getting in

More students want to go to popular IPS magnet schools, but they still face barriers to getting in

PHOTO: Hafsa Razi / Chalkbeat

One year in, Indianapolis’ new system for applying to magnet and charter schools has helped make school choice fairer and more accessible for low-income families  but barriers remain for getting into some of the city’s most popular schools, a new report Thursday showed.

More low-income families are applying earlier to schools, increasing their chances of getting into schools of their choice, according to the annual report from Enroll Indy, the organization that handles how families enroll in Indianapolis Public Schools magnet programs, some innovation schools, and most charter schools in the city.

Families who look for schools later in the year, who are more likely to be low-income, now still get a shot at seats even if they miss the first deadline. And 1,000 more families are applying to magnet programs, the report said.

“A lot of people have thought about creating great schools in Indianapolis, but not a lot of people have been thinking about it from a parent demand perspective: What do families want, and how do we consider what they want?” said Caitlin Hannon, Enroll Indy’s founder and executive director. “Hopefully our work over time will inform those decisions, so it really is parents and families driving positive change, versus a top-down district or city or Mind Trust effort.”

But the report also shows that some inequities in Indianapolis Public Schools still persist: There still aren’t enough seats at the city’s most sought-after magnet programs to meet the increasing demand. At three out of six of the popular Center for Inquiry and Butler University Laboratory schools, which are mostly clustered in more affluent neighborhoods, only those who live closest could get in last fall during the first round of admissions — and they claimed most of those schools’ open seats.

In the first round of applications, when the largest share of families were deciding where to send their children to school, the report showed that spots often filled up before admissions could be opened up to students who live more than half a mile away from the school, let alone in other parts of the district. While most other choice schools had enough spots for just about all interested students, kindergarten students in the first round had a 1-in-3 or 1-in-4 chance of getting into most of the Center for Inquiry or Butler Lab schools.

Some families reapplied later to try to win spots, but most did not. The district set aside seats for later rounds of enrollment, and even at the most popular schools, those opened up to serve a larger range of students. But there were fewer seats available, and even though fewer families were looking for seats, many still faced long odds of getting in.

“It’s frustrating,” said Kelly Bentley, a retiring school board member who represents the northside. “We need to expand them and spread the love. They shouldn’t be all concentrated in one part of town.”

Because the district prioritizes admission to students who live nearby, some of the most high-demand magnet programs enroll a disproportionate share of white students and students from middle-class families, instead of drawing a more diverse population from across the district.

The exclusivity of these popular magnet schools persists because of their locations largely in wealthier neighborhoods and in spite of a change in rules two years ago to make them available to more students beyond those who live the closest. The change followed a series on segregation from Chalkbeat and the Indianapolis Star that showed how the district gave the most privileged families in the district an admission edge at sought-after schools.

Initially, district officials said the policy change helped increase the racial and socioeconomic diversity of those schools. It’s unclear whether the magnet schools became any more or less diverse this year, racially or socioeconomically, because Enroll Indy doesn’t track demographic data. School-level enrollment data is expected to be released by the state in coming weeks.

The district continues to struggle with the tension over making those high-quality magnet schools available to all students — both those who live nearby and those who live in other parts of the city. District officials say that the magnet schools help retain families who might otherwise seek private school or township school options. The northside has one F-rated neighborhood school, School 43, that serves mostly black and mostly poor students.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Bentley said. “You have a whole bunch of people on the northside who, if they don’t get into one of those programs, they’re probably going elsewhere. But then you have a whole bunch of people who live outside of this area who want the opportunity to go to those programs as well, and they’re not able to get in.”

At the Center for Inquiry School 70, the report said 463 students were competing for 54 kindergarten seats. The school opened in 2016 to some criticism over its Meridian Kessler location, since the northside was already home to the Center for Inquiry School 84. According to the report, both School 70 and School 84’s first round of available seats filled with children who lived within the half-mile proximity zone.

At the Center for Inquiry School 27 on the near-northside, where demand was smaller, kindergarten students had better chances of getting in, and location wasn’t as much of a limiting factor. Students from across the district were considered for admission in the first and third rounds.

In this year’s enrollment process, which opened Thursday, families will have just two rounds to apply.

These most sought-after programs saw more applications last year in part because of Enroll Indy’s targeted outreach efforts in low-income neighborhoods to close what Hannon called the “information gap,” by telling families about their options and how the system works. Higher participation, she said, means more families know about their options.

The programs also saw more applications because families could apply to all Center for Inquiry sites, rather than applying to the program and getting placed by the district at the closest location, said Patrick Herrel, Indianapolis Public Schools’ director of enrollment and options.

While the district has been examining whether and where it can expand its most popular programs, officials say they want to be strategic in those decisions. It also takes time to replicate those programs after this year’s new IPS/Butler Lab School 55 and the Center for Inquiry School 70 in 2016, because they use a model that relies on experienced teachers in existing schools to launch new sites.

“We’re always trying to figure out what it is that our families want,” Herrel said.

Charter Churn

New York City charters burn through principals faster than district schools, report finds

PHOTO: Getty Images / Spencer Platt
A charter school rally in New York City

As the principal at Renaissance Charter School, Stacey Gauthier’s job extends well beyond supervising teachers. She manages fundraising, lobbies elected officials to support charter schools, and even responds to issues raised by the teachers union.

“We are basically our own district,” she said, noting that the work of running an independent charter school can be a challenge without the infrastructure that comes with a school system or even a large charter network.

Despite that heavy workload, Gauthier has stayed in her role for 11 years, making her an outlier among charter principals. According to a first-of-its-kind report released earlier this month by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank, the city’s charter schools generally churn through principals at a much higher rate than traditional district schools.

