Future of Schools

Choice is shaping IPS, as thousands of families enroll their children in private, charter and township schools

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

When it comes to attracting students, Indianapolis Public Schools faces fierce competition.

Thousands of parents who live in the district choose to enroll their children in charter, township or private schools. The struggle to attract students is the backdrop for changes sweeping the district, including expanding popular magnet programs and moving to close three high schools.

This August, at a heated meeting about the plan to close high schools, Indiana Rep. Ed DeLaney, a Democrat who represents part of the district, pushed IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee to talk about how many students the district is losing to charter schools.

When Ferebee didn’t offer a tally, DeLaney continued to prod.

“Are you trying to grow the system, the high school system or not?” DeLaney asked.

As it stands, lots of families are opting out of the system. Last year, about 16,172 students who lived within IPS boundaries attended charter schools, traditional public schools in other districts or private schools with state vouchers, according to data Chalkbeat obtained from the Indiana Department of Education. (Students who attend private schools without receiving vouchers are not tracked by the state.)

Source: Data from the Indiana Department of Education. Analysis by Dylan Peers McCoy.

In his exchange with Delaney, Ferebee downplayed the importance of competing for students.

“Our mission, our vision is centered around supporting the students that choose IPS,” he said. “If we attract more students to IPS by enhancing the service that we provide to our current students, great, so be it.”

But afterward, Ferebee told Chalkbeat that the district expects the plan to create high school academies — which allow students to choose career and academic focus areas — could attract new students to IPS.

“We see this as an opportunity for our current students but also an opportunity for students that may not be choosing IPS currently,” he said.

The dispute caused a minor stir on social media among critics of the current IPS administration who said it showed that the district wasn’t trying to compete with charter schools.

Superintendents in school districts across the country are grappling with a big question: Whether to compete with other schools for students or to partner with them in an effort to contain acrimony and serve families. Since Ferebee took the helm in 2013, the district has been using both tactics, pushing plans that are meant to attract families while also working closely with charter operators.

The clearest example of the growing comity between the district and charter sector are innovation schools, which are managed by outside charter operators or nonprofits but still considered part of the district. But those schools are also supposed to appeal to more families, ultimately boosting the district’s enrollment.

Even before the era of school choice policies such as charter schools, IPS enrollment had been dwindling for decades. Flight to the suburbs and integration busing, which sent students across the district and from IPS to neighboring township districts, helped shrink the district from nearly 109,000 students at its peak to about 40,000 in 2001, when the state allowed charter schools.

But in more recent years, the flow of students out of the district has been fueled by policy decisions from state lawmakers that have promoted school choice programs touted by national policymakers like U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. The legislature has given families state dollars to pay private school tuition. It has made it easier to open charter schools and for students to attend public schools in neighboring districts. Last year, IPS enrolled about 30,000 students.

For some families, school choice has been a boon, giving them the chance to choose schools outside the district without paying tuition. But it has also made it more difficult to sustain the traditional public schools. In part, that’s because the state funding schools receive is based on enrollment, and high schools that were built to house thousands of students now educate hundreds.

IPS has a steep climb when it comes to winning back families who have had bad experiences. Donna Jones pulled her children out of Arlington High School because she thought there was too much fighting. “I want to put them in a peaceful environment,” she said.

Jones didn’t rule out sending her children back to IPS, but about two years ago she enrolled them in Lighthouse East, a charter school where they are happy and getting good grades, she said.

Elementary schools like the Butler lab program and the Center for Inquiry magnets, however, have proven that the district can lure some parents back. When the IPS school board was considering plans to create a second Butler lab campus at an emotional meeting last week, parent Eric Rumschlag said that his family chose IPS because of the Butler lab school.

“We were preparing to send our son to private school when we received word that he had gotten into the lab school,” he said. “Our son has thrived under the lab school’s approach.”

student teaching

Building a teacher pipeline: How one Aurora school has become a training ground for aspiring teachers

Paraprofessional Sonia Guzman, a student of a teaching program, works with students at Elkhart Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Students at Aurora’s Elkhart Elementary School are getting assistance from three aspiring teachers helping out in classrooms this year, part of a new partnership aimed at building a bigger and more diverse teacher pipeline.

