Are Children Learning

Two neighborhood schools cracked Indianapolis Public Schools' top 10 on ISTEP in 2015

PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson / The Star
Principal Joyce Akridge tries to squeeze in learning at every moment, like at lunchtime, at IPS School 79.

Magnet schools continued to dominate among the top 10 in Indianapolis Public Schools when it came to passing the ISTEP test in 2015, but there were a couple of notable changes to the ranking from the prior year.

Even after nearly all schools in the state saw their passing rates fall because of a tougher exam, the same two schools topped the list for IPS: Sidener Gifted Academy and School 84, a Center for Inquiry School, were ranked No. 1 and No. 2.

The biggest movers included School 2 on New Jersey Street, also a CFI school, which moved up to third best in the district from seventh the year before. School 87, a Montessori-themed magnet school, moved up from ninth to fifth.

Two new schools appeared in the IPS top 10, breaking the magnet school stranglehold on top test scores.

School 79, a neighborhood school on the city’s Northwest side that has been celebrated for success with students learning English as a new language, ranked No. 7. And School 57, a neighborhood school on the East side of Indianapolis, ranked No. 10.

The two schools that dropped out of the top 10 were School 56, a Montessori magnet school on the North side, and Cold Springs School, an environmental magnet school on the Northwest side.

Over the next few weeks, Chalkbeat will publish short profiles of the top scoring, and lowest scoring, Marion County schools on ISTEP for three types of schools — Indianapolis Public Schools, township schools and charter schools.

Here’s a look at the top 10 schools for IPS:

Sidener Gifted Academy

A much tougher state test did not knock Merle Sidener Gifted Academy from its perch as the top scoring school in the state on ISTEP. Its passing rate barely dropped in a year when other schools saw their scores plummet. In 2015, 99.5 percent passed, down from 100 percent the prior year.

IPS's Sidener Gifted Academy is the state's highest scoring elementary school on ISTEP.
IPS’s Sidener Gifted Academy is the state’s highest scoring elementary school on ISTEP.

Sidener is an IPS-run magnet school with 381 students who have been identified as gifted. Its students are less poor than most IPS schools and less diverse. About 35 percent of students comes from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.  To qualify, a family of four cannot earn more than $44,863 annually. The district average is 71 percent qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch.

Just 7 percent of Sidener students needed special education services, and only 1 percent were English language learners in 2014-15, the last year for which data was available. The district averages in those areas that year were 18 percent and 16 percent, respectively.

About 48 percent of the school’s students are white, while 26 percent are black and 12 percent are Hispanic. The district averages are 21 percent white, 49 percent black and 25 percent Hispanic.

School 84

School 84, on East 57th Street, is the highest scoring of three Center For Inquiry schools, a network of magnet schools that aim to apply the scientific inquiry method to other areas of study. A perennial top-scoring IPS school, School 84 is also easily the wealthiest and least diverse school in IPS.

School 84 is a Center for Inquiry magnet school on the North side.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
School 84 is a Center for Inquiry magnet school on the North side.

Only 5 percent of the school’s students come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. The enrollment is 83 percent white, 5 percent black and 3 percent Hispanic.

That low poverty profile is more comparable to wealthy suburban schools than most IPS schools, which are generally among this highest poverty schools in Indiana.

On the new ISTEP, far fewer School 84 students passed ISTEP: About 80 percent. That’s down 16 percentage points from 2014, which is slightly better than the statewide drop of 19 percentage points that accompanied the new exam.

Only 13 percent are in special education and 1 percent were English language learners in 2014-15, the last year for which data was available.

School 2

School 2, located downtown on North New Jersey Street, is also a Center for Inquiry magnet school. The school was recently identified as one of six the district plans to reward with additional autonomy.

IPS School 2 is one of three Centers for Inquiry magnet schools.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
IPS School 2 is one of three Centers for Inquiry magnet schools.

About 67 percent of the 375 students in grades K to 8 who took ISTEP passed. That’s down 13 percentage points from 2014, which is a smaller drop than the overall state average. That helped the school jump up to third best in IPS for percent passed, up from seventh best in 2014.

About 69 percent of students at School 2 are white, 11 percent black and 9 percent Hispanic. About 24 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

About  5 percent are English language learners and 16 percent were in special education in 2014-15, the last year for which data was available.

School 74

The district’s Spanish language immersion magnet school remained one of its best scoring schools on ISTEP in 2015. Its success was recently cited when the district decided to approve a second Spanish immersion school.

School 74 is a Spanish immersion magnet school.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
School 74 is a Spanish immersion magnet school.

