Future of Schools

A new program takes 20 Indianapolis high schoolers to Thailand — and far outside their comfort zone

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Macaiah Patterson is one of 20 Arsenal Tech students who will travel to Thailand in January as part of a new study abroad program.

Mikayli Davis was sitting in a math final last spring when she heard an announcement over the loudspeaker: Students would have a chance to go to Thailand for a semester for free.

“I was like, ‘oh my god! That’s a really good offer,’ ” recalled Davis, a junior at Arsenal Technical High School. “It just seemed interesting.”

Now, Davis is one of 20 Indianapolis Public Schools students in the pilot of Thrival Academy, a high school program meant to introduce them to the greater world outside their schools and communities. Housed in Arsenal, Thrival is paid for with funds from the district and the California nonprofit that is extending the program to Indianapolis. It provides students with a year of classes, taught by the teachers who will travel with them, and culminates in a three-month trip to Thailand in January.

Such an opportunity to spend a semester abroad is usually reserved for affluent students. But studies have shown that introductions to other cultures and the ability to leave homelands can have wide-ranging benefits for students, improving their grades, future employability and ability to connect with people from other cultures. There is a growing focus on encouraging study abroad among students who might not otherwise have an opportunity to step outside their lives and get first-hand experience of the world at large.

With Thrival, all the costs, down to the passport fees, are covered by the school. And although an application is required, everyone who applied was admitted.

When they arrive in Thailand, the 20 students will spend time in camps, cities, and villages. They will also stay with local families for several nights.

Over the three months, they will continue to do school work with a focus on subjects that connect to their trip: mining, conservation, farming and migration, and projects such as creating a documentary about a local activist group.

“My goal is for this to be more of an investment,” said India Hui, who runs Thrival in Indianapolis. “It’s not just about taking kids overseas and bringing them back. When we are bringing them back, we are bringing them back leaders.”

PHOTO: Courtesy: Kelly Bentley
A camp where Thrival students from Oakland stayed in Laos.

The chance to see another culture up close, and get outside her comfort zone, is what attracted Macaiah Patterson, who said she has always dreamed about studying abroad. “I want to learn about how other people live and what they go through,” she said.

Thrival began in Oakland and expanded to Indianapolis this year after the founder received a fellowship from the Mind Trust, a non-profit that supports district-charter partnerships. During the pilot year, the district is expected to pay $100,000 for the program, while Thrival pays $265,000, according to a presentation to the school board.

That’s a steep price tag, but Hui said she expects the program to have far lower per-student costs once it enrolls more students. If Indianapolis leaders consider the pilot successful, the program could ultimately become a full-fledged innovation school with 5 teachers educating 100 students.

Innovation schools, which are part of the district but run by charter or nonprofit operators, began less than three years ago. But most of the innovation schools that have opened so far have been fairly similar to other existing charter and magnet schools. Thrival would be one of the first to give families a totally new option.

All of the students in the program this year were already enrolled in Arsenal. Nearly half came from the New Tech High magnet. That’s mostly thanks to Alejandra Castro, who heard about the program from her mother. Once Castro and her boyfriend, Javier Salazar, decided to apply, they began recruiting friends to join them.

“It’s like a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Castro said. “The only place I’ve ever been to is Chicago and Tennessee. … Going to Thailand for free for three months? I was like, I’m down.”

The trip will be a big adjustment for students. Many will face homesickness and culture shock. But first they have to get there. And the flight, out of all the changes they face, has many of the students worried.

“That’s really the only the thing I’m nervous about,” Davis said.

Many other Thrival students share her fear. A poster about the trip on a hallway wall sums up their trepidation. Listing potential problems with the trip, it includes turbulence and different foods. At the bottom is an illustration, drawn in marker: a plane bursting with orange and yellow flames.

“I think they were kind of under the assumption that you are lucky if your plane lands,” Hui said.

The trip, now just weeks away, seemed unreal for Davis, who compared it to going to the moon.

“You can’t imagine yourself being on the moon,” she said. “It’s kind of like that. I can’t imagine myself being in Thailand.”

Future of Schools

Here’s how new federal rules could impact Indiana’s $14M private school tax credit scholarship program

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students at the Oaks Academy in Indianapolis, a private school, play during music practice. The Oaks accepts tax credit scholarships.

Some school choice advocates are uneasy that new federal tax rules could be detrimental to Indiana’s $14 million tax credit scholarship program.

