Who Is In Charge

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.’ ”

Civil action

Detroit school board to protesters: Please remain civil. Protesters to school board: You’re naive

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore speaks with her supporters from the stage at Mumford High School. Her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to the meeting's abrupt ending.

A day after the Detroit school board abruptly ended a meeting that was disrupted by protesters, the meeting is being rescheduled, while the board president is making an appeal for civility.

“The board is extremely disappointed that the regularly scheduled meeting tonight was adjourned early due to extreme disruptive behavior from several audience members,” school board president Iris Taylor wrote in a statement issued late Tuesday, several hours after the meeting’s chaotic end.

“It is our hope moving forward that the community will remain civil and respectful of the elected Board and the process to conduct public meetings. We must be allowed to conduct the business the community elected us to do.”

The drama Tuesday night came from a large group of parents and community members, led by activist Helen Moore, who packed the board meeting to raise concerns about a number of issues.

Moore had sent the school board an email requesting an opportunity to address the meeting Tuesday on issues including her strong objection to the news that Taylor and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti had attended a meeting with Mayor Mike Duggan and leaders of city charter schools to discuss the possibility of working together.

The mayor, in his state of the city address last week, discussed the meeting, calling it “almost historic,” and said district and charter school leaders had agreed to collaborate on a student transportation effort, and on a school rating system that would assign letter grades to Detroit district and charter schools.

When Taylor told Moore during the meeting that she would not be allowed to give her presentation Tuesday night, saying she had not gotten Moore’s request in time to put it on Tuesday’s agenda, Moore and her supporters angrily shouted at the board and proceeded to heckle and object to statements during the meeting.

The meeting was ultimately ended during a discussion about the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, a school whose classes are being relocated to other district buildings for the rest of the year because of urgent roof repairs and the possibility of mold in the building.

As Moore shouted over Vitti’s discussion about the school, Taylor ordered that the 81-year-old activist be escorted from the Mumford High School auditorium where the meeting was being held. That triggered an angry response from her supporters and ultimately brought the meeting to a close.

The current Detroit school board came into existence a little over a year ago when the state returned city schools to Detroiters after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers.

The board’s swearing-in last January was heralded as a fresh start for a new district — now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District — that had been freed from years of debts encumbered by the old Detroit Public Schools.

Since then, meetings have been interrupted by the occasional heckler or protester, but they’ve largely remained orderly, without a lot of the noise and drama that had been typical of school board meetings in the past.

In her statement Tuesday night, Taylor lamented that the new school board wasn’t able to get to most of the items on its agenda.

“Detroiters have fought long and hard to have a locally elected board to govern our schools,” Taylor wrote. “It would be shameful to have our rights revoked again for impediments. It sets a poor example for the students we all represent, and it will not be tolerated by this Board.”

Wednesday morning, Moore said she plans to continue her vocal advocacy, even if it’s disruptive.

“If that’s the only avenue we have to get our point across, when they don’t allow us to speak, then we must take every avenue,” Moore said. “Time is of the essence with our children. And they spend too much time with distractions, listening to the mayor, listening to the corporations, and not listening to people who have children in the public schools.”

Moore, who is active with an organization called Keep the Vote/No Takeover Coalition and with the National Action Network, said she fought for years for Detroiters to again have a locally elected school board. City residents did not have control of their schools for most of the last two decades.

“We worked like crazy,” Moore said, but she asserts that most school board members are “naive.”

“They don’t know the history,” she said. “They need to be educated and that goes for Dr. Vitti too. We need to educate them and that was a first start.”

The board has scheduled a special meeting for 12:30 p.m. Thursday at its Fisher Building headquarters where it can return to its unfinished business from Tuesday.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore waved to her fellow activisits from the stage at Mumford High School. She returned to the room after her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to a school board meeting’s abrupt ending on March 13, 2018.

parent voice

It’s not enough just to stay open, say Memphis parents of their struggling elementary school

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Sonya Smith, a longtime community organizer in Memphis Frayser, speaks to parents at Hawkins Mill Elementary School on Thursday during a community meeting about state intervention plans.

For six years, Hawkins Mill Elementary School has been on the state’s radar because of students’ low scores on standardized tests — an issue cited again last month when Tennessee officials urged local leaders to close the Memphis school.

Shelby County Schools is passing on that recommendation, but agrees with the state on one thing: Hawkins Mill faces big challenges, including declining enrollment and a mostly impoverished student population.

Now the question is what to do about it. Among the issues is whether Principal Antonio Harvey should stay on for a sixth year, and if the district’s first $300,000 investment in Hawkins Mill went toward the right interventions this school year.

During a Thursday evening meeting, about 50 parents and community members got their first opportunity to ask questions about competing visions for their Frayser school.

What parents like

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Principal Antonio Harvey, front, and parents listen to a Shelby County Schools presentation on the state’s new accountability model.

Parents applauded the district’s stance to keep Hawkins Mill open, in defiance of the state’s recommendation, in order to give their school a fair chance to improve.

Many also spoke in favor of Harvey, describing him as a stabilizing and nurturing force who has ushered in new opportunities in the arts, sports, and other extracurricular activities. The school’s suspension rate also has declined in recent years, except for a slight uptick last year.

“I saw how he took unruly, disrespectful kids and they shake his hand now. He sits down and talks to them. … We’re constantly adding programs,” said PTA member Sharanda Person. “Doing things that way makes me think he cares about the kids.”

Several spoke favorably of their children’s school experience.

“Since she’s been here, I’ve seen exponential growth,” said Tonyas Mays, who transferred her daughter from a state-run school last August. “My child’s potential has been recognized here and she’s testing out of (special education) now.”

What parents didn’t like

A presentation on the low percentages of students on grade level in reading and math drew moans from parents as the data was explained by Antonio Burt, the district’s assistant superintendent for its lowest performing schools.

Notes: 2013-14 science and 2014-15 social studies test scores were not listed in the state report card. Elementary students did not take TNReady in 2015-16. The 2016-17 social studies test did not count toward school accountability measures.

But some questioned the validity of the state’s new test called TNReady, which has been marred by technical glitches in administration and scoring during its first two years.

“The state of Tennessee has made excuses as to why the test wasn’t ready. They get a pass while our children don’t,” said Sonya Smith, a community organizer. “Every time our children meet the test, they tell us that test was no good.”

Another disappointment is declining enrollment. Hawkins Mill had 357 students when Harvey started in the fall of 2013. Last month, enrollment was at 314.

What parents aren’t sure of

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Antonio Burt, assistant superintendent for low-performing schools, speaks to parents.

Burt said some assessments and attendance data show “some positive trends” this school year.

His presentation was void of nitty-gritty detail on progress as outlined under the school improvement plan that went to effect this school year. However, information provided to Chalkbeat on Friday showed that student growth this school year was higher than average in reading and math — a measure key to showing whether students can catch up. Also, the school’s suspension rate so far this school year is about 4 percent of students, compared to almost 13 percent at this time last year.

Several parents asked whether Harvey would remain as principal, worrying that a new leader could set the school back because of the adjustment in getting to know the students and faculty.

Burt responded that leadership is being reviewed, but that no decisions have been made. “To be completely transparent, we have to reassess everything,” he said.

Because Hawkins Mill is a priority school on track for state intervention, the state Department of Education must approve any plan outside of its recommendation to close.

The school is slated to continue under Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them. District leaders are still discussing the amount of new funding and where to invest it.

Burt thinks the district’s plan has a “50/50 chance” of state approval since it’s new.