Indiana

More Indianapolis charter schools ranked high on the 2015 state exam

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Leaders from five proposed schools received fellowships to plan and launch the schools from the Mind Trust today.

There’s no denying that the state ISTEP exam was tougher last year, causing scores to fall for nearly all schools statewide, but there’s evidence that charter schools did a little better than most in Indianapolis.

Indianapolis private schools, meanwhile, saw their rankings compared to other schools in the state dip with a few notable exceptions.

Changes to the test, and lower scores across the board, make it difficult to compare 2015 scores with prior years but, in looking for a way to get a sense of how Indianapolis schools measured up to their peers across the state, Chalkbeat compared the list of schools that ranked in the top half of all Indiana schools in 2015 and 2014.

Ranking the schools from the highest passing rate to the lowest for both years, Chalkbeat identified schools that climbed up the rankings — and those that dropped.

Charter schools in the city, it turned out, saw their rankings go up while Indianapolis Public Schools landed a little lower on the list.

“It puts a smile on my face to see those things,” said Ahmed Young, Mayor Joe Hogsett’s education director who oversees more than 25 city-sponsored charter schools.

But Young says he doesn’t put much stock in comparisons between school types.

“I often think about the rest of our kids and how we can provide resources to all of our schools regardless of label to make sure they get a well rounded education.”

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 2.10.26 PM

In general, schools in Marion County compare poorly against the rest of the state. Countywide, just 28 percent of schools ranked in the top half of the state for ISTEP passing rates in 2015.

It’s not entirely a surprise, given the strong connection between family wealth and student test scores, that schools in Marion County generally do not rank among the state’s best on ISTEP. Many studies over years of research have shown that a student’s family income has a strong influence on test scores.

Within Indianapolis, schools in the city’s urban core lagged behind the county as whole in the Chalkbeat analysis but charter schools showed solid improvement. About 12 percent of charter schools in the city ranked in the top half of the state, up from 8 percent the year before.

That’s compared to the state’s largest district, Indianapolis Public Schools, which saw fewer of its schools ranked in the top half of the state at 6.7 percent, down about 7 percentage points from 2014.

IPS spokeswoman Kristin Cutler, said in a statement that the district doesn’t trust the 2015 ISTEP data to truly reflect student performance. ISTEP results were delayed for months by administrative and scoring glitches.

Cutler’s statement said the district’s 2015 scores “may be misleading” and cited problems such as test results that came back to the district listed as “undetermined” as well as some double scores in its raw data. As a result, IPS is looking at other measures of student academic success.

“In a turbulent year for standardized assessments, IPS does not believe our results are indicative of the hard work and growth of our students and educators,” the statement said in part. “Our district utilizes formative assessments to set yearly benchmarks and monitor progress regarding student achievement.”

Young said he also is focused on a spectrum of student academic results, not just standardized tests, and schools of all types in Indianapolis, not just city-sponsored charter schools.

“I look at ISTEP as only one portion of our accountability,” he said “It’s great to see positive results for our schools but it’s only one indicator. I also think about how IPS and township schools are faring. It’s not a zero sum game. Comparisons are necessary at times but we want each and every school in Marion County to exceed expectations.”

The Oaks Academy schools shine

Private schools in Indianapolis — by far the best performing type of school on ISTEP for several years running — also saw their rankings slip almost as much as IPS. In 2015, about 58.5 percent of the city’s 41 private schools that took ISTEP ranked in the top half for passing rate among more than 1,800 public and private schools statewide. That’s down 5.5 percentage points from 2014.

Private schools statewide actually saw a slightly bigger drop in the rankings, falling 6.5 percentage points to 62 percent ranked in the top half in the state.

Bucking that trend in Indianapolis is the Oaks Academy. The three-campus private school collectively ranked No. 1 in the state when compared against school districts, charter school networks and other private school organizations.

That means the 660 Oaks Academy students had a higher passing rate on ISTEP than Carmel, Zionsville and other traditional top scorers.

And Oaks Academy serves a higher percentage of poor children than many private schools, said Andrew Hart, CEO of the organization that runs the three schools.

The schools, which are faith-based but not affiliated with a particular church, purposefully balance their classes to insure students reflect racial and income diversity, Hart said. Roughly half the students come from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and student enrollment in each school is roughly 50 percent white, 30-40 percent black and 10-20 percent Latino, multi-racial or Asian. To qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a family of four can make no more than $43,500 annually.

The big keys to their success, Hart said, are the cultural benefits of racial and economic balance and very high retention rates for students and teachers.

“Almost all of our families enroll when they are in pre-K or Kindergarten,” he said. “Our student retention is in the high 90th percentile year to year. They come in pre-K and they stay. That allows us to invest in them in a very aligned systematic way in their education.”

A diverse school, he said, plays a big role as students learn from each other.

“That creates an incredible environment for learning,” Hart said.

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.

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.