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.”

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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.

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Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.