New ideas

Indy “innovation” school aims to send high schoolers abroad

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

Traveling the world to teach and work in Bangladesh and Rwanda was so transformative for Emma Hiza that the Oakland-based educator is determined to find a way to send American teens abroad for school.

That dream is on course to create an unusual new school in Indianapolis that will send every one of its students to another country for five months a year.

Hiza’s Thrival Academy was one of five new “innovation” schools that were awarded fellowships today by the non-profit the Mind Trust, which advocates for educational change. The winning school leaders will receive funding to plan and open new schools in the Indianapolis Public Schools innovation network, which will be part of the district but have charter-like flexibility.

Hiza, who has been working to launch a network of publicly-funded schools that will give teens the chance to travel around the world, plans to open Thrival in Indianapolis as soon as 2018.

Her plan is to open the one-year program to 10th- and 11th-grade students who will prepare for travel, spend five months abroad and complete a capstone project about their experience when they return.

Thrival is also launching a pilot program with 20 students in Oakland next fall.

“We have got to be able to effectively work across cultures and borders,” Hiza said. “This, I think, is the only way that we can really, truly embed those skills in our young people at an early age.”

For affluent families, international travel is a common part of their children’s education — from summer volunteer trips to college study abroad programs. But for low-income families, those experiences are often out of reach.

“Families from wealthier communities, they make it happen,” Hiza said. “It’s one of many ways that our students from underserved communities continue to be left out of our future.”

If the schools in Indianapolis and Oakland are successful, Hiza and her colleagues hope to expand the Thrival network nation-wide. They aim to offer publicly-funded study abroad programs to as many as 50,000 students.

Initially, Hiza expects to spend about $15,000 per student per year. That includes the travel, housing and insurance expenses of sending kids to other countries plus all of the usual teaching and curriculum expenses of typical schools.

Thrival staff are fundraising to make up the difference between the cost of Thrival and the per pupil school funding made available by the state.

If the program can reach a larger group of students, the cost will drop to just under $11,000 per year, Hiza estimates, since the school can save money by, for example, buying plane tickets in bulk.

Thrival is the most surprising idea among the innovation fellowship winners announced by the Mind Trust today. The other awards went largely to educators from established Indianapolis charter schools who are aiming to replicate existing schools or create new schools serving older kids.

Since the Mind Trust started granting fellowships three years ago, the program has attracted increasingly experienced, high quality applicants, said David Harris, chief executive officer of the Mind Trust.

“To build a school from scratch is an enormous undertaking,” Harris said. “We don’t come to any of the work that we do … with a preset idea for what these folks should be proposing.”

The other winning fellows announced today include:

  • Shy-Quon Ely II and Brooke Beavers who helped start Tindley Summit Academy. The pair aim to open an elementary school that incorporates neuroscience, physical health and mental wellness into its curriculum.
  • Tommy Reddicks and Kyle Beauchamp of Paramount School of Excellence. Leaders of the school known for its urban farm, are planning a second elementary school that would share the current school’s focus on science and project-based learning.
  • Earl Martin Phalen, founder of Phalen Leadership Academies, and Nigena Livingston. Phalen currently runs two elementary schools that offer an extended school day and computer-based lessons. The leaders are hoping to open a middle school with a similar program. This is the fourth fellowship that Phalen has won from the Mind Trust.
  • Kelly Herron, principal of Avondale Meadows Academy, and Chrystal Westerhaus-Whorton, a staffer at sister-school Vision Academy at Riverside. The pair plan to start a rigorous college prep middle school, which they say is in high demand from parents.

The latest innovation schools mark a growing partnership among the Mind Trust, the city and IPS. Some of the schools selected will likely be chartered by the mayor’s office, in addition to contracting with the school district. Mayor Joe Hogsett and Superintendent Lewis Ferebee both attended the announcement.

Hogsett said every child in Marion County should have access high quality schools in their neighborhoods.

“This means … that parents don’t have to drive 30 minutes out of their way to get their kids to a high-quality, high-performing school,” Hogsett said. “It means that our kids can walk.”