In August, the U.S. Department of the Treasury released rules clarifying new tax law that limited how much state and local taxes an individuals could deduct from their federal taxes. Some fear the changes might discourage donors from contributing to charities like the state’s tax credit scholarship program, in which individuals and businesses can give money to fund students’ private school tuition in exchange for a tax credit from the state.

“Our primary concern is to make sure that the families who are relying on these scholarships, that they can continue to do so,” said Leslie Hiner, vice president of legal affairs for EdChoice, a national school choice advocacy organization based in Indianapolis. “There are a lot of unknowns.”

Jerry Stayton, superintendent of Elkhart Christian School, submitted a public comment about the regulations saying the scholarships are vital to helping private schools stay afloat and give opportunities to low-income families. The tax incentives have “encouraged giving to schools on a scale never before seen.”

“For the federal government to impose a tax on a state tax credit represents a strange and dangerous precedent,” Stayton wrote. “While the federal government is supreme in the United States, its strength is derived from strong, growing, supportive states with great local economies and excellent education.”

There’s optimism, though, that the regulations’ impact could be far more limited in Indiana than in other states,  given how established its scholarship program is, how low income taxes are here, and how many donors are individuals making smaller contributions.

“So far, Indiana is in a better position, I’d say, than some of the high-tax states,” Hiner said. “Nonetheless, that uncertainty is the thing … I have a lot of faith that people in Indiana, and I’m hoping, that any impact in Indiana because of its long history of charitable giving will not be great.”

Below, we break down how this news could impact Indiana’s school choice programs, as well as how the program works and got its start.

First, what are tax credit scholarships?

Indiana’s tax credit scholarship program, which lawmakers passed in 2009, lets taxpayers donate money to nonprofit, state-approved “scholarship granting organizations” in exchange for a 50 percent credit on their state taxes.

Those donations are then distributed to the nonprofits and given out to income-eligible Hoosier families as private school tuition scholarships. To participate, a family of four can’t make more than $92,870 per year.

In 2018-19, the program could distribute as much as $14 million in tax credits, though the amount that can be donated has no cap. Indiana’s tax credit cap has steadily increased up from $2.5 million since 2009.

While the use of vouchers far outstrips the tax credit scholarships, the program is still sizable. It serves 348 private schools across the state. In 2017, the program awarded 9,349 scholarships totaling more than $16 million.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that as of 2017, 17 states had tax credit scholarship programs. The largest one in the country is in Florida, where many corporations participate and the program collects and doles out hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Is the program controversial?

Yes, though it gets far less attention than Indiana’s voucher program, where families use state tax dollars to pay for private school tuition. It also predates vouchers, which weren’t allowed in the state until 2011.

Tax credit scholarship supporters say the donations benefit students in need who otherwise could attend the school of their choice. They also argue the programs can results in savings for states, as the cost for the tax credits is lower than the cost to educate students in public schools.

Critics of the program say it’s just another version of state-subsidized private school, not unlike vouchers. They also point out it is unclear whether these programs allow states to save money — partially because data on where students go to school and how they transfer between public and private schools can be hard to track.

In Indiana, students do not need to have attended a public school before receiving a tax credit scholarship, and the scholarships can pay up to the full tuition amount at their desired school.

What’s the IRS rule change that is causing the concerns?

It comes in response to a part of the 2017 federal tax bill that limited how much state and local taxes someone could deduct from their federal taxes — up to $10,000. Hiner said federal officials proposed the change to allow the government to get more revenue. Giving fewer opportunities for deductions means the government collects more in tax dollars.

In order to get around the $10,000 cap, some high-tax states, such as New York, California, and New Jersey, took advantage of tax credit programs. As a result, the IRS proposed new rules that prohibit the tax credit workaround, and that’s what has school choice supporters up in arms.

“The IRS had a good reason for taking action, but unfortunately in taking action against those bad actors, they swept in thousands of nonprofits across the country,” Hiner said.

How will the rule change affect Indiana?

Advocates hope is that Indiana won’t take as big a hit as other states with higher taxes.

In a press release, the treasury department said most taxpayers will not be affected by the change, with about 1 percent of taxpayers seeing “an effect on tax benefits for donations to school choice tax credit programs.”

It’s really not clear yet if that will come to pass, Hiner said, because taxes won’t be filed until next year. No one can really say now how donors might change their behavior.

The state-approved nonprofit “scholarship granting organizations” that manage private tuition scholarship funds are already fielding questions from donors. Indiana has seven such organizations, six of which are currently granting scholarships.

“The one thing we’re stressing with everyone is to always contact your accountant, financial advisor, or tax preparer to walk through what the impacts could be,” said Betsy Wiley, executive director of the Institute for Quality Education, one of the state’s scholarship granting organizations.

