Indiana

Hannon's goal: Help parents make choices and give schools useful data

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Students gather in the gym on a Wednesday morning in February at IPS School 27, a Center For Inquiry magnet school.

Caitlin Hannon gave up her job and her Indianapolis Public School Board seat for an idea that, while a pretty good bet to give her a future role in education in the city, is far from a slam dunk to succeed.

She’s taken the leap from suggesting a unified enrollment system as a board member to starting one herself. Her goal goes beyond just matching families with the best schools for their children.

She also thinks if parents all fill out one common application form, whether they want an IPS or charter school, and feed their desires into one database, it could help solve for Indianapolis one of education’s biggest mysteries: the motivations behind how and why they made those choices.

Hannon now has two years to start a nonprofit, find financial support, create a complex data system and, most importantly, get buy-in from her former board colleagues, the office of a new mayor, the leaders of local charter schools and perhaps even other public schools and even private schools.

Why take such a risk?

“We built this system to give families in public schools other choices,” she said. “How do you actually find what those options are?”

Understanding parent choices

On Monday, Hannon was selected by the Mind Trust as just the ninth “education entrepreneur” fellow since the organization was founded in 2006. The goal of the program is to provide education innovators time and financial support for groundbreaking ideas to improve student learning in Indianapolis.

The Mind Trust is investing $240,000 to create the system between the two-year fellowship pay and help with start-up costs.

Hannon said her goal is to create a single application parents could use to request schools for the 2017-18 school year. Her plan is to have it ready in late 2016 before the district normally begins gearing up its magnet school lottery.

Her vision is a system parents can use to learn about schools, rank them by preference and request children be assigned to their favorites.

A unified enrollment system is not a unique idea. New Orleans is a well-known example among a handful of cities that have tried it.

Hannon proposed such a system while on the school board, and Superintendent Lewis Ferebee was supportive. He said the district had preliminary conversations with Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office, which oversees a stable of more than 20 charter schools, about a shared system for both.

Other charter schools in the city will be invited to also join in. An invitation to private schools is even possible, especially those that receive publicly funded vouchers that use state education dollars to pay tuition for poor and middle class families that qualify.

“I think it would be worth sitting down with places like the Oaks Academy and Archdiocese of Indianapolis to see if they are interested in a seat at the table,” Hannon said.

As the number of schools that participates grows, the data should begin to shed light on what factors parents consider most important in choosing schools.

The answer could include surprises.

Many studies show the academic reputation of a school is a key factor parents consider when given a choice. But other factors are often rated nearly as important, such as whether the school is safe, how close it is to home, the recommendations of friends and family even what kind of lunch they serve.

So for some families, academic factors could be the top or as low as the third or fourth priority.

Surprisingly, schools sometimes fail to communicate to parents information about critical factors they use to choose where to enroll their students, said Addie Angelov, a University of Indianapolis professor who has written a book about school marketing.

Instead, schools are often overly focused on the priorities of legislators, who emphasize test scores and A-to-F grades far ahead all other factors.

“Politicians think if it’s an A, it’s good,” she said. “You don’t even need to walk through the building. But families don’t think that way. They may rank that much lower.”

Ensuring fairness, inspiring confidence

IPS has been working toward improving access to its own school choice options: magnet schools built around themes like foreign language instruction or Montessori curriculum and encouraging families to attend an expanded enrollment fair to learn about those schools.

But the district’s choice system doesn’t always work well. Popular schools have waiting lists, and the processes for being selected aren’t always clear to parents.

Plus, the magnet lottery is open only to families that go through the effort to apply. Others might not understand their options within the district beyond their neighborhood schools, much less those outside IPS. There is some evidence that children more likely to face learning barriers are less likely to get coveted spots in magnet schools. Some magnet schools, for example, have far fewer poor children or children who need special education services than a typical IPS school.

But if everyone is selecting schools through the same system, which makes their options clearer, those kids might get more opportunities.

“This establishes without any question that it’s completely fair,” Hannon said. “Even for district magnets there will be equal access.”