The IPS school board will review more detailed proposals from the school leaders before approving final contracts for new schools. District leaders are heavily involved in the school selection process, however, so they have already indicated support for the fellowship winners. The board has approved innovation restart contracts with three schools that were incubated with the Mind Trust.

Ferebee highlighted the experience of the winning educators.

“We have proven leaders in this group who have shown that they know how to move the dial on student achievement,” Ferebee said. “We have the opportunity to give them the keys and get out of the way.”

Achievement School District

Tennessee’s turnaround district gets new leadership team for a new chapter

PHOTO: TN.gov
Malika Anderson became superintendent of the state-run Achievement School District in 2016 under the leadership of Gov. Bill Haslam.

Tennessee is bringing in some new blood to lead its turnaround district after cutting its workforce almost in half and repositioning the model as an intervention of last resort for the state’s chronically struggling schools.

While Malika Anderson remains as superintendent of the Achievement School District, she’ll have two lieutenants who are new to the ASD’s mostly charter-based turnaround district, as well as two others who have been part of the work in the years since its 2011 launch.

The hires stand in contrast to the original ASD leadership team, which was heavy with education reformers who came from outside of Tennessee or Memphis. And that’s intentional, Anderson said Friday as she announced the new lineup with Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

“It is critical in this phase of the ASD that we are learning from the past … and have leaders who are deeply experienced in Tennessee,” Anderson said.

New to her inner circle as of Aug. 1 are:

Verna Ruffin
Chief academic officer

PHOTO: Submitted
Verna Ruffin

Duties: She’ll assume oversight of the district’s five direct-run schools in Memphis called Achievement Schools, a role previously filled by former executive director Tim Ware, who did not reapply. She’ll also promote collaboration across Achievement Schools and the ASD’s charter schools.

Last job: Superintendent of Jackson-Madison County School District since 2013

Her story: More than 30 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, director of secondary curriculum, assistant superintendent and superintendent in Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. At Jackson-Madison County, Ruffin oversaw a diverse student body and implemented a K-3 literacy initiative to promote more rigorous standards.

Farae Wolfe
Executive director of operations

Duties: Human resources, technology and operations

Current job: Program director for the Community Youth Career Development Center in Cleveland, Miss.

Her story: Wolfe has been city manager and human resources director for Cleveland, Miss., where she led a health and wellness initiative that decreased employee absenteeism due to minor illness by 20 percent. Her work experience in education includes overseeing parent and community relations for a Mississippi school district, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Leaders continuing to work with the state turnaround team are:

Lisa Settle
Chief performance officer

PHOTO: Achievement Schools
Lisa Settle

Duties: She’ll oversee federal and state compliance for charter operators and direct-run schools.

Last job: Chief of schools for the direct-run Achievement Schools since June 2015

Her story: Settle was co-founder and principal of Cornerstone Prep-Lester Campus, the first charter school approved by the ASD in Memphis. She also has experience in writing and reviewing curriculum in her work with the state’s recent Standards Review Committee.

Bobby White
Executive director of external affairs

PHOTO: ASD
Bobby White

Duties: He’ll continue his work to bolster the ASD’s community relations, which was fractured by the state’s takeover of neighborhood schools in Memphis when he came aboard in April 2016.

Last job: ASD chief of external affairs

His story: A Memphis native, White previously served as chief of staff and senior adviser for Memphis and Shelby County Mayor A.C. Wharton, as well as a district director for former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr.

A new team for a new era

The restructuring of the ASD and its leadership team comes after state officials decided to merge the ASD with support staff for its Achievement Schools. All 59 employees were invited in May to reapply for 30 jobs, some of which are still being filled.

The downsizing was necessary as the state ran out of money from the federal Race to the Top grant that jump-started the turnaround district in 2011 and has sustained most of its work while growing to 33 schools at its peak.

While the changes signal a new era for the state-run district, both McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam have said they’re committed to keeping the ASD as Tennessee’s most intensive intervention when local and collaborative turnaround efforts fail, even as the initiative has had a mostly lackluster performance.

