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.”

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

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.