opening in the city a fact that may suggest differences in how the Regents assess schools in different areas of the state.

Regent Christine Cea welcomed a new school in Staten Island, saying she is “totally in favor of it.” Rosa expressed excitement about a new KIPP school in the Bronx, saying the community has “tremendous support” for its opening.

Rosa said Regents are more thoughtful and involved in reviewing schools now. She suggested that there are educational innovations that can be learned from charter schools, but also offered some critiques. At the top of her list, she worries that charter schools are not well-equipped to serve students with the most severe disabilities.

Several schools that are currently authorized by the board expressed their appreciation for the Board of Regents and those in the state education department’s charter school office who provide technical assistance to schools and create charter school recommendations for the board.

“On our quest to better serve scholars with learning differences, we have found no better ally,” said Eric Tucker, who is a co-founder of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School. “Through technical assistance and oversight, the Regents push public schools like ours to continually improve to better serve the needs of all students, all days.”

Still, said Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant who works with charter schools, several Regents come from district school backgrounds, and so their default attitude is to question charter schools and support the traditional school model.

“They’re much more district school system people,” Bellafiore said.

What's Your Education Story?

Tips for teaching poetry in a women’s prison. ‘Remember, you are not allowed to hug anyone.’

PHOTO: Lwp Kommunikáció, Flickr CC
Inmates at the Indiana Women's Prison.

Adam Henze was one of seven educators who participated in a story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library on Sept. 5. Every teacher shared stories about their challenges and triumphs in Circle City classrooms.

A poet and educator, Henze read a poem about a day in his life as a poetry instructor at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Henze recounts the painful struggle to reconcile his experiences with the crimes for which his students were serving time — some life sentences for murder

It’s a story full of darkness, but it also offers hope that, as Henze said, “we are the sum of the things that we have done, but we’re also the sum of the things that we have yet to do.”

Check out the video below to hear Henze’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students and parents here.