Future of Schools

State board OK with IPS promises that Arlington High School is on the mend

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
State Board of Education member Dan Elsener asks questions of IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee at a board meeting last year.

Arlington High School has struggled this year, but the Indiana State Board of Education on Wednesday took a less urgent tone about the need for improvements than they did just six months ago.

In May when it looked like Arlington might be returned from state takeover to Indianapolis Public Schools, the state board put on the brakes. They wanted assurances first.

Then-board member Dan Elsener said the district would first have to demonstrate it was “well structured” and “well managed.” Ultimately the board wasn’t ready to trust that IPS fit that description, so they kept control over Arlington even while putting IPS back in charge of running the school day-to-day.

But at today’s state board meeting, only board member David Freitas expressed concern that Arlington might be moving in the wrong direction. Gordon Hendry, a board member who asked the Indiana Department of Education for more details on the Arlington transition in October, was absent.

“I just want to be sure that we continue to advocate for every child in Indiana, and I’m concerned for the children at Arlington,” Freitas said. “It’s my understanding that we still retain control of Arlington, and I feel almost a personal responsibility to be sure that it is continuing to move forward.”

A series of reports from WFYI’s education reporter Eric Weddle, who is making regular visits to Arlington, have described disorder at the school and calls from Principal Stan Law for more staff to help him get a handle on its many problems.

But Law and other IPS officials told the state board that a series of steps they’ve taken in the last few weeks would bring quick improvements.

For example, the school recently moved students out of the first floor and closed it off. The immense size of the building, which could accommodate more than 2,000 students, also contributed to discipline problems, deputy superintendent Wanda Legrand said.

The district is providing new Arlington teachers with mentors and on-going training, Legrand said. More staff has been added, too. Law said there are still a few teaching positions open in math, science and special education, but he’s focused on finding the right people to fill the jobs, not just whoever shows up first.

“A lot of our kids come in with a lot of challenges — social, emotional, academic challenges,” Law said. “We want teachers there and staff members also there who want to work with such a population.”

Arlington continues to need work to fill all its open teaching jobs, improve learning and build stronger relationships between students and teachers, Law and IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee acknowledged.

There has been a lot of change at Arlington. Some teachers and students from last year remain, but a large number of new teachers and students have since arrived. That has led to some of the tension, Legrand said

“Challenges, of course, always occur when you blend people,” she said.

The school, which enrolls 600 students so far this year, is 89 percent black, 1 percent Hispanic and 10 percent white, Ferebee said. About 25 percent of students have special needs, and most students come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. To do so, a family of four must make less than $44,863 annually.

Arlington was taken away from Indianapolis Public Schools in 2012 after six straight F-grades and turned over to be run by Tindley Accelerated Schools, a charter school network. Then the network abruptly pulled out before the end of its five-year contract. So the state gave Arlington back to IPS.

IPS said in some cases, it is holding out on hiring teachers to try to find those that fit best. But board member Vince Bertram said IPS needs better hiring strategies. Good teachers have too many options, he said.

“I don’t think its sustainable, I don’t think it’s a scalable strategy,” Bertram said. “There are just too many other choices and options. What are those incentives … that we can use to attract people to IPS and to Indiana?”

The district’s now offers up to $18,000 for teachers who take on key leadership positions under it’s recently-signed labor contract, Ferebee said, which could attract more teachers to IPS. The district also has partnerships with Marian University, Ball State University, IUPUI and University of Indianapolis to recruit teaching candidates and is helping its most promising teacher aides to earn licenses to become classroom teachers.

Freitas praised a new partnership between Charter Schools USA with IPS at Emma Donnan Middle School, and asked Ferebee whether such an arrangement could benefit Arlington as well. IPS and CSUSA agreed that students in grades K-6 would be added at the middle school as long as IPS gets to share oversight.

So far, only one of three former IPS schools managed by CSUSA has shed its F-grade — Manual High School. Donnan has been rated an F or an equivalent grade since 2010.

But Ferebee said adding elementary school grades didn’t make sense at high school like Arlington. The district instead would continue to explore how school feeder patterns might be improved throughout the district.

Last month, Indiana Department of Education officials told the state board that Arlington was a top concern because of the difficulties there since the start of school. But Superintendent Glenda Ritz said today she believed Arlington was making progress.

“I think there has been some good movement in the school to make sure they’re on-track, making sure they have a great climate,” Ritz said. “They are moving in a good direction.”

More autonomy

These Denver schools want to join the district’s ‘innovation zone’ or form new zones

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual Middle School students at a press conference about test scores in August 2017. The school has signaled its intent to be part of a new innovation zone.

Thirteen Denver schools have signaled their desire to become more autonomous by joining the district’s first “innovation zone” or by banding together to form their own zones. The schools span all grade levels, and most of the thirteen are high-performing.

Innovation zones are often described as a “third way” to govern public schools. The four schools in Denver’s first zone, created in 2016, have more autonomy than traditional district-run schools but less than charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Denver Public Schools recently released applications for schools to join the first zone, called the Luminary Learning Network, or to form new zones. The school district, which at 92,600 students is Colorado’s largest, is nationally known for nurturing a “portfolio” of different school types and for encouraging entrepreneurship among its school principals.

The district is offering two options to schools that want to form new zones. One option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen not by the district but by a nonprofit organization. That’s how the Luminary Learning Network is set up.

Another, slightly less autonomous option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen by the district. “Some additional autonomies would be available to these schools, but many decisions would still be made by the district,” the district’s website says.

