Indiana

Indianapolis Public Schools adds schools to ‘innovation’ program, reshaping district

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 69 is now managed by Kindezi Academy.

The Indianapolis Public Schools took another step today in its dramatic shift away from the traditional school district model.

While IPS has historically run all of its schools from its central office downtown, the IPS School Board is increasingly transferring schools to private managers who operate independently from the district. Today, the board added two more schools to its “innovation school” roster, allowing them to operate independently, like charter schools, while still remaining under the authority of IPS.

School 44, a diverse Westside school, will become Global Prep Academy, converting the school to a dual language Spanish immersion model. School 69, a long-struggling school Northeast of downtown, will be restarted as Kindezi Academy, a school founded by the leaders of the Enlace Academy charter school where students will spend time during each class working independently on computers, in addition to lectures and small group work with teachers.

Read: Two struggling IPS schools could be ‘restarted’ next year.

By next fall, more than 10 percent of Indianapolis Public Schools students are projected to attend schools that run independently with charter-like flexibility.

It’s a big change for the state’s largest school district. All IPS students were in traditional, district-managed schools until this year when the district converted a failing school to an “innovation” school, launched a new elementary school with a charter partner and pulled four existing schools into its innovation network.

The changes are controversial, in part because when schools convert, their teachers and staff are no longer represented by the teachers union. They are hired and paid by the charter network or non-profit that runs the school. The outside groups then control money and resources that used to flow to traditional district schools.

“They are taking away from the traditional public schools,” said Larry Yarrell, a former IPS principal and chair of the NAACP education committee. “You’re taking money away from the traditional schools. You’re taking resources away from the traditional schools. You’re taking quality teachers and educators and you’re placing them in these innovative schools.”

But supporters say the changes will lead to better schools for kids.

“If we allow our school leaders and our school teams, who know those kids best to make decisions that will best serve those kids and families, we will see improved outcomes,” said Aleesia Johnson, the district innovation officer.

The district-charter partnerships are part of a national trend in urban districts, but the legal framework and political climate in Indianapolis has accelerated the growth of these kinds of schools in the city, said Jordan Posamentier, deputy policy director for the Center for Reinventing Public Education, which supports the approach.

“They are moving ahead swiftly,” Posamentier said. “They’re doing it faster than you see other cities doing it.”

Next year, enrollment in IPS innovation schools will more than double, from about 1,389 to 3,076 students, according to district projections. The main reason for that jump is a plan to convert four existing district schools to innovation status and allow outside organizations to takeover management.

In addition to the vote on School 44 and School 69, the board is poised to approve applications from leaders of two IPS schools who are aiming to convert to innovation status to gain greater freedom over staffing and instruction. Those schools are Cold Spring, an environmental science magnet, and School 93, which began using the homegrown turnaround model Project Restore last year. If their plans are approved, they will be the first schools to voluntarily pursue innovation.

It’s all part of a larger district shift toward a “portfolio” strategy, where the central office provides services, from transportation to special education teachers, but does not direct choices like curriculum, staffing or teacher training. In the long term, IPS aims to transform all of its schools either to innovation status or to autonomy schools, which offer school leaders more flexibility without the full independence of innovation. Next year, the district will pilot its first six autonomous schools.

Innovation schools, which were authorized by lawmakers in 2014, are considered part of the district under state law. IPS is held accountable if the schools receive poor grades on annual state report cards and gets credit for strong student test scores. The school board also decides on contracts with outside management organizations.

But the district is giving up oversight over the day-to-day operations at schools, said board member Gayle Cosby. If something goes wrong at a school, parents can appeal to the IPS board, she said. But it has little say in how innovation schools respond.

“The only thing the IPS board has any power to do is to cancel the contract,” Cosby said. “I just don’t see that happening.”

Cosby is not opposed to all innovation plans, and she voted to convert schools 44 and 69.

One reason the district has expanded the innovation network is to stabilize long-shrinking enrollment. This year, IPS added three charter schools to the network that were previously renting space in district schools: Enlace Academy, KIPP Indy College Prep Middle School and KIPP Indy Unite Elementary School. The students at those schools are now part of district enrollment.

Joining the innovation network is beneficial for charter schools in part because they get access to additional funding from property taxes that pays for services such as transportation. If the schools choose to get those services from IPS, that helps the district financially.

“We believe that’s cost neutral, and we’re bringing innovative programs to schools that have historically been struggling,” said Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

Most of the funding the state provides for students at innovation schools simply flows through the district. Based on their contracts with the district, the schools receive the full per-student allocation for the kids they serve — about $6,731 this year.

That’s more than traditional district-managed schools, which lose some of their funding to central office expenses. For example, at the relatively well-funded School 84 on the Northside, the district spends about $5,955 per student, according to a budget estimate.

As districts transition to a portfolio strategy, central offices typically provide fewer services and shrink in size and cost, Posamentier said. Instead of making education decisions, they shift to more of a broker of services that schools can choose to purchase, he said.

“Rethinking what the central office does is critical here,” he said. “Money is distributed very differently.”

IPS has already begun reducing the size of its central office. Since July 2013 when Ferebee took over, the district cut central office staff by 25 positions, which added up to a savings of $2.2 million from July 2013 through June 2015, according to the district.

Regardless of its financial impact, Johnson said increasing enrollment by attracting students to the district is one aim of innovation schools.

“It sends a positive message to families and to the community that people are interested in, invested in and want to be a part of IPS,” she said. “We’re building a really powerful narrative where people are saying, ‘I know there are great options and I’m excited to be part of the district.’ ”

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.