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.”

Charter Churn

New York City charters burn through principals faster than district schools, report finds

PHOTO: Getty Images / Spencer Platt
A charter school rally in New York City

As the principal at Renaissance Charter School, Stacey Gauthier’s job extends well beyond supervising teachers. She manages fundraising, lobbies elected officials to support charter schools, and even responds to issues raised by the teachers union.

“We are basically our own district,” she said, noting that the work of running an independent charter school can be a challenge without the infrastructure that comes with a school system or even a large charter network.

Despite that heavy workload, Gauthier has stayed in her role for 11 years, making her an outlier among charter principals. According to a first-of-its-kind report released earlier this month by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank, the city’s charter schools generally churn through principals at a much higher rate than traditional district schools.

Last school year, 25 percent of the city’s charter school principals were new, more than double the turnover rate at district schools. That level of turnover represents something of a paradox: Studies show principal turnover can hurt student achievement, but research has also shown the city’s charter schools generally have higher state test scores than district schools do.

“If the research is right” about the consequences of principal turnover, said Marcus Winters, a Manhattan Institute fellow and the report’s author, “by addressing it, [charter schools] could improve even more.”

But it’s not clear why turnover is so much higher at charter schools, which also often churn through teachers at a higher rate.

One reason could be differences in student demographics. Since charter schools enroll a greater share of low-income students and students of color than district schools on average, that could make for a more challenging environment that contributes to churn. But controlling for differences in student demographics — including proportions of English learners, students with disabilities, those coming from poor families, and race — the report found no meaningful effect on turnover.

Another possible reason: Charter principals are easier to fire than district principals who typically have more union protections. A charter principal who runs a school that is seen as low performing is easier to replace, the theory goes, explaining higher levels of turnover. But the data don’t back up that theory. Even after taking into account differences in school performance as measured by school quality reports, higher turnover “was not driven by overall school performance,” Winters found.

It’s also possible charter schools are just more difficult work environments in ways that are difficult to measure, including some schools’ adoption of a “no excuses” ethos that tells educators that a student’s life circumstances should never excuse performance issues at school. (The report does not include breakdowns of individual charter schools or networks.)

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, said there could be some truth to the idea that charter schools are tougher work environments, but added that some of the turnover could be related to fierce competition for leadership talent.

“There’s such a huge supply-demand imbalance for high-quality principals,” he said.

The report includes another puzzling trend — turnover in district and charter schools fluctuates significantly over time. Over the past 10 years, turnover at district schools ranged from 8.7 to 14 percent each year. At charters, turnover ranged from 7 to nearly 34 percent. Those swings meant that in two of the last 10 years, district turnover was slightly higher than it was at charters.

Winters, the report’s author, didn’t come to a firm conclusion about why the turnover rates seemed to shift significantly from year to year.

“I left this paper with more questions than answers,” he said.

Speaking Up

Letters to J.B.: Here’s what 10 Illinois educators said governor-elect Pritzker should prioritize

PHOTO: Keri Wiginton/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

As governor-elect and national early childhood education advocate J.B. Pritzker assembles his transition team and builds out his early agenda, we asked educators to weigh in with items he should consider.

Here are 10 of their responses, which range from pleas for more staffing to more counseling and mental health services. Letters have been edited only for clarity and length. Got something to add? Use the comment section below or tell us on Twitter using #PritzkerEdu.

From: A non-profit employee who works with schools in the city and suburbs

Letter to J.B.: I work with a number of students from the City of Chicago and sadly most of them lack basic skills. Most of the students lack the ability to read and write properly, and perform below grade level. It is alarming how many students don’t have critical-thinking and analytical skills. The lack of education in low-income and minority population will hurt our city and state in years to come.

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From: A youth organizer at Morrill Elementary, a K-8 school on Chicago’s Southwest Side

Letter to J.B.: Morrill School has suffered from constant turnover due to an unstable Chicago Public Schools environment that cares more about upholding its own self-interest than the people it should be serving. We need representatives that will advocate for what communities say they need!

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From: A music teacher at a Chicago charter school

Letter to J.B.: I work at a charter school and I don’t think we are doing the best we can for our kids. Our school’s policies are too harsh and dehumanizing.

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From: A Chicago charter school social worker

Letter to J.B.: We’ve cut mental health services throughout the city and that has crippled us. Parents have a hard time getting jobs and having enough money to supply basic needs.

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From: A Chicago principal

Letter to J.B.: My school is 100 percent free- and reduced-price lunch-eligible, or low-income population. We are a middle years International Baccalaureate school. Our children were once were the lowest performing in the area and now we are a Level 1-plus school. Our school was on the closing list back in 2005 when I took over.

But now we are an investment school. Teachers are dedicated and work hard. We need funding for a new teacher to keep classes small and additional funds to purchase multiple resources to continue and strengthen overall academics. We have a vested interest in educating all of our children!

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From: A teacher at A.N. Pritzker Elementary in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood

Letter to J.B.: Great kids. Great staff. No librarian. Extremely poor special education services. No substitute teachers. No time for planning. No time for anyone to provide mental health services for those in need.

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From: A teacher at Whitney Young High School on Chicago’s Near West Side

Letter to J.B.: Every teacher knows that well over 90 percent of the students with academic problems have serious problems at home and in their neighborhoods. In the suburbs, social worker and psychologist staffing levels are often five to 10 times what they are here in the city, where kids are dealing with way more challenges, not less. If you’re looking for bang for your buck, fund psychologists and social workers!

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From: A teacher in the Galesburg CUSD 205

Letter to J.B.: Our school is diverse in all definitions of the word. We have a diverse population in terms of race, money, and ability. We currently don’t have the money to keep all of the schools in our district open and are in the process of closing some of the buildings in order to get the others up to code and comfortable; many of our schools don’t even have air conditioning.

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From: A teacher at Kiefer School, a Peoria school that educates children with severe behavioral and learning challenges

Letter to J.B.: We work with students with behavioral and mental challenges who need more help getting mental health services. We’ve had children deflected from being hospitalized due to no beds being available.

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From: A teacher at Unity Junior High School in Cicero

Letter to J.B.: People often think that our school is “bad,” but the truth is, we have so many staff and students that work hard every day to bring positive change.