Last school year, 25 percent of the city’s charter school principals were new, more than double the turnover rate at district schools. That level of turnover represents something of a paradox: Studies show principal turnover can hurt student achievement, but research has also shown the city’s charter schools generally have higher state test scores than district schools do.

“If the research is right” about the consequences of principal turnover, said Marcus Winters, a Manhattan Institute fellow and the report’s author, “by addressing it, [charter schools] could improve even more.”

But it’s not clear why turnover is so much higher at charter schools, which also often churn through teachers at a higher rate.

One reason could be differences in student demographics. Since charter schools enroll a greater share of low-income students and students of color than district schools on average, that could make for a more challenging environment that contributes to churn. But controlling for differences in student demographics — including proportions of English learners, students with disabilities, those coming from poor families, and race — the report found no meaningful effect on turnover.

Another possible reason: Charter principals are easier to fire than district principals who typically have more union protections. A charter principal who runs a school that is seen as low performing is easier to replace, the theory goes, explaining higher levels of turnover. But the data don’t back up that theory. Even after taking into account differences in school performance as measured by school quality reports, higher turnover “was not driven by overall school performance,” Winters found.

It’s also possible charter schools are just more difficult work environments in ways that are difficult to measure, including some schools’ adoption of a “no excuses” ethos that tells educators that a student’s life circumstances should never excuse performance issues at school. (The report does not include breakdowns of individual charter schools or networks.)

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, said there could be some truth to the idea that charter schools are tougher work environments, but added that some of the turnover could be related to fierce competition for leadership talent.

“There’s such a huge supply-demand imbalance for high-quality principals,” he said.

The report includes another puzzling trend — turnover in district and charter schools fluctuates significantly over time. Over the past 10 years, turnover at district schools ranged from 8.7 to 14 percent each year. At charters, turnover ranged from 7 to nearly 34 percent. Those swings meant that in two of the last 10 years, district turnover was slightly higher than it was at charters.

Winters, the report’s author, didn’t come to a firm conclusion about why the turnover rates seemed to shift significantly from year to year.

“I left this paper with more questions than answers,” he said.

Speaking Up

Letters to J.B.: Here’s what 10 Illinois educators said governor-elect Pritzker should prioritize

PHOTO: Keri Wiginton/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

As governor-elect and national early childhood education advocate J.B. Pritzker assembles his transition team and builds out his early agenda, we asked educators to weigh in with items he should consider.

Here are 10 of their responses, which range from pleas for more staffing to more counseling and mental health services. Letters have been edited only for clarity and length. Got something to add? Use the comment section below or tell us on Twitter using #PritzkerEdu.

From: A non-profit employee who works with schools in the city and suburbs

Letter to J.B.: I work with a number of students from the City of Chicago and sadly most of them lack basic skills. Most of the students lack the ability to read and write properly, and perform below grade level. It is alarming how many students don’t have critical-thinking and analytical skills. The lack of education in low-income and minority population will hurt our city and state in years to come.


From: A youth organizer at Morrill Elementary, a K-8 school on Chicago’s Southwest Side

Letter to J.B.: Morrill School has suffered from constant turnover due to an unstable Chicago Public Schools environment that cares more about upholding its own self-interest than the people it should be serving. We need representatives that will advocate for what communities say they need!


From: A music teacher at a Chicago charter school

Letter to J.B.: I work at a charter school and I don’t think we are doing the best we can for our kids. Our school’s policies are too harsh and dehumanizing.


From: A Chicago charter school social worker

Letter to J.B.: We’ve cut mental health services throughout the city and that has crippled us. Parents have a hard time getting jobs and having enough money to supply basic needs.


From: A Chicago principal

Letter to J.B.: My school is 100 percent free- and reduced-price lunch-eligible, or low-income population. We are a middle years International Baccalaureate school. Our children were once were the lowest performing in the area and now we are a Level 1-plus school. Our school was on the closing list back in 2005 when I took over.

But now we are an investment school. Teachers are dedicated and work hard. We need funding for a new teacher to keep classes small and additional funds to purchase multiple resources to continue and strengthen overall academics. We have a vested interest in educating all of our children!


From: A teacher at A.N. Pritzker Elementary in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood

Letter to J.B.: Great kids. Great staff. No librarian. Extremely poor special education services. No substitute teachers. No time for planning. No time for anyone to provide mental health services for those in need.


From: A teacher at Whitney Young High School on Chicago’s Near West Side

Letter to J.B.: Every teacher knows that well over 90 percent of the students with academic problems have serious problems at home and in their neighborhoods. In the suburbs, social worker and psychologist staffing levels are often five to 10 times what they are here in the city, where kids are dealing with way more challenges, not less. If you’re looking for bang for your buck, fund psychologists and social workers!


From: A teacher in the Galesburg CUSD 205

Letter to J.B.: Our school is diverse in all definitions of the word. We have a diverse population in terms of race, money, and ability. We currently don’t have the money to keep all of the schools in our district open and are in the process of closing some of the buildings in order to get the others up to code and comfortable; many of our schools don’t even have air conditioning.


From: A teacher at Kiefer School, a Peoria school that educates children with severe behavioral and learning challenges

Letter to J.B.: We work with students with behavioral and mental challenges who need more help getting mental health services. We’ve had children deflected from being hospitalized due to no beds being available.


From: A teacher at Unity Junior High School in Cicero

Letter to J.B.: People often think that our school is “bad,” but the truth is, we have so many staff and students that work hard every day to bring positive change.