Diverse-by-design schools

Can a more diverse charter school help students feel at ease in college? IDEA takes first step toward finding out

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Health care professions are the focus of IDEA's first school attempting the diverse-by-design model. Pictured is a student practicing how to make sutures at a health careers expo in Colorado.

When the fast-growing charter network IDEA asked the federal government for several million dollars two years ago, it explained that it wanted to do something different with one of its next schools.

The school would be located in Austin, near a few schools the network already operated but far from the Rio Grande Valley where IDEA Public Schools got its start. It would be a magnet school. And it would attempt to serve a mix of students that IDEA, which serves mostly students of color from low-income households, hadn’t yet enrolled.

“Put simply, graduates of IDEA’s traditional schools have had relatively little exposure to White and affluent students, and this is a cause of stress and discomfort for minority students as they adjust to college,” IDEA’s application said.

IDEA won that $15 million grant in 2017, one of 32 winners last year, and the school is set to open in 2019. And with officials holding a groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday, the network is inching toward putting its theories about how it can create a racially diverse school — and how that might benefit students — to the test.

“The time has come to create a school that reduces ethnic, racial, and economic isolation, and also opens up new opportunities for our students, especially in an industry such as health care where minorities are underrepresented,” said Cameron Cook, who will serve as the principal of IDEA Health Professions College Prep. “We have a commitment to dismantle racism and we are not shying away from that.”

Nationally, charter schools tend to be more racially segregated than traditional district schools, with higher concentrations of students of color. Defenders of the model are quick to point out that’s in part because charters were, in some cases, conceived as a way to better serve students of color and those living in poverty.

The demographics have prompted concerns, though, that charters end up exacerbating school segregation and that their students lose out on the benefits of racially integrated schools. The U.S. Department of Education grant was awarded in part because of IDEA’s plan to create a school that is “diverse by design.”

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation who has written extensively on these types of charter schools, notes that “diverse by design” schools remain relatively rare — there are about 125 schools trying nationwide, by his count.

Charter schools “can draw on wide range of neighborhoods and bring kids together in that diverse environment that research suggests is good for everyone,” Kahlenberg said. “Unfortunately, most charter schools have not followed that, so what IDEA is trying is exciting.”

IDEA officials said in their application that their goal is for their enrollment to more closely resemble the demographic breakdown of Austin’s chief traditional public school district, with white students making up at least one-third of students and black students making up at least 10 percent.

Getting there may be complicated. In Austin, IDEA’s existing student population is about 94 percent Latino, only 4 percent black and 1 percent white, and 94 percent of its students come from low-income households.

Since charter schools can not legally select students based on their race, schools must make strategic decisions about where to recruit, where to open the school, and how to weight entries in its lottery for seats. Cook said IDEA is doing just that — they located the school in East Austin, in the middle of an area with higher white and black populations, and are aggressively recruiting in neighborhoods where they haven’t served students.

The school’s success will depend on several factors, including whether the network can successfully recruit students from a variety of socioeconomic, racial, and cultural backgrounds. But its leaders hope that its medical focus will help, given the optimism about future health care job numbers.

The plan is to start young: While there are already health professions academies serving grades 6 through 12 in the state, IDEA’s Cook says its plan is to expose students to careers as early as kindergarten with a focus on emergency services, then move to veterinary medicine in first grade, and dentistry in second grade. The school plans to serve 480 students when it opens, and can grow to about 1,600 students.

Whether all of that will eventually translate into students who feel at ease in any college setting will be the ultimate question.

“It sounds like a promising model to marry the needs of trying to desegregate schools while also building a pipeline of medical professionals who will have more of an ability to adapt to what they’re going to face once leaving their homes,” Kahlenberg said.

ONLINE SCHOOLS

A new proposal aims to ratchet up oversight of Indiana’s most troubled virtual charter schools

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos/Chalkbeat
Indiana Virtual School is located in the Parkwood office park at 96th St. and College Ave near the northern edge of Marion County.

Indiana lawmakers quietly took an initial step Wednesday that could eventually lead to the closures of the state’s most troubled virtual charter schools, Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy.

A provision to stop school districts from overseeing statewide virtual charter schools was tucked into a widely supported proposal to require students and their families to take an annual orientation before they can enroll in an online school. The bill passed the House Education Committee by an 8-0 vote and will be sent to the full House for consideration.

The move would prevent Daleville Community Schools, the oversight agency for Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, from renewing those charters. Indiana Virtual School’s charter agreement runs through the 2020 school year. Daleville has not publicly posted the charter for Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, which opened in 2017, so it is unclear when it expires.

