Future of Schools

Seven big reasons to pay attention to Indiana education news in 2018

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Betsy DeVos during a visit to Indiana.

The election of former Gov. Mike Pence as President Donald Trump’s vice president made Indiana a showcase for school choice advocates nationally. Indianapolis Public Schools, short on both cash and students, moved to close nearly half of its high schools and will ask taxpayers for nearly a billion dollars in extra funding. A spotlight was thrown on underperforming virtual schools.

Those are just a few of the educational challenges and opportunities that Indiana weathered in 2017 — many of which are also sure to capture headlines in the year ahead.

Here is a recap of some of the biggest issues Chalkbeat has covered over the past 12 months, and a hint of what’s likely to come.

  1. A virtual mess

Indiana Virtual School had 1 teacher for every 222 students in 2016-17 and a 5.7 percent graduation rate in 2016, yet has grown by thousands of students since it opened in 2011 — and received millions of dollars in state funding that was paid out, in part, to an affiliated for-profit company. The findings of a Chalkbeat investigation into the school prompted Gov. Eric Holcomb to call for “immediate attention and action” for virtual schools by the state board of education and to pledge to have his staff work with the board to make sure the schools and groups that oversee them are held accountable.

Even charter advocates agree that virtual schools’ authorizers could be more assertive in their oversight of virtual schools with poor performance, suggesting that an area of school choice that has remained largely under the radar could face a new level of scrutiny.

  1. A changing high school landscape

As enrollment in Indianapolis Public Schools has shrunk, the high schools have seen student population drop from about 26,000 at a peak in the late 1960s to about 5,600 this year. The school board voted to close three of the district’s seven high schools and use the opportunity to offer students a variety of programs in the remaining schools in areas such as information technology, construction and the arts.

Students will get to choose which school, and which program, they want to attend next fall. But while that overhaul has addressed the question of underutilized buildings, it has the potential to throw the enrollment system out of balance should more students choose some schools over others.

  1. The path to graduation

To ensure that Indiana’s high school graduates have the skills to fill workforce needs or succeed in college, state lawmakers called for an overhaul of graduation requirements earlier this year. The “graduation pathways” that were ultimately developed and approved by the state board impose new requirements on students, such as taking exams, completing advanced courses, or gaining credit for internships.

But they drew widespread opposition from parents and educators, who say the new requirements are complex and overlap with existing Indiana diploma expectations. The new rules could prove particularly burdensome for students with disabilities or those who struggle academically.

The rules are not the only new stumbling block for future graduates. Indiana was told by federal education officials earlier this year that students who graduate with the general diploma, rather than more rigorous Core 40 or honors diplomas, would not be counted in the state’s graduation rate. Lawmakers and education officials are under pressure to find a solution.

  1. Money matters

Come spring, some Indianapolis taxpayers have a big decision to make: Will they vote to increase property taxes and add $936 million in new funding over eight years to make improvements and cover the costs of operating the city’s largest district? Two referendums will be on the ballot in May, after the Indianapolis school board voted to put the matter to taxpayers.

About $200 million would go to pay for campus safety updates, such as improvements in lighting and new entrances. But the bulk of the money — $92 million a year — would be used for operating expenses, such as to cover the costs of special education and teacher raises.

The district is also hoping to change the way schools are funded with a new approach meant to send more money to schools with more poor students. At the same time, a special $6.5 million pool of money is going to programs that attract middle-class families. District leaders say the system will become more equitable over time, but it’s unclear how long it will take.

  1. Au revoir ISTEP

The end is nigh for the beleaguered state test known as ISTEP. In April, state lawmakers finally settled on a replacement. The new test, called ILEARN, will be used for the first time in 2019.

In choosing the new test, the Indiana Department of Education reached back to an earlier round of educational expectations, the Common Core. Although Indiana abruptly withdrew from the Common Core standards three years ago, the company charged with creating ILEARN will use questions developed for a Common Core test.

The state is still working to create the ILEARN exam system, and high school tests will be particularly tricky. Initially, the state planned to stick with year-end subject tests, as it did in the past, but the state board is now recommending a college entrance exam, such as the ACT or SAT. It’s not yet clear how these new suggestions will work into the state’s plans with the ILEARN vendor, American Institutes for Research.

