Future of Schools

With another Butler lab school in the works, the north side is unofficially a magnet magnet

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Preschool students at School 55, which could become the second Butler lab school in Indianapolis.

Indianapolis Public Schools may open a new magnet school on the north side, a move that would further cluster sought-after programs in one of the district’s most affluent areas.

The school board heard a proposal Tuesday to convert School 55, also called Eliza Blaker, to the second lab school in collaboration with Butler University. If the board approves the plan, current students would have the choice to remain at the school, but new children would be admitted by lottery.

It would mean that in the area north of 46th Street along the College Avenue corridor — which encompasses some of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods as well as some lower income neighborhoods — every elementary school would be a magnet.

The district is making progress in a campaign to increase diversity in the most sought-after programs. But the decision to place another magnet school on the north side is likely to draw criticism from parents who would like to see them in other areas.

These schools are “concentrated,” said board member Kelly Bentley, who represents the area around School 55. “We are 80 square miles, and yet, those programs are all isolated in a less than 10 square mile area of our district.”

“We’ve got a big district out there, and there are areas that I think could really benefit from some of these programs,” she added.

Indianapolis Public Schools elementary campuses

If the IPS administration converts School 55 to magnet school, it will increase the cluster of magnet programs on north side of the district. Most elementary schools on the east, south and west sides of the district are traditional neighborhood schools. (The map shows traditional, magnet and innovation conversion schools. It does not include other schools in the innovation network.)


The district currently operates School 60, which is about 3 miles south of School 55, as a lab school in collaboration with Butler. The school is open to students from across the district, but families who live nearby and children with parents who work at Butler have an advantage in the magnet lottery. As a lab school, it’s also a place where Butler education students gain on-the-ground experience through classes and as teaching assistants.

That’s one reason why the proposal calls for locating the second magnet campus on the north side: There are other locations that might be a good fit, but students from Butler need to be able to get to and from the campus for classes, said school leader Ron Smith. “A Butler lab school does need to be near enough … to make it a viable option for coursework.”

The school uses the Reggio Emilia educational philosophy. Like Montessori schools, Reggio emphasizes hands on learning and allowing students to choose what they study. School 60 has some multigrade classrooms and some that are single grades as part of the experimental approach of a lab program, which aims to test out educational ideas. It is one of the most popular schools in the district and last year, 266 applicants were placed on the waitlist.

When the Butler lab program began at School 60 about five years ago, most of the prior students were forced to leave, and the school restarted by building up from the early grades.

The new magnet dramatically altered the makeup of the school. Before the lab program began, School 60 educated a heavily black, low-income population. Nearly 92 percent of students were black, and more than 85 percent were poor enough to receive subsidized lunch. Since becoming a magnet, the school’s enrollment has transformed: Last year, 62 percent of students were white and 28 percent were eligible for subsidized meals.

But Smith said the picture is beginning to look different this year. With the help of new district admissions policies aimed at diversifying magnet schools and outreach from current parents, who have hosted events and gone door-to-door to recruit families, Smith said, the school has enrolled substantially more children of color.

If the board approves the proposal, School 55 would likely see a less dramatic shift in demographics because all of the current students would be able to remain. The campus is only about half full, so it could absorb some new students without displacing any of the current children.

The new campus could help diversify the program, said Smith: “It’s our intention that every family currently at School 55 would choose to remain as a part of the lab school program.”

Update: This story has been updated to clarify that the only innovation schools that appear on the map are conversion schools.

'rigorous and realistic'

Some struggling New York City schools can lose ground and still hit performance targets

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio at Brooklyn Generation School — part of the Renewal program

Despite Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious promise to transform struggling schools, some of New York City’s bottom-ranked schools can backslide this year and still hit new goals that the city has set for them.

For the first time, the city has told schools in its $582 million “Renewal” program to aim for test scores, graduation rates, or attendance rates that fall within a certain range, rather than hit a specific target. But some ranges include goals that are below the schools’ current levels.

For instance, Bronx Collegiate Academy posted a 67 percent graduation rate last year. This year, its city-issued goal is to land between 63.6 and 81.9 percent — meaning its graduation rate can go down and still fall within its target range.

At the Bronx’s J.H.S. 123, the goal is for students to earn an average score on the state English tests of between 2.3 and 2.45 — despite already achieving a 2.42 average last year. (Students must earn a 3 or higher on the 4-point scale to be considered proficient.)

The latest round of goals continues a pattern of modest targets for schools in de Blasio’s signature school-turnaround program, even as the city loads them with extra social services, extended hours, and bigger budgets. Some experts say the goals are appropriate for schools that started so far behind, and note that school turnaround can take years. But others say the goals set a low bar, and question whether they are designed to make it easier for the de Blasio administration to claim its pricey program was a success.