Also known as Theodore Potter Elementary School, School 74 serves 276 students in grades K to 6 on the city’s East side and has among the largest share of Hispanic students of any IPS school at 68 percent. About 20 percent of students are black and 8 percent are white.

In 2015, about 56 percent of the school’s students passed ISTEP, above the state average but down 33 percentage points from the prior year, a bigger drop than most schools.

The school’s poverty rate is typical of IPS schools: about 72 percent of students come from families that qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

About 20 percent of the school’s students were in special education and 44 percent were English language learners in 2014-15, the last year for which data was available.

School 87

Since School 87 was converted into the district’s third Montessori school four years ago, it has become a consistent high performer on ISTEP.

School 87 is a a Montessori magnet school serving the West side of Indianapolis.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
School 87 is a a Montessori magnet school serving the West side of Indianapolis.

In 2015, the school saw 52 percent of its students pass the exam. Its passing rate, and the 19 percentage point drop it saw from 2014, were both right on the state averages. It’s 2015 scores were good enough to rank the school fifth best in IPS, up from ninth in 2014.

Also called George Washington Carver Elementary School, it serves grades K to 8 and is located Northwest of downtown.

School 87 is a magnet school, but it draws heavily from the surrounding neighborhood and looks more like a typical IPS neighborhood sthan most magnet schools. About 65 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The school is about 47 percent Hispanic, 33 percent black and 15 percent white.

About 28 percent of its students were English language learners, and 13 percent were in special education in 2014-15, the last year for which data was available.

School 91

Another Montessori magnet school, this one located on the North side, School 91 is also known as Rousseau McClellan Elementary School.

School 91 is a Montessori school on the North side.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
School 91 is a Montessori school on the North side.

In 2015, about 52 percent of the students who took the exam from among roughly 475 students enrolled in grades K to 8 passed the test. That was down about 31 percentage points from the prior year, and the school’s ranking slipped to sixth in the district from fourth the prior year.

The school is a consistent high scorer, but School 91 has considerably fewer students from high poverty families and is less diverse than most in IPS.

About 44 percent of the school’s students come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The school is 43 percent white, 34 percent black and 14 percent Hispanic.

About 23 percent of students were in special education and 10 percent were English language learners in 2014-15, the last year for which data was available.

School 90

School 90 continued its remarkable run as a high-scoring IPS school on ISTEP in 2015. Although just 42 percent of its students passed the exam — below the state average and down 40 percentage points from the prior year — it still ranked seventh best in the district.

Kindergarteners use computers at IPS School 90.
PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Kindergarteners use computers at IPS School 90.

School 90, also known as Ernie Pyle Elementary School, has a magnet theme: Paideia, a curriculum inspired by the Socratic method and ancient Greek ideas on education. But most of its students continue to come from the nearby neighborhood .

In recent years, School 90 was praised by the Indiana Department of Education for its long run of improved scores.

About 390 students are enrolled in what is a high poverty and very diverse school. About 79 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. It is 43 percent black, 42 percent Hispanic and 10 percent white.

About 27 percent were English language learners, 18 percent were in special education in 2014-15, the last year for which data was available.

School 79

The success story of School 79, one of the district’s best known, continued in 2015.

Immigrant students just arrived in the U.S. work on learning English words.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Immigrant students just arrived in the U.S. work on learning English words.

About 48 percent of students passed ISTEP, down 19 points from the prior year but good enough to vault School 79 into the district’s top 10.

Also known as Carl Wilde Elementary School, the Northwest side neighborhood school was struggling with low scores in 2006 when its scores began rising. At the same time, changes in the neighborhood sent the number of English languages learners in the school soaring to more than half of its 677 students.

Under Principal Joyce Akridge, the school became a district model for serving immigrant students.

About 88 percent of students at the school come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The school is very diverse: 56 percent Hispanic, 32 percent black and 6 percent white.

About 10 percent were in special education and 56 percent were English language learners in 2014-15, the last year for which data was available.

School 60

Perhaps no IPS school has seen a more dramatic overhaul of its student body over the past five years than School 60, also called William Bell Elementary School.

A preschooler in the Reggio program at IPS School 60.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
A preschooler in the Reggio program at IPS School 60.

As the school has become dramatically less poor and seen other demographic changes under a partnership with Butler University, its test scores have climbed.

About 46 percent of students passed ISTEP in 2015, down about 23 percentage points but enough to earn the school a top 10 ranking in IPS.

