Future of Schools

Ousted from Detroit and Newark, turnaround operator Matchbook could get a fresh start in Indianapolis

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Michigan Technical Academy was managed by Matchbook before it closed last year.

When it comes to turning around troubled schools, Matchbook Learning has a troubled history — two schools it took over were closed soon after. But Sajan George, founder of the management group, thinks Indianapolis is his chance to succeed.

Indianapolis Public Schools leaders have recommended Matchbook as a partner to restart School 63, a school with chronically low test scores. The nonprofit operator has been through layers of vetting from the district and its partners. But the network’s past troubles raise significant questions about whether it is likely to succeed in Indianapolis and highlight the limited pool of partners with the interest and experience in restarting failing schools.

If the Indianapolis Public Schools Board approves the plan, School 63 would be the latest school to become an innovation school managed by an outside partner but still considered part of the district. Matchbook would be the first operator that is not yet established in Indianapolis to restart a struggling school. But over the last year, George has moved his family to Indianapolis from New York. He also has spent time building relationships in the community, reaching out to local groups, and meeting with parents.

That’s one reason Aleesia Johnson, who leads innovation schools for the Indianapolis Public Schools, believes the group would be a good fit for the district.

“They have done good work other places,” she said. “But really … the most compelling piece is that connection to Indianapolis and really grounding themselves here.”

George got his start as a consultant working on corporate turnaround, before he began focusing on working with troubled school districts, and eventually founded Matchbook to restart schools. Now, George says Matchbook is solely dedicated to turning around School 63. But his long-term vision is sweeping and ambitious: He wants to upend education by developing a model that will help schools make dramatic test score gains.

At the center of that plan is Spark, a software tool that aims to help ordinary teachers achieve the same results as extraordinary ones by keeping track of how students are doing and what they need to learn, George said.

“We know when you have an extraordinary teacher in the classroom, you get extraordinary results,” he said. “We can’t replicate those extraordinary teachers to every single classroom.”

When Matchbook started, the group partnered with three schools in Detroit for short contracts. Most recently, Matchbook was brought in to turn around two charter schools, one in Detroit and one in Newark, that were eventually shut down for academic and financial problems. (Matchbook also faced criticism because teachers at both schools were not fully paid when they closed due to financial issues. The group eventually paid the teachers in Detroit.)

In George’s view, the schools were stymied by politics. But in Indianapolis, where turnaround operators are given lots of time and support, he believes his model will be able to prove itself.

The state test data from the schools where Matchbook has operated is generally positive. Students often started with dismal passing rates. But test scores went up at most of the schools the group worked with, and in some years, passing rates on state tests rose significantly.

Educators who worked for Matchbook in Detroit and Newark shared George’s belief that the schools could have turned around with more time. But they told Chalkbeat that the company’s focus on using the software was initially a hindrance. The schools started seeing greater success when they spent less time on Spark and more time using traditional teaching methods, they said.

When Matchbook began managing the school in Detroit, students spent most of their time on computers, said Anna Skinner, who taught second and third grade. Eventually, she said, teachers were given more flexibility. They stopped asking young students to watch several videos, for example, and instead spent more time teaching phonics, she said.

“They needed an adult, not a computer,” Skinner said.

Phillip Price, the veteran principal who was hired by Matchbook to lead the school, echoed some of Skinner’s concerns. The software was particularly difficult for students who struggled to read, Price said. “If you can’t read, trying to use a computer or watching a video, you are not going to know what the next steps are,” he added.

Ronald Harvey, the principal from the charter school the group ran in Newark, said he enjoyed working with Matchbook and Spark was a helpful tool for tracking student data. Because the program was new, the school was essentially piloting it, and Spark was updated based on their experience, he said. The program worked best, he said, when the school starting spending less time using Spark and more time on direct instruction.

“That first year, it did not feel very blended. It felt technology-heavy,” he said. “That second year, it started to become more of a blended learning type of model.”

George said that teachers always had flexibility, and the only piece of Spark they were expected to use was its data tracking feature, he said. Ultimately, it is just a tool for teachers, and they become more comfortable using it in the second year, he said.

“Spark is capturing the learning pathways … and the data progress. But it’s not the teacher,” George said. “I think sometimes you have to educate teachers — you are still the teacher. You are still driving the instruction.”

Even with Matchbook’s unproven track record, however, there are compelling reasons why Indianapolis leaders might choose to partner with the group.

