Future of Schools

Merging with John Marshall is IPS' top choice for Arlington's future

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Arlington High School is one of three schools the administration recommends closing

If it was up to Indianapolis Public Schools, the district would opt to merge John Marshall and Arlington high schools for the 2015-16 school year.

The idea was presented as Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s favorite of three options he presented to an Indiana State Board of Education committee for what to do with Arlington High School next year. The school was taken over by the state in 2012 after six straight years of F grades for poor test scores but Tindley Schools, a charter school network brought in to run the school, said this summer it wants out of managing the school.

Ferebee said the best solution is to give IPS control over Arlington again, arguing a merger with John Marshall was an opportunity to offer students improved learning opportunities and better use the district’s building space.

“We believe (merging) provides a win for both John Marshall and Arlington communities,” Ferebee said. “And we believe that this particular option also provides greater consistency for students.”

Although Tindley and IPS worked out a deal for the 2014-15 school year, Tindley has said it cannot afford to keep running Arlington. State board members were surprised no one from Tindley attended the meeting, saying they had hoped to hear ideas from the network for transitioning Arlington to new management.

A network official said that was not the right role for Tindley to play.

“Until the state board decides how to transition Arlington High School, any predictions from Tindley on how a transition might work are premature,” spokeswoman Bev Rella said in a statement.

Merging the East side high schools would allow Arlington to grow its enrollment enough to better support the costs of its building, Ferebee said. Arlington today serves about 300 students, and adding John Marshall’s roughly 1,100 students would bring the school closer to its 2,000-student capacity.

John Marshall’s building, Ferebee said, was originally designed as a middle school and can’t offer students the amenities the more recently renovated Arlington could. If merged, the school likely would still serve grades seven through 12.

John Marshall has had similarly poor academic performance but narrowly avoided state takeover in 2012. Instead, the school was assigned a “lead partner,” or an outside group support the improvement efforts of the principal and staff.

But community members were surprised when the option to close John Marshall was suggested last month. Some said the transition would be too difficult for students and asked for more time for a new principal to make changes.

The details of the other suggested plans, which don’t involve closing John Marshall, are as follows:

  • Use a new law, created earlier this year by House Bill 1321, to encourage charter schools to partner with IPS to run the school. The goal would be for the new operator to attract at least 700 students to Arlington for 2015-16. This plan would likely remove Arlington from state takeover.
  • Close Arlington in 2015-16, sending students to other schools with an invitation to transfer back when it re-opens in 2016-17, possibly with a different grade configuration than seventh through 12th that it serves today.

Merging is also preferred, Ferebee said, because it helps IPS better estimate the future enrollment of the school, making financial planning easier and more stable.

Charter Schools USA, a charter network that already runs three schools in IPS, said it would consider taking over management of Arlington.

“If it’s better to work this through with IPS, we would support that as well and get right behind that,” said John Hage, CEO of CSUSA. “It’s not for us to say what’s in the best interest of those students. We would want to have the right to earn that.”

One key question from board member Tony Walker, an attorney from Gary, was about what happens to turnaround schools after their contracts with the outside operators end. What processes are in place to make sure schools keep progressing, and how do those ideas spread throughout the rest of the district?

Perhaps, he said, the state should consider changing the law to allow the state to take over entire school districts?

“We’re running into a situation where this group now that has made progress in those schools is going to leave, and there’s nothing in place to capture the progress,” Walker said. “So I think we need some changes in the law immediately for the state board to be able to put an exit strategy or transition in place whereby IPS or Gary Community School Corporation actually gets to benefit from what’s been done over the turnaround process.”

Carole Craig, education chairwoman of the Greater Indianapolis NAACP, said no matter what the district and state decide to do, the Arlington and John Marshall communities need to be involved.

“We care so much about our community, and we also, as professionals with our organizations, understand when you have urban districts, the families care so much, but they don’t have the social capital and resources to come forward as much as people would like,” Craig said. “Sometimes people interpret that as that they don’t care, but that is absolutely not true.”

The board has plans to discuss Arlington and its turnaround options at its October 15 meeting.

Making a decision sooner is better than waiting, Ferebee said.

“I think it’s great we’re having this conversation in October because that gives us an enormous amount of time to implement that planning process,” Ferebee said. “We can build relationships with students and plan transitional activities between now and the end of the year so that when school starts in August, students don’t miss a beat.”

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

next steps

Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.