Indiana

IPS dumps Teach Plus contract as board members trade barbs

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Indianapolis Public School Board members Gayle Cosby, Diane Arnold and Michael Brown discuss district issues at a July school board meeting.

The Indianapolis Public School Board reversed course and dumped a contract with a national teacher program, which it approved just a week ago, by a 4-1 vote tonight as angry board members accused each other of playing politics.

Board member Diane Arnold demanded that those who voted against the deal, which is mostly funded by philanthropic donations, explain why they wanted to cancel a deal that pays $6,000 stipends to teacher leaders at three low-rated schools who are specially trained by the non-profit group Teach Plus.

The program is run by Teach Plus’ national office, but its local executive director is IPS board member Caitlin Hannon, who abstained from voting. Hannon is seen as allied with candidates who are spending thousands of dollars to try to unseat three of her fellow board members, all of whom voted no today, in an election next week.

“She’s not getting compensated,” Arnold said of Hannon while criticizing the decision to back out of the deal. “That concerns me because that’s a personal vendetta that will hurt our children.”

Board member Samantha Adair-White, who has two challengers in her re-election bid, said she didn’t support the program, called Turnaround Teacher Teams or T3, because she wants an across-the-board raise for all teachers instead of stipends for a few. She took exception to being accused of voting no because of Hannon.

“Caitlin is a grown woman,” Adair-White told Arnold. “You always get on the mic and you’ve got to make this big old spiel about ‘It’s because of Caitlin.’ No, it’s not. It’s what’s right by all teachers, not just T3 teachers. We service all teachers. That’s what’s right.”

Board President Annie Roof, also being challenged for re-election, called the meeting and was the only board member to change her vote from last week. Roof said she liked the program, but was unhappy Superintendent Lewis Ferebee had launched it before the board voted yes.

“I am not going against T3,” Roof said. “When something of this magnitude falls through the cracks, it’s our responsibility to address it, fix it and move forward when we’re all comfortable with the process.”

Board member Gayle Cosby said she wished more money went toward the teachers’ stipends. Michael Brown said he’d rather see a half a percent raise for all teachers. Adair-White said she would never support the Teach Plus program.

That didn’t impress teachers from the three schools — School 14, School 44 and School 61 —that were signed up for the program. They were joined by IPS teacher of the year Tina Ahlgren, who said she was dismayed by the board vote.

“I’m disappointed for the teachers who have already committed to the program,” Ahlgren said. “It’s even brought some quality teachers back to the district. It’s one thing to have never brought it here, but I’m concerned about them promising teachers something and then taking it away from them.”

Advocacy group Stand for Children’s executive director, Justin Ohlemiller, called the board’s decision “unfathomable” and driven by politics.

“I think the timing is incredibly curious,” Ohlemiller said. “The back and forth tonight was personal and political and has no place in this board room. The job of this district is to educate our children. Why would you ever vote to slow down a program that is doing exactly that, especially children in our most struggling schools?”

Board members Roof, Adair-White, Brown and Cosby voted to rescind the contract. Arnold was the lone no vote. Sam Odle was absent.

Ferebee also was absent from the meeting due to a family matter. His top organizational strategist, Le Boler, called the situation a misunderstanding.

“We’ll definitely do everything we can to resolve the matter,” Boler said. “I know there’s a willingness to employ a lead teacher. Each of (the board members) agree we need to grow our own professionals. That’s a starting point. We need to figure out if this is going to be the best approach or if we need to consider something else.”

Under the contract, IPS would have paid nearly $750,000 to Teach Plus. The Eli Lilly and Company Foundation has already given $1 million to IPS to support the program.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.