  1. State dollars, private schools

Indiana has found itself at the center of a national debate over whether to give families state-funded vouchers to pay for private school tuition. A Chalkbeat investigation into the voucher program found that 306 of the 313 schools receiving vouchers last year were religious. The reporting shed light on why secular schools seldom participate and why voucher-funded schools in Indiana have stricter testing requirements than any other state. It also revealed how state policy had quietly prevented an explosion of new voucher-funded schools, and how lawmakers were changing the rules to make it easier for new private schools to get state money.

  1. Center stage

Indiana is in the spotlight as President Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, pursues an agenda that heavily promotes school choice. Since her confirmation, she has given the Hoosier state a great deal of attention, praising the state’s charter and voucher programs and touting several Indianapolis schools as models for the country. Among them were a struggling neighborhood school that was taken over by a community partnership, a Christian school dedicated to integration, and a charter school for students recovering from drug addiction.

She also made three visits. In May, she stopped by the annual conference of the American Federation for Children, an advocacy group she had led, in Indianapolis to promise an “ambitious expansion of school choice.” She returned again to highlight career and technical education at the national convention of FFA, which used to be known as Future Farmers of America. And she traversed the state as part of a national school tour. But it’s an open question whether the Indiana policies that DeVos has praised will be embraced nationally.

another path

‘They’re my second family.’ Largest Pathways to Graduation class earn their diplomas

Jasmine Byrd receives an award for excellence after giving a speech to her fellow graduates.

Before last fall, Jasmine Byrd never envisioned herself striding across the stage to receive a diploma at a graduation ceremony.

But then Byrd moved to the Bronx from Utah and entered New York City’s Pathways to Graduation program, which helps 17- to 21-year-olds who didn’t graduate from a traditional high school earn a High School Equivalency Diploma by giving them free resources and support.

Just walking into this space and being like, this is what you’ve accomplished and this is what you’ve worked hard for is a great feeling,” said Byrd, who also credits the program with helping her snag a web development internship. “I’ve built my New York experience with this program. They’re my second family, sometimes my first when I needed anything.”

Byrd is one of about 1,700 students to graduate during the 2017-2018 school year from Pathways, the program’s largest graduating class to date, according to officials.  

This year, students from 102 countries and 41 states graduated from Pathways, which is part of District 79, the education department district overseeing programs for older students who have had interrupted schooling.

The program also saw the most students ever participate in its graduation ceremony, a joyful celebration held this year at the Bronx United Palace Theater. According to Robert Evans, a math teacher at one of the program’s five boroughwide sites and emcee of the graduation, about 600 students typically show up to walk the stage. But students can be a part of the ceremony even if they received their passing test results that morning, and this year more than 800 graduates attended.

There were still students coming in last night to take photos and to pick up their sashes and gowns,” said Evans.

The graduation ceremony is unique in part because the program is. Students who have not completed high school attend classes to prepare to take the high school equivalency exam. But the program also prepares students to apply for college, attend vocational school, or enter the workforce by providing help applying for colleges, creating resumes and other coaching.

To make sure that the program is accessible to all students, there’s a main site in every borough and 92 satellite sites, located in community centers and youth homeless shelters like Covenant House. Students who want to work in the medical field, like Genesis Rocio Rodriguez, can take their courses in hospitals. Rodriguez, who graduated in December, is now enrolled in the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and passing the exam meant being one step closer to her dream of becoming a nurse.

When I got my results I was with my classmate, and to be honest I thought I failed because I was so nervous during it. But then I went online, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I did it!’ My mom started crying and everything.”

Byrd said the program worked for her because of the supportive teachers and extra resources.

“The teachers are relatable,” said Byrd. “They don’t put on an act, they don’t try to separate the person from the teacher. They really reach out, even call you to get you out of bed in the morning.”

Carmine Guirland said the supportive environment of social workers, guidance counselors, and teachers is what attracts him to the work at Bronx NeOn, a site where students who are on probation or who are involved with the court system can prepare for the exam, college, and careers.

When students are on parole they will have really involved [parole officers] who would text me at the beginning of class to check in so that we could work together,” said Guirland. “It’s really about that village thing. The more support systems that are available the more success the students will have.”

Reflecting on his experiences with the graduating class, Guirland’s most treasured memory was when one of his students proposed to his girlfriend in a guidance counseling session. Even though they aren’t together anymore, the moment was a reflection of the relationships that many of the students build during their time at Pathways to Graduation.

“It’s this amazing high moment where this student felt like the most comfortable place for him to propose to his girlfriend and the mother of his child was in our advisory circle,” said Guirland.