Also known as Wendell Phillips, School 63 is in Haughville, and it has such a bad reputation that school board member Diane Arnold said she has steered families away from it. The school received a fifth F grade from the state this year, and if it receives another failing grade, it could be up for state intervention — including takeover or shut down.

Restarting the school as an innovation school in partnership with Matchbook is one way that the Indianapolis Public Schools board could fend off state takeover and maintain control over Wendell Phillips.

That’s why Hakim Moore, a parent of two students at School 63, said he supports the plan for Matchbook to take over. He is happy with the current principal and teachers. But faced with the prospect of the state taking control, he wants to see what Matchbook can do to improve the school.

“My feeling is if they can come in and make it better … that’s better than not trying at all,” Moore said.

There’s another reason why the district might look past Matchbook’s problems: There are not many turnaround operators with proven track records.

Charter networks typically start schools from scratch, and many are not interested in turning around failing schools, an especially difficult challenge. Although four potential partners were interested in restarting schools for the district, Matchbook was the only group to apply to restart School 63, according to the district.

“Across the country, it’s not work that has just an overwhelming number of people signing up to do the work because it’s super hard,” said Johnson.

Since the district began creating innovation schools, it has relied on the potential partners recruited by the Mind Trust, a non-profit that works closely with the district. When the Mind Trust was investigating Matchbook, staff spent more time vetting the network than usual because of the problems it faced in other states, said Brandon Brown, senior vice president of education innovation for the Mind Trust.

That included visiting the Matchbook school in Newark, contacting former authorizers, and reviewing test data. But their concerns were ultimately allayed, and the group offered George and his partner Amy Swann a fellowship worth about $200,000 to plan an innovation school, and another $200,000 in implementation funding to support the school before it begins receiving per-pupil funding.

“We were convinced that they had learned a ton about how to turn around low-performing schools,” Brown said. “When you compare their results against other school operators that want to focus on restarting the most challenging schools in our country, while their results haven’t been perfect, we do think that they stack up very well against others.”

Ron Zimmer, a professor at the University of Kentucky who has studied turnaround in Tennessee, said the approach is so recent that it’s difficult to find charter networks that have evidence of success — yet.

“I don’t think it should be alarming if a school gets taken over by a charter operator and they don’t show positive effects in two years,” Zimmer said. “It takes time.”

More autonomy

These Denver schools want to join the district’s ‘innovation zone’ or form new zones

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual Middle School students at a press conference about test scores in August 2017. The school has signaled its intent to be part of a new innovation zone.

Thirteen Denver schools have signaled their desire to become more autonomous by joining the district’s first “innovation zone” or by banding together to form their own zones. The schools span all grade levels, and most of the thirteen are high-performing.

Innovation zones are often described as a “third way” to govern public schools. The four schools in Denver’s first zone, created in 2016, have more autonomy than traditional district-run schools but less than charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Denver Public Schools recently released applications for schools to join the first zone, called the Luminary Learning Network, or to form new zones. The school district, which at 92,600 students is Colorado’s largest, is nationally known for nurturing a “portfolio” of different school types and for encouraging entrepreneurship among its school principals.

The district is offering two options to schools that want to form new zones. One option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen not by the district but by a nonprofit organization. That’s how the Luminary Learning Network is set up.

Another, slightly less autonomous option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen by the district. “Some additional autonomies would be available to these schools, but many decisions would still be made by the district,” the district’s website says.

One tangible difference between the two: The principals of schools in zones overseen by the district would answer to district administrators, while the principals of schools in zones overseen by nonprofit organizations would be hired and fired by the nonprofits’ boards of directors.

Schools in both types of zones would have more control over their budgets. A key flexibility enjoyed by the four schools in the Luminary Learning Network has been the ability to opt out of certain district services and use that money to buy things that meet their students’ specific needs, such as a full-time psychologist or another special education teacher. The zone schools would like even more financial freedom, though, and are re-negotiating with the district.

The district has extended the same budgetary flexibility to the schools in Denver’s three “innovation management organizations,” or IMOs, which are networks of schools with “innovation status.”

Innovation status was created by a 2008 state law. It allows district-run schools to do things like set their own calendars and choose their own curriculum by waiving certain state and district rules. The same law allows innovation schools to join together to form innovation zones.

The difference between an innovation zone and an innovation management organization is that schools in innovation zones have the opportunity for even greater autonomy, with zones governed by nonprofit organizations poised to have the most flexibility.

The deadline for schools to file “letters of intent” to apply to join an innovation zone or form a new one was Feb. 15. Leaders of the three innovation management organizations applied to form zones of their own.

