Future of Schools

For parents picking schools, Indianapolis continues to offer a guide

PHOTO: James Vaughn
Lesvi De La Cruz speaks to a small crowd Tuesday at Central Library about how GreatSchools.org helped her find the best school for her son when she moved to Indianapolis in 2012.

In some ways, the debut of the fourth edition of the annual School Chooser Guide for Indianapolis is old news, but not for parents looking for a school for their children this year.

“Why do we have to do this year after year after year? Because the families change year after year after year,” said Judi Goldberg, a spokeswoman for the website GreatSchools.org, to a small crowd that gathered at Indianapolis’s Central Library today. “This is an ongoing community effort and it has to be embedded in the community forever because there’s new people every year looking for new opportunities.”

Mayor Greg Ballard’s office and GreatSchools, a non-profit organization that offers profiles of more than 200,000 schools across the country, collaborated on the latest version of the 160-page paper guide. Indianapolis boasts the highest percentage of families who use the organization’s website, according to Goldberg. About 165,000 unique visitors looked at schools in Indianapolis last year, including some who didn’t live in the city.

Lesvi De La Cruz, 27, was one of those people back in 2012.

De La Cruz’s son, Jason, sat out two weeks of school during Chicago’s teacher strike. So when she decided to move to Indianapolis, she did a quick Google search to find the best school for her now eight-year-old son, and she immediately stumbled across GreatSchools.org.

“I looked online because I didn’t know anyone here in Indianapolis, and it sent me right away to the GreatSchools website,” De La Cruz said. “It was very efficient because I just put in my address and a lot of the neighborhood schools came out, and I was able to make an informed choice.”

She landed on Indiana Math and Science Academy, a charter school on the city’s Northwest side, because she liked the school’s focus on science and math, and she was impressed that it was one of the few schools rated seven out of 10 near her new home in Lafayette Square.

“By where I lived, that rate was really good,” she said. “Most of (the neighborhood schools) are under that.”

De La Cruz later transferred Jason to the new Christel House Academy West when she moved to Haughville, just west of downtown.

“I was just lucky enough to have it open up in my backyard,” she said. “The classes are very small, so he gets a lot of individual attention from the teacher. He’s a leader, so he’s definitely in a place where he can show his potential.”

Christel House West doesn’t have a profile in the School Chooser Guide, but most of the city’s schools do. More than 600 schools are featured in Indianapolis’s guide.

“Because (Indianapolis) has worked so hard to get 97 percent of its schools, it’s a really useful tool,” Goldberg said. “The tool is obviously driven by the information that you get. Each school has their own school account that they can go in and add all of the different touchy-feely things that parents really care about – all that stuff that isn’t recorded because it’s not academic-focused, but it’s that stuff that really matters to parents.”

GreatSchools initially worked with advocacy group Stand For Children to create the guide, but eventually transitioned to the mayor’s office.

“They have such a wonderful connection into the community,” Goldberg said. “It’s a nice neutral way to give good information to parents.”

GreatSchools was founded 25 years ago in San Francisco. The teacher who launched the first guide wanted families who moved to Northern California to be able to learn more easily what they needed to know to choose schools for their children. The guide later became a website and began adding information about schools in cities across the country.

But few cities have extensive paper guides like Indianapolis. GreatSchools has only done that in cities with extensive school choice options. Indianapolis has 11 school districts, charter schools sponsored by the mayor, the state and Ball State University, and an array of private schools that accept publicly-funded tuition vouchers.

The School Chooser Guide provides information such as school addresses, principal names, test scores and graduation rates. The guide, which is available in English and Spanish, is distributed at all Indianapolis public libraries, Kroger stores and Indy Parks locations for free.

“We didn’t really change it much this year,” Goldberg said. “We finally landed on a pretty good combination of what parents need to know.”

Ballard said summer is the best time for parents to weigh their options when it comes to choosing a school for their child.

“Our highest quality schools fill up very quickly,” he said. “Parents need to know how to sign up.”

upheaval

Frustrations over principal turnover flare up at IPS School 43

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 43

It began with a tame slideshow presentation about hiring a new principal at School 43. But the Wednesday night meeting soon spiraled into a venting session — as parents and teachers pleaded with Indianapolis Public Schools to send in more staff.

Bakari Posey, the principal of School 43, departed for another job last week in the latest upheaval at the school, which is also known as James Whitcomb Riley. The assistant principal, Endia Ellison, has taken over in an interim capacity, as the district searches for a new leader for the school, which has faced significant turnover in recent years.

“This school needs help,” said Natasha Milam, who has three children at School 43, which serves about 450 students in prekindergarten to eighth-grade. “We need you all to listen. And we need you all to hear us.”

Milam, who volunteers at the school, said that because the building does not have enough staff to handle behavior problems, students are suspended far too often — meaning students are at home doing chores or getting into trouble, instead of in class learning.

Many in the neighborhood had hoped Posey, who is from the community, would be able to turn the school around after the previous two school leaders left their posts just months into the job. But under Posey’s leadership, the school continued to struggle on state tests, with just 7 percent of students passing both the math and English exams last year.

And after two-and-a-half years on the job, Posey left and began working this week as assistant principal at Fall Creek Valley Middle School in Lawrence Township. In an email Thursday, Posey said that he left because he thought the position in Lawrence would help him grow professionally and it was closer to his home.

