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.”

departures

As fate of ‘Newark Enrolls’ is debated, top enrollment officials resign

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The top officials overseeing Newark’s controversial school-enrollment system have resigned just weeks after the school board blocked the new superintendent from ousting them.

Their departure creates new uncertainty for Newark Enrolls, one of the few enrollment systems in the country that allows families to apply to district and charter schools through a single online portal. Proponents say the centralized system simplifies the application process for families and gives them more options, while critics say it undermines traditional neighborhood schools while boosting charter-school enrollment.

Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, chief of the Newark Public Schools division that includes enrollment, and Kate Fletcher, executive director of the enrollment office, both departed on Friday. The district did not provide information about why they left or who — if anyone — will replace them, and neither of the two could be reached for comment.

Their departure comes after Superintendent Roger León, who took over on July 1, included them among 31 officials and administrators who were given the option to resign or face being fired. Days later, the school board approved all but nine of the dismissals; Ramos-Solomon and Fletcher were among those spared.

Both officials were hired in 2013 shortly before former Superintendent Cami Anderson unveiled the enrollment system, then called One Newark, as part of a sweeping overhaul that also included closing some schools. Parents were outraged by the closures and the system’s glitchy rollout, which left some students without school placements and separated other students from their siblings.

In recent years, Ramos-Solomon has overseen improvements to the system, including tweaking the computer algorithm that matches students with schools to give a greater boost to families who live near their chosen schools. While district data shows that most students are matched with one of their top choices, critics remain wary of the system and some — including some board members — call for it to be dismantled.

León, a veteran Newark educator who was expected by some observers to oppose Newark Enrolls, said in a private meeting with charter-school leaders that he intends to keep the process in place. But he will have to win over the board, whose members have asked the district skeptical questions about the system in recent months, such as why some students are reportedly matched with charter schools they didn’t apply to. (The district says that does not happen.)

Board member Tave Padilla said he was not aware that Ramos-Solomon or Fletcher had resigned, and did not know whether replacements had been lined up. He added that the board had not discussed the fate of Newark Enrolls since a meeting in June where Ramos-Solomon provided information about the system, nor has the full board discussed the matter with León.

“The district now does have the option to keep what we have in place, modify it, or do away with it,” he said. “Whether we choose to do that or not, I don’t know.”

Future of Schools

Indiana is struggling to give kids speech therapy. Here’s why it’s getting harder.

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Indiana let emergency permits that make it easier for schools to hire high-demand speech-language pathologists lapse — and there won’t be time to address the oversight before the first day of classes.

“This is going to take legislative action to resolve,” said Risa Regnier, director of licensing for the Indiana Department of Education. “So there’s really no way to fix this for the beginning of school this year.”

The communication disorders emergency permits, which expired at the end of June, were created by a 2007 law to offer relief to schools struggling to find enough speech-language pathologists, educators say. While the number of students who will be affected wasn’t immediately available, nearly one-fifth of all special education students across the state need speech and language services.

The permits allowed schools to hire graduates of four-year speech-language programs who have been accepted to master’s programs, which are typically required for a full license as a speech-language pathologist.

But the employees who use these permits are no longer able to continue in their jobs, and the state cannot issue new permits unless lawmakers step in.

“You have to understand that we have a huge shortage of (speech-language pathologists),” said Ann Higgins, director of a special education cooperative that serves four districts in north central Indiana. “This is the beginning of my sixth year being director, and we have yet to be fully staffed … as a result, we’re constantly piecing together a puzzle, if you will, to provide speech services.”

These professionals can work in educational or medical settings, and their roles can vary widely depending on the students they serve. They might work on letter sounds with some students with milder needs, but they could also help students with more severe disabilities improve swallowing.

According to state data, 84 educators who currently have full communications disorders licenses once held emergency permits, and 190 have received them since 2007.

The emergency permits are a “last resort,” said Tammy Hurm, who handles legislative affairs for the Indiana Council of Administrators of Special Education. But they have made it possible for speech-language program graduates to work as pathologists while completing their licenses. With the permits, schools have had more flexibility around supervision, but permit-holders still couldn’t practice outside of what they’ve been educated to do.

Although the number of people affected might seem small, many districts are seeing a shortage, Hurm said, especially rural districts like Higgins’ that already have a hard time attracting people to jobs in their communities.

Because schools can rarely pay as much as a hospital or nursing home, schools are not as attractive for the already-small number of fully qualified speech-language pathology graduates. Part of that also stems from the fact that the needed master’s programs have caps on enrollment.

“A lot of the kids that graduate go directly into medical (jobs) because they pay more, they can work more days,” Higgins said. “Unless they have school experience or know that school is what they love … a lot go medical.”

This problem is not unique to Indiana. Across the country, demand for speech-language pathologists is projected to grow 18 percent by 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s partially because of growth in other groups of people that need them, such as senior citizens, and because of growing school enrollment and earlier, more frequent identification of speech and language issues.

Without these permits, four-year graduates in speech and language can generally only be speech-language pathology assistants, which means they can offer certain services with supervision, Hurm said. Salaries can be hourly or close to what a starting teacher might make.

To get over the pay hurdle, Higgins has been creative. Her co-op runs entirely on federal funds, a strategy that began three years ago so she could pay speech-language pathologists higher salaries than what collective bargaining rules dictated. More than one-third of her budget is just spent on speech services.

But critics of the emergency permits say they’re a short-term solution and place under-qualified people in roles they aren’t prepared to handle.

Undergraduate students who study speech, language, and hearing sciences typically have only a theoretical knowledge of what communications disorders are like, not the clinical, hands-on experience they’d get at the graduate level to diagnose and treat children.

When the students get an emergency permit that grants them some responsibilities that usually only come with full licensure, it can be a disincentive to finish the program, critics point out.

“The problem with that is that those folks then are not put in a position where they have to continue their education,” said Janet Deppe, director of state advocacy for the The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. “We don’t necessarily believe that just putting a body in a place is going to make a difference in that child’s educational success and success beyond education.”

Adam Baker, spokesman for the education department, said education officials are discussing what to do about the permits now so that they can find a way forward and propose a solution during next year’s legislative session.

Higgins didn’t find out the permits were expiring until the spring — after the previous legislative session had already ended. With the emergency permits off the table for this year, Higgins has lost one employee. That leaves her with three full-time speech-language pathologists for the coming year in a co-op that serves about 1,170 students — 455 of which need speech services. To be fully staffed, she needs seven pathologists.

Each speech-language pathologist is responsible for about 60 students at a time, though it can grow to be closer to 70, she said.

To get by, Higgins is having retirees come in to supervise assistants, evaluate students, work on education plans, and write reports. She’s also using teletherapy — providing speech-language services over the internet — for high-schoolers, who generally need less intensive therapies.

The permit expiration is frustrating, she said, because it’s one more factor working against schools that have been trying to fully staff speech and language programs for years — and especially because for the majority of students, speech therapy can fix their issues. It’s not always the case, Higgins said, but many times, students’ speech or language problems are correctable with therapy, meaning they won’t need services in the future.

It puts the shortage, and the effects of losing the emergency permits, into perspective, she said.

“While there may not be many people impacted by this particular change … it just magnifies this whole shortage issue that we have with speech-language pathologists,” Higgins said. “We just lost a person that serves 60 kids.”