New Standards

Tennessee updates science standards for first time in 10 years. New guidelines stress class discussion, inquiry

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Fourth grade science teachers Lamarcus Marks, of Rivercrest Elementary, and Angie Clement, of Bartlett Elementary, test out a lesson on kinetic and potential energy at Arlington High School, one of 11 statewide sites where Tennessee teachers are training for next year's new science standards.

How can a wolf change the river? Why doesn’t a cactus have leaves? Why can’t you exterminate bats in Tennessee?

With new state science standards coming to classrooms next fall, these are the kinds of questions students will explore in their science classes. They’ll be tasked not only with memorizing the answers, but also with asking questions of their own, engaging on the topic with their teacher and classmates, and applying what they learn across disciplines. That’s because the changes set forth are as much about teaching process, as they are about teaching content.

“At the lowest level, I could just teach you facts,” said Detra Clark, who is one of about 300 Tennessee educators leading teacher trainings on the new standards to her peers from across the state. “Now it’s like, ‘I want you to figure out why or how you can use the facts to figure out a problem.’”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Detra Clark, a science coach in Shelby County’s iZone, demonstrates a sample lesson for sixth grade science teachers.

On Wednesday, Clark — a science coach for the iZone, a group of underperforming schools that Shelby County Schools is looking to turn around — unpacked for her peers, who gathered at Arlington High School, a key component of the new material: three-dimensional modeling. Under three-dimensional modeling, students should be able to do something with the content they learn, not just memorize it.

In recent years, Tennessee students have performed better on state science tests than on their math and English exams. But state science standards for grades K–12 haven’t been updated since 2008. By contrast, math and English benchmarks have undergone more recent changes. To give the stakeholders time to adjust, results from next year’s science test, the first to incorporate the new standards, won’t count for students, teachers, or schools.

At the training session, Clark, standing before a room of sixth-grade science teachers, held up a chart with the names of woodland animals, such as elk and deer. Under each name, she tracked the population over time.

“At our starting population, what do we see?” she asked.

“The deer, it decreases again because it’s introduced to a predator,” a teacher responded.

“More resources, more surviving animals” another teacher chimed in.

“How can we explain what happened in year two, when we’re dealing with students?” Clark asked the group.

“The population went up,” a teacher said.

“They start to reproduce!” another teacher interjected.

Clark nodded.

In another classroom, this one composed of kindergarten teachers, Bridget Davis — a K-2 instructional advisor for Shelby County Schools — clicked through a video of fuzzy critters, each paired with a close relative, such as two different breeds of dogs.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
In a teacher training session on Wednesday, kindergarten teachers highlight the three dimensions of three-dimensional modeling, a key part of new state science standards.

She encouraged the teachers to ask their students what traits the animals shared.

“The first thing they’re going to say is, ‘Well, one’s big and one’s small,” she said. “What we really want them to say is, ‘Well, their fur is the same color,’ or, ‘Mom has a patch of black hair here and the baby doesn’t.’ We want them to look at detail.”

She added, “We want them to get used to being a detective.”

The science standards that have been in place for the past decade fulfills the first dimension of three-dimensional modeling.

Doing something with that knowledge satisfies the second dimension, and the third dimension requires teachers to apply to their lessons a “cross-cutting concept” — strategies that students can apply to any subject, like identifying patterns or sequences.

Under the existing standards, a student may not have been introduced to physical science until the third grade. But starting next year, Tennessee schoolchildren will learn about life science, physical science, earth and space science, and engineering applications, beginning in kindergarten and continuing through high school.

“I do believe that this is the best our standards have ever been, because of the fact that they are so much more detailed than they have been in the past,” Davis said.

About a thousand Shelby County teachers made their way to trainings this week, which were free and open to all educators. Several administrators also met to discuss ways they can ensure the new standards are implemented in their schools.

As with anything new, Jay Jennings — an assistant principal at a Tipton county middle school and an instructor at Wednesday’s training — expects some pushback. But he’s optimistic that his district will have every teacher at benchmark by the end of the 2018–2019 school year.

“We talked before about teachers knowing content, and that’s important,” he said. “But what we want to see is kids knowing content and questioning content. We want to see them involved.”

He reminded other school leaders about last year’s changes to English and math standards, a transition that he said was challenging but smoother than expected.  

“Teachers are going to go out of their comfort zone,” he explained. “But it’s not changing what a lot of them are already doing.”