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.”

Regents rundown

As elections approach, New York’s top education policymakers begin to outline legislative priorities

PHOTO: Creative Commons, courtesy JasonParis
Albany statehouse

New York’s top education policymakers are gearing up to discuss their legislative wishlist for next year’s session, just as the political balance of the state legislature could turn on its head.

The state’s Board of Regents will kick off the discussion Monday by reviewing last year’s priorities — everything from bullying prevention programs to expanding access to advanced coursework — and propose tweaks and additions.

They’ll also discuss what to prioritize in their overall funding request for education across the state (the board has not yet requested a specific dollar amount). Last year the Board asked for a $1.6 billion increase, which is less than the $1 billion boost that was ultimately approved. But the if the state Senate, which has been controlled by Republicans for years, flips to Democrats, it could reshape the annual budget dance just as it kicks into gear.

Also on the Regents agenda: a discussion of state test scores that were released late last month. However, state officials have repeatedly said the results do not offer much insight about whether student learning is improving across the state because of changes to the test that make results hard to compare to previous years.

Here’s what you should know in advance of the meeting.

Legislative chatter

Officials are set to discuss last year’s legislative priorities and how close they got to their goals.

One priority from that cycle, for instance, was to address the yawning gap in access to advanced coursework in different school districts across the state, a top concern of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as well. Among wealthy suburban school districts, students were roughly five times as likely to have access to six or more Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate offerings as students in New York City, according to a report released earlier this year. (The city is also launching a pilot program to allow virtual classes in advanced subjects at 15 high schools in the Bronx, under the new teachers contract.)

The Regents requested $3 million in grants to help expand offerings among high-needs districts, and wound up with $500,000, according to state documents. (Though the board doesn’t have any formal power over the legislature, they can help sway the outcome as the state’s top education policymaking body.)

They’ll also discuss a slew of other priorities, including how to support new intervention plans for New York’s lowest-performing schools that were developed as part of the state’s compliance with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

And the Regents will talk about progress on their efforts to support English learners; they have previously asked for funding to translate Regents exams into Spanish so students can better demonstrate skills beyond their proficiency in English.

Other issues, beyond these priorities, may surface in discussions Monday as well.

The board isn’t expected to approve a full set of legislative goals until December, and it’s possible that a wave election could give Democrats control of the State Senate. Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa previously told Chalkbeat said she hopes “the combination of the Assembly and the Senate will create leverage” in the budget process, a dynamic she hopes will lead to more funding.

Many of the Regents’ priorities — more support for vulnerable students, additional social services in schools, and other initiatives — would require significant additional investments.

Testing testing

State and local education officials have said it’s impossible to compare the newly released results on the state English and math exams to last year’s because the test was changed — it’s administered over just two days instead of three —  but several lingering issues could surface.

In New York City, there are still significant score gaps between white and black students. Almost 67 percent of white students passed their English tests, close to double the percentage of black students. And almost 64 percent of white students passed math, compared to about a quarter of black students.

And even though Regents reduced the number of testing days, opposition to the exams continued, with about the same percentage of New York students deciding to opt out as did the previous year. In New York City, where most kids usually take the test, there was a slight uptick in students who sat out.

This comes after the state agreed to soften certain penalties for schools where opt-out rates remained consistently high.

Some Regents remain committed to computer-based testing, and the state hopes to eventually expand the practice to all students. Some are concerned about the nature of the exams, whether they are fair to English language learners, and whether the tests help perpetuate disparities.

State education officials have shown some interest in different approaches to testing. Regents decided not to apply for a federal waiver to pursue “innovative” exams — involving essays, projects, and tasks — but they did form a work group that is partially focusing on testing.

2018 SPF ratings

Fewer Denver schools earn top ratings as the district raises the bar for quality

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Students at Kepner Beacon Middle School work on an assignment.

The Denver school district raised its bar this year for what it deems a quality school — and the number of schools meeting that bar plummeted, according to ratings released Friday.