For charter schools, the system could eliminate concerns raised by critics about “skimming,” or the notion that some charter schools target wealthier or more academically accomplished students and find ways to discourage other children from enrolling.

Such practices are illegal. Charter schools are required to accept all children who enroll just like traditional public schools and most hold public lotteries if more student apply than the school can fit.

“This can be the proof point that we don’t do that,” Hannon said.

Some charter schools could be uneasy, however, about turning over control of their enrollment processes to an outside organization handling such large amounts of data. The advantage is far more families could learn about the school and consider applying.

“I can understand their worry,” Hannon said. “I’ve been part of a bureaucracy the last three years and seen how slow it can move and that can be frustrating. But this is giving up a small amount of freedom to make a system that works for all. The best charter school leaders think it’s right for kids.”

Better or worse for IPS?

Other critics worry that such a system could advantage charter schools, funneling more students out of IPS.

When students leave, so do the state dollars that support their schools. As the district has lost students and received less state aid over several decades it has become harder to offer as many services or even afford to pay regular raises to teachers.

“I just think it’s an unnecessary marriage,” board member Gayle Cosby said.

Cosby recently traveled to New Orleans for an education conference and heard from families who used that city’s shared enrollment system. They described waiting in long lines and being shut out from their favored options.

“Everything I heard was they were not able to get close to the choices they wanted,” she said.

For now, Cosby is in the minority on a board that has otherwise not been troubled by Ferebee’s interest in the idea.

Hannon’s departure from the board, however, removes its biggest champion of the common application idea, so a new board member could have different ideas.

The board is accepting applications for the open spot through 5 p.m. on Aug. 21. Those interested should send a resume and cover letter explaining why they want to join the board to [email protected]

Interviews will be held on Aug. 26, and the board expects to vote on a replacement at its regular meeting on Aug. 27. The successful candidate must earn four votes from the six remaining board members.

Hannon is optimistic her successor will be like minded about her idea because the majority of those picking her replacement share her views.

Connecting parent demand with school decisions

An effective system could do something else for schools. It could be a data treasure trove that reveals more information about how and why parents choose schools.

For example, Hannon said, all schools could get a better understanding of which schools are in high demand and which have the fewest families interested in choosing them.

That’s a useful factor for school board members to weigh as they make big decisions about schools that loom over the next few years. IPS is looking at how best to use schools, for example, that have low enrollment. Should they be combined? If two schools are combined, should the children always be shifted to the one with the higher test scores? Or if parents are choosing the lower-rated school of the pair in bigger numbers, perhaps that is an argument to shift the students there instead?

“This gives us an opportunity to know where the parents think they want kids to go to school,” Mind Trust CEO David Harris said, “to see where the parents think schools are effective.”

That kind of information would have helped her as a school board member, Hannon said. For example, as IPS tries new methods to turn around schools, should test scores and A-to-F grades be the only factor to help choose which schools need a complete overhaul?

Last year, the school board was persuaded to try the district’s home-grown Project Restore school improvement method at School 93 after parents at the school, with help from the advocacy group Stand For Children, collected signatures demanding it. Administrators worked out a plan with the two former School 99 teachers who founded Project Restore to expand it there.

IPS also has new partnerships this year with charter school networks designed to improve struggling district schools. School 103 is now run in partnership with the district by administrators from the Phalen Leadership Academy Charter School and Charter Schools USA launched an elementary school within Donnan Middle School with the goal of preparing students better before they reach seventh grade.

As more schools move toward shared district-charter oversight, blurring the lines between school types, Hannon argues the need for parents to have information and access will grow.

“How cool would it be to have a wealth of data about what schools parents want in this neighborhood?” she said.

A third-party organization managing student enrollment requests and assignments for schools inside IPS, outside the district and those jointly run can help ensure confidence in the system and fairness, Hannon said.

“I heard from people you need somebody independent,” she said. “There is so much change happening at the district. We’re just now getting to a place where districts and charters are collaborating.”

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.