“Overall, this new structure will allow the ASD to move forward more efficiently,” McQueen said Friday, “and better positions the ASD to support the school improvement work we have outlined in our ESSA plan …”

In the next phase, school takeovers will not be as abrupt as the first ones that happened in Memphis in 2012, prompting angry protests from teachers and parents and outcry from local officials. Local districts will have three years to use their own turnaround methods before schools can be considered for takeover.

It’s uncertain where the ASD will expand next, but state officials have told Hamilton County leaders that it’s one of several options on the table for five low-performing schools in Chattanooga.

transfer talk

This seemingly small change could make it easier for guidance counselors to send students to transfer schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A guidance counselor at Bronx Academy of Letters

New York City is planning to make it easier to refer students to alternative high schools — part of a broader effort to remove obstacles for students seeking admission to them.

The change will affect the city’s 52 transfer schools, which are designed to catch up students who have dropped out, are over-age or behind in credits. Guidance counselors at traditional high schools will be able to electronically recommend up to three transfer school options for students they believe would be better served in different settings.

That change might seem minor, but it is at the center of a wider debate playing out behind the scenes between the city’s education department — which has indicated that transfer schools are being too picky about who they admit — and transfer schools themselves, some of which worry the new policy could lead to an influx of students who have been pushed out of their high schools.

“There’s a significant fear from transfer schools that these will essentially be over-the-counter placements,” said one Manhattan transfer school principal, referring to a process through which the city directly assigns students who arrive after the admissions process is over, often mid-year. “It doesn’t necessarily make for a better fit for a student.”

Unlike most high schools in New York City, transfer schools admit students outside the centrally managed choice process. Instead, they set their own entrance criteria, often requiring that students interview, and meet minimum credit or age requirements. The schools themselves largely determine which students they admit, and accept them at various points during the year.

Some transfer school principals say this intake process is essential to maintaining each school’s culture, which depends on enrolling students who genuinely want to give school another try after dropping out or falling behind elsewhere.

But city officials have quietly scaled back the type of sorting transfer schools can do, banning them from testing students before they’re admitted, for example, or looking at attendance or suspension records. The transfer school superintendent also now has the power to directly place students if they are rejected from three transfer schools.

Given those changes, some transfer school principals are wary of the latest policy, which will allow guidance counselors at traditional schools to electronically “refer” students for up to three specific transfer schools, and requires transfer schools to track their interactions with those students.

The city says the new system will make it easier to find the right match between schools and students. It will “make the transfer high school admissions process easier and more transparent for students and families, while also ensuring better tracking and accountability,” education department spokesman Will Mantell said in a statement.

He noted the city is still working on implementation and the change won’t will happen before spring 2018. (The education department currently doesn’t have a way to track how many students are being recommended to transfer schools versus how many are actually accepted.)

Mantell could not say whether guidance counselors would need a student’s consent before electronically referring the student to a transfer school, and could not point to any specific policies on when it is appropriate for guidance counselors to refer students — though he noted there would be additional training for them.

Ron Smolkin, principal of Independence High School, a transfer school, says he appreciates the change. He worries about students who have fallen behind being told they “don’t qualify” for a transfer school, he said. “That’s why we exist.”

But other principals say it will make it easier for traditional schools to dump students because they are difficult to serve, regardless of whether they are good candidates for a transfer.

“There’s a greater risk of pushouts,” the Manhattan transfer school principal said.

Transfer school principals also worry about the consequences of accepting students who might be less likely to graduate than their current students — a potential effect of the new policy. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires high schools to graduate 67 percent of their students; those that don’t will be targeted for improvement.

Some transfer schools have called that an unfair standard since, by design, they take students who have fallen behind. The state has said transfer schools will not automatically face consequences, such as closure, if they fail to meet that benchmark, but it remains to be seen whether that entirely solves the problem.

One transfer school principal said the city’s desire to better monitor the admissions process makes sense, but won’t prevent schools from gaming the system — and is being implemented without adequate input from principals.

“Our voices haven’t been heard in this process,” the principal said, “and there are a lot of reasons to distrust.”