Even though districtwide elementary and middle school test scores rose last spring, just 88 of Denver Public Schools’ more than 200 schools this fall are rated blue or green, the top two ratings on the district’s five-color scale. That’s down from a record 122 blue and green schools last year, and lower than the 95 schools that earned those ratings in 2016.

Twenty schools this year are rated red, which is at the bottom of the scale. That’s twice as many as last year but not as many as earned a red rating in 2016.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the lower number of top ratings doesn’t signal that Denver schools are getting worse but rather that the district is ratcheting up its expectations — something it has been planning for years. Now, to get the district’s highest ratings, schools need to show that more of their students can read, write, and do math at grade level.

The ratings system, Boasberg said, “really expresses our shared aspirations as a community for the academic growth and performance of our students.”

“We think it’s very, very important for us to articulate clearly those shared aspirations, to establish goals for people to strive for, and to be very public about how all of us are doing,” he added. “I know that’s not easy. Any time … you set an aspirational goal, you don’t always achieve it. I don’t think the answer is to water down your aspirational goals.”

The ratings — known as the School Performance Framework, or SPF, ratings — matter for several reasons. Many parents use them to pick where to send their children to school, a decision that’s both easier and more crucial in a district that prizes school choice. If fewer parents pick a particular school, the school gets less funding, which means it could be forced to cut the teachers or programs that would make it a desirable choice in the first place.

The district also uses the ratings to determine which schools are struggling and in need of extra money or support — and which are so consistently low-performing that they should be closed. The school board is currently reevaluating its policy for when to close red-rated schools.

Denver’s ratings have long been controversial because some people think the way they are calculated presents an incomplete or unfair picture of a school’s quality. The ratings are overwhelmingly based on how students performed on state literacy and math tests the previous spring. This past spring marked the third year students in grades three through eight took a set of more rigorous exams known as CMAS.

Their performance on those tests has actually improved over time. The percentage of Denver students scoring on grade level in both literacy and math has inched to within a few points of the statewide average, narrowing what had been a wide chasm.

Denver students have also shown strong academic growth, a measurement that compares students with those with similar score histories. Strong growth indicates that Denver students, most of whom are black or Hispanic and come from low-income families, are making more progress in a year’s time than their academic peers across the state.

But because the district made it harder for schools to be rated blue, which means a school is “distinguished,” or green, which means it “meets expectations,” fewer schools earned top ratings. In fact, 37 percent of Denver’s 207 schools got lower ratings this year than last year.

Among them were some of the district’s large comprehensive high schools, including North High and South High. Both fell from a yellow rating, which means a school needs some improvement, to an orange rating, which means a school needs more improvement.

John F. Kennedy High went from orange to red, which means a school needs significant improvement. So did West Leadership Academy, one of two smaller schools that replaced comprehensive West High. The district has in the past closed schools with repeated red ratings.

However, it also targets low-rated schools for extra financial help, providing up to $1.7 million over five years to the schools officials deem most struggling.

Boasberg attributed the high school ratings slips to a poorer than expected showing on state tests. This was the first year Colorado ninth-graders took the PSAT test, a precursor to the popular college preparatory exam, and their growth scores were surprisingly low.

“The SPF reflects that,” Boasberg said, referring to the district’s rating system.

One high school principal expressed concern that the ratings put too much emphasis on test scores and not enough on graduation rates and whether a school’s graduates can go on to college without having to take remedial courses. Stacy Parrish, principal at High Tech Early College, said she believes those metrics provide a more accurate measure of high school quality.

“When we have an inaccurate assessment tool, we are at the mercy of the color we are given,” she said. “We need to be able to control our own narrative of what we’re doing in our schools. Because across the metro area, we are doing beautiful work.”

A smaller number of schools, 10 percent, earned higher ratings this year. They include the district’s most requested middle school, McAuliffe International, which went from green to blue.

The district raised its quality bar this year in several ways. For instance, it increased the percentage of elementary and middle school students who must score on grade level on the CMAS tests for a school to be rated blue or green. It used to be 40 percent. It’s now 50 percent.