Of the 432 students at the school, 60 percent are white, 25 percent are black and 7 percent are Hispanic. Every year it has moved further away from its 2012 percentages, which were 10 percent white, 82 percent black and 3 percent Hispanic.

It’s a similar story when it comes to the percentage of students who are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, which fell to 28 percent in 2015. In 2012, 85 percent qualified for free or reduced price lunch.

About 11 percent of students were in special education and 3 percent were English language learners in 2014-15, the last year for which data was available.

School 57

Also known as George W. Julian Elementary School, School 57 broke into the district’s top 10 when it comes to passing ISTEP in 2015 with 46 percent of students passing the test.

School 57 cracked the IPS top 10 this year for percent passing ISTEP.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
School 57 cracked the IPS top 10 this year for percent passing ISTEP.

That’s down 21 percentage points from the prior year.

School 57 is a neighborhood school in Irvington on the city’s East side. The school’s grade has been on an upswing, rising from a B in 2013 and a string of C grades before that.

A small school with just 217 students, School 57 is typical of most IPS neighborhood schools with 74 percent of students coming from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

The school is 42 percent Hispanic, 33 percent white and 20 percent black.

About 13 percent of students were in special education and 38 percent were English language learners in 2014-15, the last year for which data was available.

ethnic studies

50 years in, why the fight for Mexican-American studies in schools is still in its early stages

PHOTO: Annie Wells/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Sonia Salazar, a college student, joins over 1,000 people to commemorate the historic East LA student walkouts of 1968 earlier this year. Mexican-American Studies courses are gaining traction now in K-12 schools after years of growth in higher education, a panel concluded during a recent civil rights conference in San Antonio.

Thirteen-year-old Alejandra Del Bosque knows not everyone gets to take a class like hers.

In it, she’s learned about Mexican-American students who staged walkouts in the late 1960s and early 1970s to protest the lack of resources available to their schools. She’s also learned how her state’s school funding system has still been deemed inadequate in recent court rulings.

“There was so much to learn about my heritage that I didn’t know,” Del Bosque said. “But from what I understand, it’s a unique class that’s not everywhere. For me, as a Mexican-American, it’s exciting.”

Her experience remains relatively rare. Fifty years after televised civil rights hearings galvanized the Chicano movement, academics and activists agree that the push for Mexican-American studies still lacks basic resources. And though interest is increasing, in part thanks to President Trump, growth has been slow — especially in K-12 schools, since college-level programs have traditionally gotten more attention.

“That was a big mistake we made,” Juan Tejeda, a professor at Palo Alto College, said last week. “There should have always been a focus on developing culturally relevant curriculum from pre-K through 12.”

He spoke at an event commemorating the 1968 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Hearings on Mexican-Americans in the Southwest, where he and others took stock of the movement that emerged in the decades since to better engage Latino students. (Of the 58 million Latinos in the U.S., nearly two-thirds are of Mexican descent, and most were born in the U.S.)

That’s long been a challenge for schools, especially as most educators are white. Some research has suggested that when students see themselves reflected in their curriculum, test scores and graduation rates rise. Another study found that taking an ethnic studies course helped reduce dropout rates.

Not many students have access to those courses, though. There’s no solid national data on how many school districts have some form of Mexican-American studies in their schools. California is understood to have taken the lead, while Tejeda estimated that only about 38 of more than 1,000 Texas districts have started a program.

That’s partly due to ongoing political opposition.

Arizona’s ban on teaching Mexican-American studies back in 2010 was a wake-up call for the movement, Tejeda said. (Last year, a federal court ruled that the state’s move was “racist and unconstitutional,” but Tucson hasn’t reinstated its program yet.)

Over the last decade, Mexican-American professors built a network that evolved into a group called Somos MAS. The group began a push for a standard high school elective course in Texas.

After four years of lobbying, the Texas board of education approved the course last year. Battles have also turned toward materials: When the book to be used in schools for Mexican-American studies was released in 2016, it was described by many Chicano scholars as racist for its portrayal of Mexican-Americans as lazy and un-American. That book was later thrown out, as was another the board didn’t like in 2017. Then came a debate over the course’s name, which just ended in September.

Those fights were about more than details – they were about granting the topic legitimacy, and about making it easy for teachers to introduce the material, said Lilliana Patricia Saldaña, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“There were already some teachers here or there taking upon themselves to incorporate the studies into the schools, but it was sporadic, and accurate materials weren’t always easy to find,” Saldaña said. “Approving a course that can be aligned with state standards is ideal and would allow for the programs to be more streamlined.”