What’s more, the new goal ranges have created some confusion among school leaders about what they are expected to achieve and what will happen if they don’t.

“If [the goals] really are supposed to be guiding stars and shaping what schools are doing on a day-to-day basis,” said Teachers College professor Aaron Pallas, “fuzzy ranges with unclear accountability consequences is not the way to do it.”

The goals are one of the factors officials consider when deciding whether schools in the Renewal program have made sufficient progress or should instead be closed or merged with other schools.

But if they are meant to provide low-performing schools with clear targets and a sense of urgency, the new ranges have instead created some confusion. The city offered online trainings on the goals, but some school leaders remain unsure of what’s expected of them.

“What we’ve been told is: ‘You need to reach for the upper range of your benchmark,’ said an administrator at a Brooklyn Renewal school, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It’s not a fixed number, so what’s good enough and what isn’t?”

Eric Ashton, the education department’s executive director for accountability, acknowledged that the new goal ranges had left some people confused.

Still, he defended them as “rigorous and realistic,” and said schools are expected to aim for the upper end of the range. The ranges are meant to encourage schools to focus on making progress rather than fixating on a single number, he added

“If you just have one number as a target then it’s all or nothing,” Ashton said. “We don’t want it to be all or nothing.”

The tweaks partially reflect the political dilemma the education department faces when assigning goals to the city’s lowest-performing schools: Overly modest goals could invite criticism that such small gains do not justify the program’s hefty price tag, while overly ambitious goals could set the program up for failure.

Yet despite their caution, officials have fallen into both traps.

Early goals they set for Renewal schools required such slight improvements that a top state official called them “ridiculous.” Still, many schools have failed to meet those goals, providing ammunition to some critics who say the program has been a costly disappointment.

Some schools have made strides, including a group of 21 “Rise” schools that officials say have made enough progress to begin transitioning out of the Renewal program. Pallas, the Teachers College professor, said that officials may have assigned achievable goals to the program’s remaining schools as a way to ease even more out — raising questions about the city’s long-term plans for the program.

“Setting low targets could allow the department to shift more of the schools to the Rise category, which is the declaring-victory category,” he said. “I think we’re all still wondering what the future of this program is going to be.”

hurdle cleared

Indiana’s federally required education plan wins approval

PHOTO: Courtesy of the Indiana Department of Education
State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick greets elementary school students in Decatur Township.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has signed off on Indiana’s federally required education plan, ushering in another era of changes — although not exactly major ones — to the state’s public school system.

The U.S Department of Education announced the plan’s approval on Friday. Like other states, Indiana went through an extensive process to craft a blueprint to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which was signed into law in 2015.

“Today is a great day for Indiana,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement. “Our ESSA plan reflects the input and perspective of many stakeholders in communities across our state. From the beginning, we set out to build a plan that responded to the needs of Hoosier students. From our clear accountability system to our innovative, locally-driven approach to school improvement, our ESSA plan was designed to support student success.”

The federal government highlighted two aspects of Indiana’s plan. One is a pledge to close achievement gaps separating certain groups of students, such as racial and ethnic groups, from their peers by 50 percent by 2023.

Another is a staple of other states’ plans, as well: adding new ways for measuring how ready students are for attending college or starting their careers. Indiana education officials and lawmakers have made this a priority over the past several years, culminating in a new set of graduation requirements the Indiana State Board of Education approved late last year.

Under Indiana’s plan, high schoolers’ readiness will be measured not just by tests but also by performance in advanced courses and earning dual credits or industry certifications. Elementary school students will be measured in part by student attendance and growth in student attendance over time. Test scores and test score improvement still play a major role in how all schools are rated using state A-F letter grades.

In all, 35 states’ ESSA plans have won federal approval.

Advocates hope the law will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

Indiana officials struggled to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, such as graduation requirements and diplomas.

Under the state’s ESSA plan, A-F grades would include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and, in the case of chronic absenteeism, attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

Because the Indiana State Board of Education passed its own draft A-F rules earlier this month — rules that deviate from the state ESSA plan — it’s possible Hoosier schools could get two sets of letter grades going forward, muddying the initial intent of the simple A-F grade concept parents and community members are familiar with.

The state board’s A-F changes include other measures, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan. The state board plan also gets rid of the test score improvement measure for high-schoolers.

While that A-F proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

The state can still make changes to its ESSA plan, and the state board’s A-F draft is also expected to see revisions after public comment. But the fact that they conflict now could create difficulties moving forward, and it has led to tension during state board meetings. Already, the state expected schools would see two years of A-F grades in 2018. If both plans move forward as is, that could continue beyond next year.

Read: Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Find more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.