If the two virtual charter schools were to remain open after their charters expire, the bill would require them to seek what education leaders hope would be a stronger oversight agency — a statewide charter authority such as the Indiana Charter School Board or Ball State University.

Bill author Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, said he was “trying to do more than engagement, and improve the performance of our virtual charter schools.” He has previously told Chalkbeat that he does not think school districts should oversee large, statewide virtual charter schools.

Read more: Why Indiana education officials want to stop this school district from overseeing online schools

Daleville schools superintendent Paul Garrison attended the committee hearing and testified in favor of the orientation requirement — his suggestion to make the onboarding process an annual requirement was added to the proposal — but he did not address the authorizing provision. Chalkbeat was unable to reach Garrison or Indiana Virtual School Superintendent Percy Clark for further comment.

Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy have in recent years had some of the lowest graduation rates in the state. In 2018, Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy graduated just 2 percent of its 1,009 seniors, and it also failed to test enough of its students to receive an A-F letter grade from the state, Chalkbeat found.

A 2017 Chalkbeat investigation showed that as Indiana Virtual School ballooned in size and posted dismal academic results, it had business ties that stood to financially benefit its founder.

Despite receiving $1 million in fees last year to oversee Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, education officials have raised concerns that Daleville is not holding the schools accountable.

“They’ve done a terrible job, and it would be my strong preference that they not be protected any further for their atrocious performance,” Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry has said.

Chalkbeat’s investigations and the continual low performance of virtual charter schools prompted the state board to recommend stricter regulations, including strengthening the oversight of online schools and improving engagement efforts with students.

Read more: Indiana education officials call for a crackdown on ‘too big to fail’ virtual schools

The authorizing provision also seeks to stop other school districts from following in Daleville’s footsteps, closing what some see as a loophole in Indiana law. School districts are only allowed to authorize charter schools within their boundaries, but they are not expressly prohibited from overseeing virtual charter schools.

Last summer, a Chalkbeat investigation examined an agricultural school that sought to open as a full-time virtual charter school overseen by the Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson school district. But state officials warned the district that they believed it did not have the authority to oversee a statewide virtual charter school, and Indiana Agriculture and Technology School backed off its plans, opening instead as a blended school offering half of its instruction online and half in-person.

challenging the charters

Illinois requests $1.5 million in interest-free loans for charter school fund

The Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, Ill.

At its first meeting since the inauguration of Gov. J.B. Pritzker, the Illinois State Board of Education on Monday agreed to ask the state for $1.5 million in interest-free loans for charter school facilities and classroom technology.

The board included the funding in its $19.3 billion preliminary recommendation for public education in the fiscal year starting July, $7.2 billion more than this year’s budget. The final recommendation will be made in February and heads to the governor and General Assembly for approval.

In his first speech after taking the oath as Illinois governor, Pritzker made few concrete promises on education, focusing instead on the task of balancing the Illinois budget, overhauling the state tax code, and finding new revenue. As a candidate, he had pledged to place a moratorium on charter school expansion.

In coming months, Pritzker will have the chance to replace several members of the State Board of Education whose terms are expiring. That could impact the board’s approval of charter-related budget items, as well as herald a new direction on controversial charter-related legislation like the state charter commission, which can approve charters rejected at the district level.  

The state’s Charter School Revolving Loan Fund grew under former governor Bruce Rauner, who sought to promote charter schools.

Unlike some other states, Illinois doesn’t provide funding for charter school facilities, and neither do most districts. That means charters must acquire facilities funding through bonds or other financial deals.

The state created the fund to help build, acquire and improve charter classrooms, and to provide supplies, textbooks and other equipment. Schools could apply for up to $250 per student in funding.

In 2016, the legislature increased the per-pupil loan amount to $750 per student, despite objections from some legislators.

Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, which drafted the 2016 bill that increased per-pupil funding through the loans, said he was pleased the draft budget includes more money for the fund, but that $1.5 million doesn’t meet the needs of charters when local districts don’t fund facilities facilities.

“Charters have huge facilities needs in the state, and $1.5 million doesn’t even scratch the surface,” Broy said.

Broy noted that because the fund was revolving, any loans that charters received were paid back directly into the fund.

But Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, a national group that advocates for public schools, criticized the fund for funneling public money to the independently operated charter schools.

“Before the state goes ahead and uses taxpayer dollars to pour into another fund to start up new charters, it’s really important that there be a careful accounting of what happened in the past,” said Burris. “I would hope that under the new governor, Illinois would put a pause button on this.”