But in Indiana, according to an analysis from CNBC, taxpayers on average don’t claim deductions over $10,000. While the rule change could impact corporations or very large individual donors, most Hoosiers don’t fall in those categories. The vast majority of donors are individuals, and 43 percent of those donations are for less than $1,000, Wiley said.

Wiley hopes the federal government decides to pause implementing these new rules until after taxes for 2018 are filed. This would give donors and nonprofits more time to understand what the effect might be so they can adjust at the state level.

Federal officials are collecting feedback through November, when there will be another hearing on the rules.

Momentum

Memphis moves from problem child to poster child on Tennessee’s new school improvement list

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Memphis has been a hub of local, state, federal, and philanthropic school improvement work since Tennessee issued its first list of "priority schools" in 2012.

The city that has been the epicenter of Tennessee’s school improvement work since 2012 got encouraging news on Friday as fewer Memphis schools landed on the state’s newest list of troubled schools.

Only 45 Memphis schools were designated “priority schools,” compared to 57 in 2014 and 69 in 2012.

Meanwhile, more schools in Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jackson were among the 82 placed on priority status, either for being ranked academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent or having a graduation rate of less than 67 percent. They are now eligible for a share of $10 million in state grants this year to pay for extra resources — but also interventions as harsh as state takeover or closure.

Half of the schools are new to the list but won’t face takeover or closure. Those school communities will begin working with the state education department to develop district-led improvement plans, a change from previous years.

Charter schools face the most dire consequences for landing on the list if they’re authorized by local districts. In Memphis, seven will close at the end of the school year, impacting more than 1,700 students:

  • City University School Girls Preparatory
  • Du Bois Elementary of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Leadership Public Policy
  • Granville T. Woods Academy of Innovation
  • Memphis Delta Preparatory
  • The Excel Center (adult education)

Two other priority-status high schools already closed their doors in May. They were operated by former city schools superintendent Willie Herenton’s W.E.B. DuBois charter network.

This was the first priority list issued under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable and is based mostly on student test scores from 2015-16 and 2016-17. No negative results from last school year were factored in because of emergency state legislation passed to address widespread technical problems that disrupted Tennessee’s return to online testing in the spring.

The distribution of more priority schools beyond Memphis was notable.

“Shelby County in particular has had some momentum … (but) we have other districts that have not had that same momentum,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen during a morning call with reporters.

She praised Shelby County Schools for “changing the landscape” in Memphis by closing at least 15 priority schools since 2012 and for creating its own Innovation Zone to improve other schools. Another catalyst, she said, was the 2012 arrival of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which has taken over dozens of low-performing Memphis schools and assigned them to charter networks, spurring a sense of urgency.

But student gains have been better under the iZone than within the state-run district. Of the 25 priority schools absorbed by the iZone, 16 have moved off of priority status. Nine schools taken over by the state have gone off the list.

“When you really try and find great school leaders and great teachers, when you extend time, when you focus on professional development, and when you also focus on accountability, good things are going to happen in schools,” said Brad Leon, a Shelby County Schools strategist who supervised the iZone in its early years.

Of the 45 Memphis schools on the newest list, less than two-thirds are within Shelby County Schools, and five of those could be eligible for state takeover, according to Antonio Burt, who oversees priority school work for Tennessee’s largest district. He declined to name them.

The state Board of Education signed off on the priority list on Friday during a special meeting. The board also approved its 2018 list of “reward schools” to acknowledge a fifth of the state’s public schools for student achievement and academic growth in the last year.

Tennessee’s priority list is issued every three years, and this was the third since 2012. But unlike with the two earlier rosters, 2018 priority status does not necessarily put a school on track for state takeover. That’s now an option of last resort as the state seeks to be less punitive and more collaborative with local school leaders.

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits classrooms and students in 2015. He’s led Tennessee’s largest district since 2013.

“Our new school improvement model takes a student-focused, evidence-based approach to tailor interventions for our priority schools,” said McQueen, who promised to work closely with school communities to provide new resources. 

Those new resources will be welcomed in Memphis, where Shelby County Schools has absorbed the cost of continuing interventions even as federal and state grants expire.

“At the end of the day, we’re very proud of the work, but we’re not satisfied,” said Superintendent Dorsey Hopson. “We’re going to keep on working.”

In Nashville, Mayor David Briley called the increase from 15 to 21 priority schools “unacceptable” and promised to make swift improvements in the state’s second largest school system.

You can find the 2018 list here, but check back for a sortable list from Chalkbeat.