One of them – a network comprised of McAuliffe International and McAuliffe Manual middle schools – has signaled its intent to join forces with an elementary school and a high school in northeast Denver to form a new, four-school zone.

Three elementary schools – Valdez, High Tech, and Swigert – submitted multiple intent letters.

Amy Gile, principal of High Tech, said in an email that her school submitted a letter of intent to join the Luminary Learning Network and a separate letter to be part of a new zone “so that we are able to explore all options available in the initial application process. We plan to make a decision about what best meets the needs of our community prior to the application deadline.”

The application deadline is in April. There are actually two: Innovation management organizations that want to become innovation zones must file applications by April 4, and schools that want to form new zones have until April 20 to turn in their applications.

Here’s a list of the schools that filed letters of intent.

Schools that want to join the Luminary Learning Network:

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College High School
Valdez Elementary School
High Tech Elementary School

Schools that want to form new innovation zones overseen by nonprofits:

McAuliffe International School
McAuliffe Manual Middle School
Northfield High School
Swigert International School
These four schools want to form a zone called the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone.

McGlone Academy
John Amesse Elementary School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Montbello Children’s Network.

Grant Beacon Middle School
Kepner Beacon Middle School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Beacon Network Schools IMO I-Zone.

Schools that want to form a new innovation zone overseen by the district:

High Tech Elementary School
Isabella Bird Community School
Valdez Elementary School
Swigert International School
DCIS at Ford
These five schools want to form a zone called the Empower Zone.

First Responder

Jeffco’s superintendent has some ideas about preventing school shootings — and none of them involve gun control or armed teachers

Jeffco superintendent Jason Glass at the Boys & Girls in Lakewood (Marissa Page, Chalkbeat).

Superintendent Jason Glass of the Jefferson County school district isn’t interested in talking about gun control in the wake of yet another deadly school shooting.

Home of Columbine High School, Jefferson County is no stranger to these tragedies or their aftermath, and Glass doesn’t think calls for restricting firearms will get any more traction this time than they have before. Nor is he interested in talking about arming teachers, a proposal he considers just as much of a political dead end.

“A solution is only a solution if we can actually enact it,” Glass wrote in a blog post published Monday. “We are not able to get either of these solutions passed into law so they have no impact.”

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to talk about, he wrote. Glass lays out four ideas that he sees as more politically feasible and that might make a difference:

  • Put trained, armed law enforcement officials in every school
  • Increase funding and support for school mental health services
  • Create a federally funded center to study school safety and security
  • Change the layout of and access to school buildings to make them safer, much the way we’ve renovated airports, stadiums, and other public facilities

Glass describes these measures as “proactive, preventative, and reactive steps that would make a big impact in making our schools much safer than they are today.”

Some schools and districts already have an armed police presence on campus or offer mental health services, but Glass argues these efforts need more money, more support, and more cohesion.

“These solutions need to come from the federal level to create the scale and impact we really need,” he wrote. “Congress and the President need to act and now. … Flexibility and deference can be built into these solutions to accommodate differences across states and communities – but we have a national crisis on our hands and we have to start acting like it.”

Of course, even studying something, as Glass envisions this new center on school safety doing, can be political. Since 1996, the federal government, at the urging of the National Rifle Association, has placed tight restrictions on the ability of the Centers for Disease Control to study gun violence as a public health issue.

The blog post provoked a vigorous debate in the comments. Some called on Glass to join the national movement demanding more restrictions on firearms. This is not a time for “half measures,” one woman wrote.

Others said that turning schools into “fortresses” would work against their educational mission and questioned how well school resource officers could be trained to respond appropriately to students with special needs – or how fair the district-level threat assessment process is.

In the wake of another school shooting at Arapahoe High School in 2013, one largely forgotten outside the state, Colorado legislators passed a law that holds schools liable for missing warning signs in troubled students.

In an interview with Colorado Public Radio, Bill Woodward, a former police officer who trains schools in how to prevent violence, said more schools are doing threat assessments. But their success may require schools to take even more seriously the idea that their own students might be dangerous.

“I think the biggest barrier is the climate of the school, because I think sometimes schools are just thinking in terms of working with students, helping students out,” Woodward told CPR. “And sometimes when you’re looking at someone who’s made a threat, you have to change to the Secret Service model.”

Woodward said a more comprehensive solution may involve gun control. Schools can’t afford to wait, though.

“There is no silver bullet, speaking metaphorically, but I think gun law changes may well be needed,” he said. “I just think we have to do what we can do now, and we can do things now.”