Another key challenge: in many cases, limited student interest. At the college level, Our Lady of The Lake University — the host of the hearings in 1968 and the conference last week — considered nixing its Mexican-American studies program in 2012 because of the small number of participating students. It was later saved.

“That also reminded us that if we don’t fight to keep these programs, they will be lost,” Tejeda said. “But what we needed to do was focus on getting students interested while they are younger.”

Saldaña says student interest has grown more recently thanks to political rhetoric around immigration, specifically from President Donald Trump. Trump has disparaged Mexican immigrants, questioned the impartiality of a Mexican-American judge, and made wanting to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border the center of many political speeches.

“Between what we are seeing with the current administration in office, and the battle here on the ground over the course we have been fighting for, students are getting a real-time lesson,” Saldaña said.

Somos MAS now hosts an annual summit for K-12 educators to come learn about Mexican-American Studies and how to integrate lessons into their classrooms. The University of Texas at San Antonio also offers a summer training institute that has drawn nearly 100 teachers at its most recent gathering.

It’s not nearly enough, the panelists said. “What needs to happen next is a focus on building infrastructure: such as more teacher training opportunities on how to incorporate MAS in their classrooms; a teacher certificate in Mexican-American Studies, and more advanced degrees in ethnic studies so students see a future in this field of work,” Saldaña said.

Students from KIPP Camino Academy. (Photo by Francisco Vara-Orta)

One school that has moved ahead with Mexican-American studies course is KIPP Camino Academy in San Antonio. After a pilot program two years ago, the class is now an elective for seventh- and eighth-graders.

On Friday, 20 of the KIPP students watched the discussion on the 50-year fight to get Mexican-American studies in their schools with their instructor, JoAnn Trujillo.

“Some of these kids have driven by the university here and never have gotten to step foot on its grounds,” Trujillo said. “So us being here — in part because of the program, and seeing how Mexican-American studies is something special that had to be fought for many years — will plant seeds about going to college and feeling more self-worth.”

Data dive

Hardly any kids passed ISTEP at one of Indiana’s largest schools. Here’s why it’s not getting an F

Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy is one of the state’s largest and fastest-growing schools. But because too few of its students took the state exams — and those who did weren’t enrolled long enough — there is no clear picture of how well the school is educating them.

The virtual charter school, which opened in 2017, more than doubled in size to 6,232 students since last fall, in part because state data shows more than 1,700 students transferred from its troubled sister school, Indiana Virtual School.

But despite Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy’s rapid growth, the school is bypassing a key accountability measure that Indiana thinks is important for transparency: A-F grades, which were approved by the Indiana State Board of Education on Wednesday.

Read: As students signed up, online school hired barely any teachers — but founder’s company charged it millions

Education department officials said the school did not get a grade, despite its high enrollment last year, because it did not test enough students who had been enrolled long enough to have one calculated. State grades are based primarily on student test scores, and virtual schools are known to struggle to get their remote students to sit for exams.

State test participation rate data shows IVPA tested about 19 percent of its 346 10th-graders in 2018 — about 65 students. To use test scores to calculate a school grade, the state requires that at least 40 test-takers must have attended the school for at least 162 days, a majority of the school year. But state officials said that while the school enrolled 48 10th-graders who met the attendance threshold during the testing period, only three of those students took the exams.

Federal requirements say schools must test at least 95 percent of students, and school grades can be affected if a school falls below that percentage. But there is currently no consequence for a school that doesn’t test enough students to get a letter grade.

The students who were tested at IVPA posted poor results: 5.7 percent passed both state English and math exams.

Leaders from Indiana Virtual School and IVPA did not respond to requests for comment on A-F grades or testing participation, but the schools’ superintendent Percy Clark said in an emailed statement that students from varying education backgrounds select IVPA, and that the school was designed to serve students who are far behind their peers academically.

“Our students CHOOSE to come to Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy from many different backgrounds, and we accept everyone regardless of where they are on their academic journey,” Clark said.

Virtual charter school critics say IVPA’s lack of a letter grade is an example of how the schools are able to avoid scrutiny.

“It’s absolutely indefensible,” said Brandon Brown, CEO of The Mind Trust, an organization that advocates for charter schools but has been a vocal critic of virtual charter schools. “When it comes to charter schools, the grand bargain is that the charter school gets increased autonomy, and in exchange, there is greater accountability. It’s hard to see where the accountability is for virtual schools right now.”

In contrast to IVPA, other large virtual schools in the state tested at least 90 percent of their students, and nearly every traditional school in Indiana met the federal threshold for testing students.