One tangible difference between the two: The principals of schools in zones overseen by the district would answer to district administrators, while the principals of schools in zones overseen by nonprofit organizations would be hired and fired by the nonprofits’ boards of directors.

Schools in both types of zones would have more control over their budgets. A key flexibility enjoyed by the four schools in the Luminary Learning Network has been the ability to opt out of certain district services and use that money to buy things that meet their students’ specific needs, such as a full-time psychologist or another special education teacher. The zone schools would like even more financial freedom, though, and are re-negotiating with the district.

The district has extended the same budgetary flexibility to the schools in Denver’s three “innovation management organizations,” or IMOs, which are networks of schools with “innovation status.”

Innovation status was created by a 2008 state law. It allows district-run schools to do things like set their own calendars and choose their own curriculum by waiving certain state and district rules. The same law allows innovation schools to join together to form innovation zones.

The difference between an innovation zone and an innovation management organization is that schools in innovation zones have the opportunity for even greater autonomy, with zones governed by nonprofit organizations poised to have the most flexibility.

The deadline for schools to file “letters of intent” to apply to join an innovation zone or form a new one was Feb. 15. Leaders of the three innovation management organizations applied to form zones of their own.

One of them – a network comprised of McAuliffe International and McAuliffe Manual middle schools – has signaled its intent to join forces with an elementary school and a high school in northeast Denver to form a new, four-school zone.

Three elementary schools – Valdez, High Tech, and Swigert – submitted multiple intent letters.

Amy Gile, principal of High Tech, said in an email that her school submitted a letter of intent to join the Luminary Learning Network and a separate letter to be part of a new zone “so that we are able to explore all options available in the initial application process. We plan to make a decision about what best meets the needs of our community prior to the application deadline.”

The application deadline is in April. There are actually two: Innovation management organizations that want to become innovation zones must file applications by April 4, and schools that want to form new zones have until April 20 to turn in their applications.

Here’s a list of the schools that filed letters of intent.

Schools that want to join the Luminary Learning Network:

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College High School
Valdez Elementary School
High Tech Elementary School

Schools that want to form new innovation zones overseen by nonprofits:

McAuliffe International School
McAuliffe Manual Middle School
Northfield High School
Swigert International School
These four schools want to form a zone called the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone.

McGlone Academy
John Amesse Elementary School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Montbello Children’s Network.

Grant Beacon Middle School
Kepner Beacon Middle School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Beacon Network Schools IMO I-Zone.

Schools that want to form a new innovation zone overseen by the district:

High Tech Elementary School
Isabella Bird Community School
Valdez Elementary School
Swigert International School
DCIS at Ford
These five schools want to form a zone called the Empower Zone.

First Responder

Jeffco’s superintendent has some ideas about preventing school shootings — and none of them involve gun control or armed teachers

Jeffco superintendent Jason Glass at the Boys & Girls in Lakewood (Marissa Page, Chalkbeat).

Superintendent Jason Glass of the Jefferson County school district isn’t interested in talking about gun control in the wake of yet another deadly school shooting.

Home of Columbine High School, Jefferson County is no stranger to these tragedies or their aftermath, and Glass doesn’t think calls for restricting firearms will get any more traction this time than they have before. Nor is he interested in talking about arming teachers, a proposal he considers just as much of a political dead end.

“A solution is only a solution if we can actually enact it,” Glass wrote in a blog post published Monday. “We are not able to get either of these solutions passed into law so they have no impact.”

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to talk about, he wrote. Glass lays out four ideas that he sees as more politically feasible and that might make a difference:

  • Put trained, armed law enforcement officials in every school
  • Increase funding and support for school mental health services
  • Create a federally funded center to study school safety and security
  • Change the layout of and access to school buildings to make them safer, much the way we’ve renovated airports, stadiums, and other public facilities

Glass describes these measures as “proactive, preventative, and reactive steps that would make a big impact in making our schools much safer than they are today.”

Some schools and districts already have an armed police presence on campus or offer mental health services, but Glass argues these efforts need more money, more support, and more cohesion.

“These solutions need to come from the federal level to create the scale and impact we really need,” he wrote. “Congress and the President need to act and now. … Flexibility and deference can be built into these solutions to accommodate differences across states and communities – but we have a national crisis on our hands and we have to start acting like it.”

Of course, even studying something, as Glass envisions this new center on school safety doing, can be political. Since 1996, the federal government, at the urging of the National Rifle Association, has placed tight restrictions on the ability of the Centers for Disease Control to study gun violence as a public health issue.

The blog post provoked a vigorous debate in the comments. Some called on Glass to join the national movement demanding more restrictions on firearms. This is not a time for “half measures,” one woman wrote.

Others said that turning schools into “fortresses” would work against their educational mission and questioned how well school resource officers could be trained to respond appropriately to students with special needs – or how fair the district-level threat assessment process is.

In the wake of another school shooting at Arapahoe High School in 2013, one largely forgotten outside the state, Colorado legislators passed a law that holds schools liable for missing warning signs in troubled students.

In an interview with Colorado Public Radio, Bill Woodward, a former police officer who trains schools in how to prevent violence, said more schools are doing threat assessments. But their success may require schools to take even more seriously the idea that their own students might be dangerous.

“I think the biggest barrier is the climate of the school, because I think sometimes schools are just thinking in terms of working with students, helping students out,” Woodward told CPR. “And sometimes when you’re looking at someone who’s made a threat, you have to change to the Secret Service model.”

Woodward said a more comprehensive solution may involve gun control. Schools can’t afford to wait, though.

“There is no silver bullet, speaking metaphorically, but I think gun law changes may well be needed,” he said. “I just think we have to do what we can do now, and we can do things now.”