If that doesn’t sound very high, consider this: Just 45 percent of students statewide scored at grade level on the CMAS literacy test this past spring, and only 42 percent of Denver students did. The percentages were even lower for the math test.

The percentage of students in kindergarten through third grade who must score at grade level on early literacy tests for a school to be rated blue or green increased, as well. That change came after parents and community leaders complained that last year’s ratings were inflated because the early literacy tests overstated students’ reading abilities.

The ratings of these schools were downgraded because of their academic gaps:
East High
Thomas Jefferson High
Northfield High
CEC Early College
Skinner Middle
DSST: College View Middle
Girls Athletic Leadership Middle
McKinley-Thatcher Elementary
Carson Elementary
University Prep — Arapahoe St.
Southmoor Elementary
Asbury Elementary
Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest
KIPP Northeast Elementary
Cowell Elementary
Lincoln Elementary
Brown International Academy
Montclair School of Academics and Enrichment
McMeen Elementary
John H. Amesse Elementary
Columbine Elementary
Munroe Elementary

There is another factor at play this year, too: an “academic gaps indicator” that measures how well certain groups of students are scoring on the tests compared with benchmarks and with their peers. The demographic groups include students of color, students from low-income families, students with disabilities, and students learning English as a second language.

If students in those groups aren’t meeting benchmarks or if the gaps between, say, students of color and white students at a particular school are too big, the school’s rating will be penalized. Schools must be rated blue or green on the academic gaps indicator to be blue or green overall.

This year, 22 schools that would have been green were downgraded a step to yellow because they scored poorly on the academic gaps indicator. (See box.) The 22 schools include the district’s biggest and most requested high school, East High.

This is the second year the district has used the indicator. Last year, nine schools were downgraded from green to yellow. Three of them — Bromwell Elementary, Teller Elementary, and Hill Campus of Arts and Sciences, a middle school — made enough progress toward closing gaps or boosting the scores of students in those groups to move back up to green.

As for the district’s lowest-rated schools, the Denver school board is set on Monday to discuss changes to its school closure policy, which has hard and fast rules for when to shutter or replace struggling schools. Board members agreed this year not to use those rules, which rely heavily on school ratings and have been criticized as harsh and inflexible. Instead, the board talked about taking other evidence into account, though it hasn’t yet decided how that will work.

It’s also not clear if the board will consider closing any schools this year. Back in June, board member Lisa Flores, who proposed suspending the rules, said school closure wasn’t completely off the table, especially if a struggling school also has low enrollment.

Under the suspended rules, nine schools with successive years of low ratings could have been eligible for closure or replacement if they earned a red rating this year. Only two did: Lake Middle School, a district-run school, and Compass Academy, a charter middle school.

The seven other schools did better. They include the large, comprehensive Abraham Lincoln High, which earned an orange rating, and Math and Science Leadership Academy, an elementary school that jumped up to a green rating this year.

The district held a press conference about the ratings Friday at the Kepner campus in southwest Denver. That location is noteworthy because it represents one of the more controversial school improvement strategies deployed under Boasberg, who is stepping down as superintendent next week after 10 years at the helm of Denver Public Schools.

In 2014, the district began phasing out struggling Kepner Middle School. The district replaced it, grade by grade, with two new schools that share the building: Kepner Beacon, a district-run middle school, and STRIVE Prep – Kepner, a charter middle school.

Those two schools are green this year. Technically, so is Kepner Middle School, which doesn’t exist anymore. The last class of 132 Kepner Middle School eighth-graders moved on last spring, but their test scores were good enough to earn a green rating this fall.

“Turnaround is not an easy process and there’s lots of opposition,” Boasberg said. But he pointed out that in the case of Kepner, as the original middle school shrunk, the students who remained there thrived. “What turnaround is ultimately about,” he said, “is, ‘How do we get better opportunities faster for the students we serve?’”

Find your school in the spreadsheet below. Or look it up on the district’s website.