Indiana Virtual School, the subject of a Chalkbeat investigation that revealed questionable educational and spending practices, tested about two-thirds of its students in 2018. Students at the school, which received its third F grade from the state this week, did marginally better than at IVPA, but performed far below state averages: 18.6 percent of elementary and middle school students passed both tests, and 4.4 percent of high-schoolers did. State law says schools are up for state board of education intervention when they reach four consecutive F grades.

Brown, who used to work in the Indianapolis mayor’s office overseeing charter schools, said this is where charter school authorizers — the entities charged with monitoring the schools’ operations, finances, and academics — need to be involved. Daleville Public Schools, a small rural district near Muncie, oversees IVS and IVPA. State education leaders have previously questioned whether school districts have the capacity and expertise to oversee statewide charter schools. District leaders did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“If I was still an authorizer and one of our schools had less than a 20 percent rate of their students taking the ISTEP, we would be mortified, and we would be holding that school accountable with very clear measures,” Brown said. “In light of the tens of millions of dollars used to fund this school, there has to be at least a basic level of accountability, and right now, it’s hard to account for how that money is being spent because we just don’t know.”

With such high enrollment numbers, Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy could together bring in upward of $35 million from the state for this school year, according to funding estimates from the Legislative Services Agency.

At the state’s other full-time virtual charter schools — including those billed as alternative schools like IVPA — state grades are rising as enrollment grows. Indiana Connections Academy is up to a D this year from an F, and Insight School of Indiana is up to a C from an F. For grades under Indiana’s federal plan, the schools received an F and D, respectively.

Indiana Connections Career Academy enrolled about 70 students last year and received no grade, but education department officials say that is because it had too few students to calculate one, despite testing more than 95 percent of them. It’s not uncommon for small schools — especially high schools that have just one tested grade — to not get a grade. This year, the school’s enrollment is up to about 300 students.

Virtual charter school accountability has become a hot issue in Indiana. Earlier this year, the state board of education convened a committee to study virtual charter schools, which have grown rapidly here in recent years. And last month, the committee released a series of recommendations, including slowing growth of new virtual charter schools to 15 percent per year — after a school hits 250 students — for their first four years.

Getting students who are located remotely to sit for state exams is a challenge for virtual schools. Melissa Brown, head of Indiana Connections Academy, said dogged work contacting and keeping up with students has made some of the difference for her school, both in students taking tests and improving on them.

“Our teachers are relentless in trying to engage with kids,” she said. “We are by no means where we want to be. We still have a lot of work to do. But 8-point growth is something that we’re celebrating today.”

Melissa Brown said the school is also offering students who come in behind grade level more ways to make up their classes and incentives for them to stay at the school. For example, she said the school has a lot of over-age eighth-graders who should be in high school. Instead of just drilling their eighth-grade classes, they also have a chance to try out high school-level work — a taste of what’s to come, Brown said. So far, it’s working.

“We’re just trying to be really creative about helping kids progress,” she said.

At Insight, school director Elizabeth Lamey said she’s excited by how the high school has been able to help students show more growth on state tests. Currently, the school, which opened in 2016, is getting grades calculated only on how much students improve on state tests from one year to the next, not their proficiency or other measures such as graduation rate.

Lamey said improving the school’s curriculum and focusing on remediation and teacher training contributed to their progress and sets them up to continue that work.

“We hope to see even more growth this year,” Lamey said. “We know that it’s a rougher road, the older students get, to remediate. It takes more time, and we are slow and steady — we keep moving forward.”

Accountability issues will continue to be important for virtual charter schools as their enrollments grow.

Indiana’s five full-time virtual charter schools enroll about 13,000 students. Although it appears that total virtual charter school enrollment in Indiana has declined since 2017-18, those figures include the closing of low-performing Hoosier Virtual Academy. The school enrolled 1,170 students when it closed in June, which was far lower than the 3,342 it was recorded as having at the beginning of that school year.

Comparing enrollment totals between fall of 2017 and fall of 2018, every virtual charter school currently open in the state saw enrollment rise, with the exception of Indiana Virtual School. Indiana Connections Academy and its sister school, Indiana Connections Career Academy, gained nearly 400 students between them. Insight is also up 45 students.

Virtual charter schools tend to have volatile enrollment patterns in part because of how easily students can enroll and withdraw — their families don’t have to move, and they can live anywhere in the state. Students moving between schools is not unique to virtual schools, but those schools do tend to see higher instances of mobility than traditional schools.

That means it can be hard to determine just how much virtual school enrollment has changed from one year to the next — enrollment numbers reported in the fall might fluctuate wildly through the rest of year.