Posey also disputed the picture of School 43 as a campus in crisis. He said this school year, there hasn’t been “turmoil in the school in regards to student behavior,” suspensions were down, and the campus has been “very calm.” (Suspension numbers could not immediately be verified.) He also said that Indianapolis Public Schools provided “great support” to school staff.

Nonetheless, parents and teachers’ at the meeting Wednesday said the school has serious problems.

Ryesha Jackson, a 4th-grade teacher who has been at the school a little over a year, said there are not enough staff to help with student discipline problems. That makes it hard for educators to teach, she said.

“We have fights almost every day,” Jackson said. “I guess my question is, ‘What are we doing right now to support teachers?’”

School 43 is a neighborhood school, on the north side of the district. More than 75 percent of students there are black, and almost 70 percent are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals — about the district average.

Indianapolis Public Schools interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said district and school leaders would work together to develop a plan to address the urgent problems at School 43.

“But what I can’t give you right now is the plan for that help,” she said. “That takes time and coordination with the school staff.”

The district is gathering input about what school community members are looking for in a principal before posting a listing, officials said. Finalists will be interviewed by committees of parents, community members, and school and district staff. The goal is to name a new principal by April.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting was a small contingent from the IPS Community Coalition, a group that is often critical of the Indianapolis Public Schools administration, particularly the district’s partnerships with charter schools.

Michele Lorbieski, a resident from the north side who ran unsuccessfully for the Indianapolis Public Board with the support of the coalition last year, said the district cannot just rely on the next principal to fix the school.

“What I’d hoped to hear tonight was what the school district was doing to put things in place to stop this revolving door of principals,” she said.

District officials did not directly address why turnover has been so high among principals at School 43. But Brynn Kardash, a district official who recently began working with the school, said that the central office is doing more to support it this year.

School 43 was added this year to the transformation zone — an effort to help troubled schools that includes dedicated support and regular visits from a team at the central office, said Kardash, the district’s executive director of schools for the zone. Educators in the zone get additional training, extra planning time, and help analyzing student data, she said.

“The goal is to really support Ms. Ellison in work that she’s doing,” Kardash said, “which then leads to, hopefully, teachers feeling that support in the classroom.”

technical difficulties

This personalized learning program was supposed to boost math scores. It didn’t, new study finds

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A student at I.S. 228 in Brooklyn does online work through Teach to One, a program that grew out of the iZone.

A program that Bill Gates once called “the future of math” didn’t improve state test scores at schools that adopted it, according to a new study.

The research examines Teach to One, a “personalized learning” program used in schools across 11 states and which has drawn support from a number of major funders, including the Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings. (Gates and CZI are also funders of Chalkbeat.)

At five schools in Elizabeth, New Jersey, students who used Teach to One didn’t improve any faster than similar students who didn’t use the program, even after three years. The results underscore the limited evidence for claims that such technology programs can dramatically improve student learning, even as they have become magnets for philanthropic dollars.

“The original aspirations, that Teach to One programs were going to have huge positive effects on math scores — we can rule that out with these studies,” said Jonah Rockoff, a Columbia professor who studied an earlier iteration of the program.

Teach to One says its approach is designed to help students steadily learn math skills, regardless of how unprepared or advanced they are. Students spend time on a computer as well as with a teacher and working in small groups. Students receive individualized schedules each day based on their progress, and a computer program adapts the curriculum to students’ strengths and weaknesses in the form of a “playlist.”

New Classrooms, the organization behind Teach To One, suggests that the Elizabeth results aren’t the full story.

It points to a separate analysis released this week that looks at a broader group of schools — 14, from several districts — that used the program. That study shows Teach to One students making above-average gains on a test known as the MAP, which is taken on a computer with questions changing as students answer correctly or incorrectly.

New Classrooms co-founder Joel Rose suggested in a statement that those computer-adaptive tests capture something that state tests can miss: students’ progress.

“What seems to be emerging is a real tension in math between approaches focused on long-term academic growth and state accountability systems,” he said.

Rockoff said there might be something to New Classroom’s argument that the study using adaptive test is better able to showcase students’ gains. “If [students] are at a grade four level but they’re in grade six, teaching them grade four material is going to hurt them on the state test,” he said.

But the author of the second study, Jesse Margolis, and a number of other researchers who spoke to Chalkbeat note that it cannot show whether Teach to One caused any of the students’ gains, though — a major limitation.

“While this study cannot establish causality, it is encouraging,” Margolis wrote. (The New Jersey study is better able to establish cause and effect, but it also has limitations and does not rely on random assignment.)

The New Jersey study isn’t the first to show that Teach to One didn’t improve test scores: so did Rockoff’s 2015 report on three New York City middle schools that looked at both state and MAP tests.

One possible explanation is that Teach to One is helpful to students in some places but not others. Margolis said his study examined the same five Elizabeth schools as the Columbia study and also found minimal gains there, but that schools elsewhere seemed to see larger improvements.

Researcher John Pane of RAND, a leader in studying personalized learning, says the results are important to understanding a field with limited research to date.

“Because we have so little evidence on personalized learning,” he said, “every data point can be helpful for us to start triangulating and piecing together what works and what doesn’t work.”