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.”