Future of Schools

Senate committee guts state takeover bill

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Sweeping changes to a bill that intended to overhaul the process of state takeover of failing schools today took away much of its punch.

The Senate Education Committee amended and passed House Bill 1638, 9-2, at its meeting today. It originally was written to establish “transformation zones” that would have allowed schools or groups of schools to try out innovative plans at schools with students consistently getting low test scores as an alternative to state takeover. The bill last month passed the House 66-31

But the bill now contains no mention of transformation zones and makes sure the Indiana State Board of Education would not be allowed to take control of an entire school district.

Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said the biggest changes were proposed in amendments by Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary. When they were included, it changed the entire focus.

“There’s not much left in this bill after this amendment,” Kruse said.

The bill still includes a prohibition against schools offering potential students or their families gifts with a significant monetary value. It also would grant struggling schools a “safe harbor” provision where they could get an extra year to show academic improvement before the state would intervene.

Technically, Rogers’ new amendment takes the place of one passed by the committee last week. Those changes remain.

They include:

  • It proposes cutting to four years the time schools with D or F grades get before the state can take the school over or intervene in other ways. Under the bill, that change was set to take effect in June. The amendment puts the shorter timeline off an extra year until June of 2016 to give school districts more time to prepare.
  • A provision in the bill requiring any decision by the state board to close a school to pass with a two-thirds majority was introduced. Before, the board  could decide to close low-scoring schools by a simple majority.
  • A provision in the bill allowing up to 10 percent of teachers at a school in state takeover to work without a valid teaching license also was removed from the bill.

Rogers argued before the committee last month that the state’s intervention efforts just weren’t showing enough improvement to be expanded. Most of the schools under state takeover were still getting F grades, she said.

Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, the bill’s author, said at the same March meeting that the bill was intended to move away from state takeover to more local control.

“The goal is not to be in the takeover business,” Behning said. “That’s the point of this bill — to get out of the takeover business to gives schools the opportunity to transform themselves.”

But Rogers wasn’t buying it. She wrote the amendments to make a “bad bill better,” she said.

The bill will next be heard by the Senate Appropriations Committee before going to the full Senate.

Both Rogers and Sen. Mark Stoops, D-Bloomington, serve on the appropriations committee. Even with the amendments, Stoops, who voted no today, said he isn’t sure how the next hearing will play out.

“I’m much happier with the bill, and I will be having another look at it in appropriations,” he said. “We’ll see how it goes.”

The committee passed two other bills:

  • Freedom to teach. House Bill 1009 would allow any two teachers or a principal, superintendent or a combination apply for grants to create schools, districts or zones of schools. Those schools would get extra freedoms others don’t have to try out plans designed to raise student test scores and pay higher salaries to effective teachers. It passed the committee 7-4 and will next be heard in Senate Appropriations.
  • Safety DrillsHouse Bill 1414 would require schools to hold more safety drills. It passed committee 11-0.

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”