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.

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.