Future of Schools

One student's fresh start a symbol for new Carpe Diem Shadeland charter school

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Student Quentin Brown welcomes dignitaries to the new Carpe Diem Shadeland charter school.

Tuesday was another nerve-wracking new start for Quentin Brown, this time standing before a gleaming, recently constructed school.

Brown, wearing a red striped tie, tried not to sweat in the intense sunlight as he stepped forward to give the student speech welcoming dignitaries to the ribbon-cutting for the new Carpe Diem Shadeland charter school on the city’s East side.

Because he can’t help but gesture with his hands while speaking, Brown struggled a bit to keep the microphone close to his lips and his handwritten speech in sight as he talked. But when he spoke about how hard it can be to stay optimistic for the future, Brown didn’t need the paper or the mic.

Students put their thumb prints and signatures on a learning tree as part of the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new Carpe Diem Shadeland charter school.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Students put their thumb prints and signatures on a learning tree as part of the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new Carpe Diem Shadeland charter school.

“I thought I would just fail again like at the other schools,” he said as he told his classmates of his worries walking in the door of a school where most of the learning is done on computer. “I thought I had no hope. But they seemed enthusiastic about me coming to Carpe Diem.”

When Carpe Diem came to town three years ago with its first campus on Meridian Street, just south of Fall Creek, it was the city’s first school to lean heavily on a cutting-edge but controversial strategy called “blended learning.”

Students spend most of their time sitting in cubicles learning independently by working through online programs.

The goal for Carpe Diem schools is 300 students and only five teachers. The Shadeland campus has about 80 students right now in grades 6-10. Students do meet in core classes for part of the day, where they focus on group work and individual help. Instructional aides also are on-hand in the school’s large cubicle-laden main room to offer help.

The original campus now has about 225 students and posted strong initial test scores. It equaled the state average with 73 percent passing ISTEP — 20 points above the IPS average — the first year, but the passing rate slipped in 2014 to 62.7 percent. The slide meant the school earned a D for its first grade.

Still, it was a strong enough start that the Arizona-based company opened two new campuses. The other is on the West side on 38th Street.

Students write down their dreams as part of the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new Carpe Diem Shadeland charter school.
Students write down their dreams as part of the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new Carpe Diem Shadeland charter school.

“We want to educate, we want to empower and we want to equip,” said Harold Niehaus, Carpe Diem’s chief learning officer. “We want take you from where you are and move you forward so you can be successful.”

That’s what Brown wants, too. He should be a senior, but he only has enough credits to be in 10th grade.

Two years ago, as Carpe Diem came to town, Brown was living through the transition at Arlington High School as the state took over from Indianapolis Public Schools and handed it off to be run by the Tindley charter school network.

Back then, Brown was quoted in the Indianapolis Star saying he thought Arlington was improved after Tindley took over. It had been chaotic under IPS, he said. Brown said he struggled to learn in large classes, for example, when the district was in charge.

There were some good moments for Brown after the Tindley takeover. He played Lord Montague in a performance of Romeo and Juliet, for one. But the transition to Tindley was hard, too. There were new rules, but in other ways, he said, the school didn’t change that much.

Carpe Diem board Chairman Jason Bearce speaks at the ribbon cutting for the new Carpe Diem Shadeland campus.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Carpe Diem board Chairman Jason Bearce speaks at the ribbon cutting for the new Carpe Diem Shadeland campus.

“I’m not trying to bash Arlington, but it wasn’t a good fit for me,” he said.

After bouncing to other schools he was homeschooled last year. When he got a flyer in the mail about Carpe Diem, he and his mother decided to find out if he could get a fresh start there.

Brown wasn’t sure about the blended learning concept and spending so much time on a computer, but Principal Byron Brown (no relation) won him over.

“Sometimes a change in environment or relationship can actually change a kid,” Byron Brown said. “Look at him. After just four weeks, he’s giving a speech to the whole school.”

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.