The teachers-to-be, students at the University of Northern Colorado’s Center for Urban Education, get training and a paid job while they’re in college. Elkhart principal Ron Schumacher gets paraprofessionals with long-term goals and a possibility that they’ll be better prepared to be Aurora teachers.

For Schumacher, it’s part of a plan to not only help his school, but also others in Aurora Public Schools increase teacher retention.

“Because of the nature of our school demographics, it’s a coin flip with a new teacher,” Schumacher said. “If I lose 50 percent of my teachers over time, I’m being highly inefficient. If these ladies know what they’re getting into and I can have them prepared to be a more effective first-year teacher, there’s more likelihood that I’ll keep them in my school in the long term.”

Elkhart has about 590 students enrolled this year. According to state data from last year, more than 95 percent of the students who attend the school qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty. The school, which operates with an International Baccalaureate program, has outperformed the district average on some state tests.

The three paraprofessionals hired by the school this year are part of the teaching program at UNC’s Lowry campus, which has long required students to work in a school for the four years they work on their degree.

Students get paid for their work in schools, allowing them to earn some money while going to college. Students from the program had worked in Aurora schools in the past, but not usually three students at once at the same school, and not as part of a formal partnership.

The teaching program has a high number of students of color and first-generation college students, which Rosanne Fulton, the program director, said is another draw for partnering with schools in the metro area.

Schumacher said every principal and education leader has the responsibility to help expose students to more teachers who can relate to them.

One of this year’s paraprofessionals is Andy Washington, an 18-year-old who attended Elkhart for a few years when she was a child.

“Getting to know the kids on a personal level, I thought I was going to be scared, but they’re cool,” Washington said.

Another paraprofessional, 20-year-old Sonia Guzman, said kids are opening up to them.

“They ask you what college is like,” Guzman said.

Schumacher said there are challenges to hiring the students, including figuring out how to make use of the students during the morning or early afternoon while being able to release them before school is done for the day so they can make it to their college classes.

Schumacher said he and his district director are working to figure out the best ways to work around those problems so they can share lessons learned with other Aurora principals.

“We’re using some people differently and tapping into volunteers a little differently, but if it’s a priority for you, there are ways of accommodating their schedules,” he said.

At Elkhart, full-time interventionists work with students in kindergarten through third grade who need extra help learning to read.

But the school doesn’t have the budget to hire the same professionals to work with older students. The three student paraprofessionals are helping bridge that gap, learning from the interventionists so they can work with fourth and fifth grade students.

Recently, the three started getting groups of students that they pull out during class to give them extra work on reading skills.

One exercise they worked on with fourth grade students recently was helping them identify if words had an “oi” or “oy” spelling based on their sounds. Students sounded out their syllables and used flashcards to group similar words.

Districts across the country have looked at similar approaches to help attract and prepare teachers for their own schools. In Denver, bond money voters approved last year is helping pay to expand a program this year where paraprofessionals can apply for a one-year program to become teachers while they continue working.

In the partnership at Elkhart, students paraprofessionals take longer than that, but in their first and second year are already learning how to write lessons during their afternoon classes and then working with teachers at the school to deliver the lessons and then reflect on how well they worked. Students say the model helps them feel supported.

“It’s really helping me to become more confident,” said Stephanie Richards, 26, the third paraprofessional. “I know I’m a lot more prepared.”

Schumacher said the model could also work in the future with students from other teaching schools or programs. It’s a small but important part, he said, toward helping larger efforts to attract and retain teachers, and also diversify the ranks.

“You’re doing something for the next generation of folks coming in,” he said.

testing testing

McQueen to convene third task force as Tennessee seeks to get testing right

PHOTO: Creative Commons/timlewisnm

For a third straight year, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen will convene a task force to examine Tennessee’s testing program in the wake of persistent hiccups with its TNReady assessment and perennial concerns about over-testing.

