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.”

New Arrivals

In a letter to Betsy Devos, Michigan officials highlight the plight of refugee students — and ask for testing waiver.

PHOTO: Warren Consolidated Schools
Students at Warren-Mott High School in the Detroit suburbs. Officials there say that many students are arriving at the school from refugee camps, including 11th graders who had no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Such students would currently be required to take a state English test during their first year in school.

To teachers who work with recently arrived refugee students, the problem is clear: Although their students will eventually learn English, their language skills at first aren’t comparable to those of native speakers.

They’re hoping federal education officials will come to the same conclusion after reading the state’s detail-rich request to delay testing new immigrant children in English.

Michigan is he second state to ask for a waiver from a federal law that requires children who arrived in the U.S. this year to take standardized English tests within a year of arriving — even if they’re just being introduced to the language. The law also requires states to count such students’ scores in decisions about whether to close low-performing schools.

“We wanted to balance between presenting hard data and some anecdotes,” said Chris Janzer, assistant director of accountability at the Michigan Department of Education. “We’re hoping that the case we present, with some of the stories, will win us approval.”

The state’s request includes stories from the Detroit area, which is home to the nation’s largest concentration of Arabic speakers, including many newly arrived refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East. This population is unique in more ways than one: It includes more than 30,000 Chaldean Christians who arrived after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the largest such population in the world outside Iraq. And many of its children must deal with the aftereffects of violent displacement even as they attempt to attend school in what is in many cases an entirely new language.

The state’s waiver request offers Hamtramck, a hyper-diverse city enclave in Detroit, as an example:

Hamtramck has many recent arrivals from war-torn regions in Yemen and Syria and has students from remote villages with no formal education background, as well as many others with interrupted learning. New students can have toxic stress and can even be suicidal, and often require wraparound services. Older students are also often burdened with the responsibility of helping their families financially, emotionally, and with childrearing.

Even the luckiest new arrivals would benefit if Michigan receives a waiver from parts of the federal Every Students Succeed Act, says Suzanne Toohey, president of Michigan Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

“The intent of the waiver is for the most needy students, but it will help all students,” she said, adding that it typically takes 5-7 years for an English learner to catch up to her native-speaking peers.

With that in mind, Toohey says current federal requirements don’t make sense.

“It would be like an adult who is many years out of school, and who took French for two years of high school, going to France and trying to take a college course,” she said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Following the same logic, Michigan officials are asking U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to put the brakes on federal requirements for testing recently arrived English learners. If the waiver request is approved:

  • In their first year in Michigan schools, those students wouldn’t be required to take the state English language arts exam.
  • In their second, they would take the test, but schools wouldn’t be held accountable for their scores.
  • In year three, the growth in their scores on the English exam would be factored into school ratings.
  • And in year four their overall score — known as proficiency — would be counted as well as their growth.

That’s still too soon to begin testing English learners, Toohey said, noting “the waiver is a start, but we haven’t gotten all the way there.”

Even so, the proposed change still faces substantial obstacles. New York’s request for a similar waiver was denied by the U.S. Department of Education in January. In its response, the department said it was holding New York to its responsibility to “set high expectations that apply to all students.” Janzer says his staff studied New York’s waiver and concluded that Michigan’s should include more details to humanize the situations of the affected students.

Michigan officials are currently working to incorporate public comments (there were seven, all of them supportive, Janzer said) into its request, which is expected to be submitted in the coming weeks. A decision isn’t expected from federal officials for several more months.

Whoever reads the 10-page document in Washington, D.C. will be confronted with details like these:

  • Lamphere Schools, of Madison Heights, MI, has received a significant influx of students from Iraq and Syria, and at least one elementary school’s student body is roughly 70 percent recently arrived students from these two nations. Lamphere reports that some students initially undergo temporary “silent periods,” a researched stage of second language acquisition, where children are watching and listening, but not yet speaking.
  • Warren Consolidated Schools, of Warren, MI, reports that they have many students from refugee camps, including students who are testing in 11th grade after having no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Warren Consolidated has received 2,800 students from Syria or Iraq since 2007.

Read the full document here. Most local details are on pages 7-9.

live stream

WATCH: Candidates for Detroit school board introduce themselves live

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroiters at IBEW 58 wait for candidates for school board candidates to address them.

The nine candidates for Detroit school board are gathering Thursday evening at IBEW 58 in Detroit to make their cases in advance of the November general election in which two seats are up for grabs.

The candidates have already introduced themselves in video statements, but this is one of their first chances to address the public in real time.

We’re covering the event — including a live stream the candidates’ opening statements, which should start around 7 p.m.

Click below or check out our Facebook page to see what they have to say. The candidate speeches begin at around the 12:00 minute mark.