Building Better Schools

State board sets special meeting on NCLB waiver concerns

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz and board member Gordon Hendry at an Indiana State Board of Education meeting in February. (Scott Elliott)

The Indiana State Board of Education will hold a special meeting on on Tuesday for board members to ask questions of state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and her Indiana Department of Education team about how the state ended up being put on notice by the U.S. Department of Education.

Federal officials sent Ritz a letter last week giving 60 days for her to explain how Indiana will address area of concern regarding actions the state promised to take in 2012 in return for release from some rules of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

NCLB, signed in 2002, requires states to establish testing and accountability systems to raise all children to proficiency in math and English. But states complained test score growth expectations in NCLB were unrealistically tough, leading President Obama’s administration to permit “waivers” from some of those rules.

Indiana was approved to use its own A to F school grading system for accountability under the waiver and pledged to adopt Common Core to meet a requirement to follow standards that would produce graduates who are “college and career ready.”

Among the concerns federal officials want Indiana to address is how its new standards will ensure college and career readiness now that the state legislature has voided its adoption of Common Core.

But the letter also raised questions about whether Indiana was adequately overseeing and supporting schools that are identified as poor performers, and Ritz’s critics were quick to demand answers about state education department oversight.

Immediately after word of the letter spread last week, Gov. Mike Pence called for the state board to have a role in guiding the response and board member Brad Oliver proposed a special meeting, suggesting state education officials had fallen short in their efforts to monitor and assist troubled schools.

After relative peace among Pence, Ritz and the board in 2014, the meeting could spark new conflicts if all the parties are not able to agree on a plan to respond to the letter. Last fall, disagreements between Ritz and the board escalated into a lawsuit by Ritz against other board members that was dismissed and an abrupt walkout from a board meeting in November by Ritz.

The meeting will be at 12:30 p.m. at the Government Center South in conference room B. The board’s regular monthly meeting is still scheduled to be held the following day on May 14 at 9 a.m.

new model

Achievement First is betting on a new model to help more of its students graduate college

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Alexis Riley teaches a ninth-grade physics class at Achievement First.

Charter school operators across the country have been grappling with a vexing problem: graduating large numbers of students who go on to college, yet flounder when they get there and never earn a degree.

It’s an issue Achievement First — a national network that operates 19 schools in Brooklyn — is trying to solve by experimenting with a new model that gives students more control over their own learning. The model, known as “Greenfield” for its open-minded approach, was first piloted in Connecticut. But starting next school year, it will roll out for the first time in New York City at a new Brooklyn middle school.

“What a lot of alumni revealed to us were gaps in student agency and student choice in what they were learning in the lower grades,” explained Amanda Pinto, an Achievement First spokeswoman. Though virtually all of the network’s students attend college, Pinto said, only about 50 percent graduate.

The model is designed to prepare students to handle self-direction years before they’re in college. It uses a curriculum that emphasizes personalized learning, where students guide themselves through different units of study and are responsible for mastering each piece of content before they can move on (an approach that has earned both hype and mixed reviews).

Zachary Segall, who will serve as the school’s inaugural principal, said students will have two 40-minute blocks of dance and art classes four times each week, will set their own goals throughout the year, and participate in “expeditions” that allow them to explore interests outside the traditional curriculum. That could include something like podcasting, Segall said, or architecture.

“Part of the model is addressing the idea that our students need to be prepared for college, and not just prepared academically,” Segall said. The new school will be called Achievement First Aspire Middle School, and will open in East New York this fall to serve the students aging out of the network’s local elementary school.

Achievement First is known for high academic expectations and a style of discipline that “sweats the small stuff.” Whether the approach will help the network get more of its students through college remains to be seen.

Pinto pointed to some signs of success: The Greenfield model yielded higher math and reading scores at the pilot school in Connecticut compared to other schools in the network that didn’t use the model. But she acknowledged that the approach is still in its infancy.

“‘Good enough’ is never good enough when you’re talking about getting kids college success,” Pinto added. “Time will tell.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said students will have two 40-minute blocks of dance and music classes. In fact, they will be dance and art classes. 

Playing around

These Detroit student activists wrote a play about the recent political turmoil in city schools. Watch it here.

Students in the 482Forward youth organizing collective perform a play about recent events in Detroit schools.

It’s been a nerve-wracking year in Detroit education, with state officials threatening to shutter two dozen city schools for years of low test scores, then backing off closures in favor of “partnership agreements.”

It’s all been very complicated, which is why a group of Detroit students wrote and performed a play about recent events in the city schools.

Called “Fork in the Road: Succeeding with us or failing without us,” the play was staged for an audience earlier this month at a church on the city’s east side. It was performed by the youth arm of 482Forward, a citywide education organizing network.

“It was their idea to do the play,” said Molly Sweeney, 482Forward’s director of organizing. The students involved wrote and performed the play, she said. “Given all the chaos in the city and everything being so confusing, this was a way of explaining the partnership agreements in a fun and interactive way.”

The play features a student who receives messages from the future via Snapchat that warns of dire consequences if students, parents and teachers are not involved in the work of turning around struggling schools.

Watch it here:

Fork in the road 1 from 482forward on Vimeo.