McQueen announced Monday the members of her newest task force, which will assemble on Dec. 11 in Nashville and complete its work next July. The group includes educators, lawmakers, and parents.

At the top of the agenda: evaluating the first full year of TNReady testing for grades 3-8 and the second year for high schoolers, the latter of which was marred by scoring problems for a small percentage of students.


Five things to know about the latest brouhaha over TNReady


The group also will look at district-level “formative tests” that measure student progress to help teachers adjust their instruction throughout the school year. The goal is to support districts so those tests align with TNReady and the state’s newest academic standards.

The transition to online testing and concerns about over-testing will be on the minds of task force members.

This marks the first school year that all high schoolers will take TNReady online since 2016, when a new platform buckled on its first day. State officials are more confident this time around under a phased-in approach that began last school year with 25 districts. (Middle and elementary schools will make the switch in 2019.)

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Candice McQueen

On over-testing, McQueen has highlighted 11th-grade as a concern. The junior year of high school is intense as students explore their post-graduation options while taking the ACT college entrance exam, the state’s end-of-course exams, and for some, Advanced Placement tests. All are high-stakes.

McQueen told Gov. Bill Haslam earlier this month that the upcoming task force will seek to strip away tests that don’t align with Tennessee’s priorities.

“We’re looking for testing reductions … but also setting a path toward (our) goals, which is a new test that’s aligned to new standards that really matter,” she told Haslam during budget hearings.

During its first two years, task force work has led to a number of changes.

Recommendations in the first year resulted in the elimination of a test for eighth- and tenth-graders, as well as the shortening of TNReady tests for math and reading.

In the second year, the task force contributed to Tennessee’s education plan under a new federal law and slimmed down science and social studies assessments for third- and fourth-graders.

Members of the third task force are:

  • Candice McQueen, Tennessee commissioner of education
  • Sara Morrison, executive director, State Board of Education
  • Sen. Dolores Gresham, chairwoman, Senate Education Committee
  • Rep. John Forgety, chairman, House Education Instruction and Programs Committee
  • Rep. Harry Brooks, chairman, House Education Administration and Planning Committee
  • Rep. Mark White, chairman, House Education Administration and Planning Subcommittee*
  • Wayne Blair, president, Tennessee School Board Association*
  • Barbara Gray, president, Tennessee Education Association
  • Dale Lynch, executive director, Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents*
  • Sharon Roberts, chief strategy officer, State Collaborative on Reforming Education*
  • Audrey Shores, chief operating officer, Professional Educators of Tennessee
  • Gini Pupo-Walker, Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition and senior director of education policy & programs, Conexión Américas*
  • Lisa Wiltshire, policy director, Tennesseans for Quality Early Education*
  • Shawn Kimble, director, Lauderdale County School System*
  • Mike Winstead, director, Maryville City Schools
  • Jennifer Cothron, assessment supervisor, Wilson County Schools*
  • Trey Duke, coordinator for Federal Programs and RTI2, Rutherford County Schools*
  • Michael Hubbard, director of performance excellence, Kingsport City Schools*
  • LaToya Pugh, iZone science instructional support manager, Shelby County Schools*
  • Bill Harlin, principal, Nolensville High School, Williamson County Schools
  • Laura Charbonnet, assistant principal, Collierville High School, Collierville Schools*
  • Tim Childers, assistant principal, L&N STEM Academy, Knox County Schools*
  • Kevin Cline, assistant principal, Jefferson County High School, Jefferson County Schools*
  • Kim Herring, teacher, Cumberland County High School, Cumberland County School District*
  • Jolinea Pegues, special education teacher, Southwind High School, Shelby County Schools*
  • Stacey Travis, teacher, Maryville High School, Maryville City Schools*
  • Josh Rutherford, teacher, Houston County High School, Houston County School District*
  • Cicely Woodard, 2017-18 Tennessee Teacher of the Year, West End Middle Prep, Metro Nashville Public Schools*
  • Virginia Babb, parent, Knox County Parent-Teacher Association
  • Jennifer Frazier, parent, Hamblen County Department of Education*
  • Student members will be invited*

*new members