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.”

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

School Choice

One of the top ranked high schools in the state just joined Indianapolis Public Schools

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Herron High School is the latest addition to the IPS innovation network.

One of Indianapolis’ most sought after charter high schools just joined Indianapolis Public Schools — an unusual shift in a relationship that has long been competitive.

The IPS board voted to add Herron High School, a charter school on the northside, to the district portfolio of innovation schools at a meeting Thursday. Board member Elizabeth Gore was the only one to oppose the measure.

The move is the latest example of district collaboration with charter schools, which were seen in the past as rivals for students.

“Way back at the beginning, there was this huge animosity between IPS and charter schools,” said Herron board chair Joanna Taft, who has been involved with the school since it opened in 2006. “It’s really exciting to be able to see the charter schools and public schools start coming together.”

Herron and a second campus expected to open this fall, Riverside High School, are now under the IPS umbrella, but the schools still retain virtually all of their independence. The teachers are employed directly by the charter network and are not part of the IPS union. And unlike most innovation schools, neither campus is in an IPS building.

The deal offers the charter schools an influx of cash and extra control over which neighborhoods they serve. IPS will add well-regarded schools to the list of high schools on its books, and it will get credit for Herron’s test scores and other academic outcomes when the district is assessed by the state.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the district wanted to add Herron to the innovation network so the classical liberal arts curriculum is available to more IPS students.

“The access to the classical model, which currently doesn’t exist in our district and … has a strong track record of success is obviously appealing to us,” Ferebee said. “We want to ensure that we give our students access to this option.”

Both Herron and Riverside are located within the boundaries of IPS, but the schools also draw students from nearby township and suburban communities. About half the students who attend Herron live in IPS boundaries, said Taft.

The school, which regularly ranks among the top Indiana high school, has historically drawn high-achieving students from IPS. But it has faced criticism for having student demographics that don’t mirror the community. Herron enrolls about 35 percent students of color, compared to about 80 percent of IPS students. Additionally, about 32 percent of Herron students are poor enough to get subsidized meals, less than half the rate in IPS.

Because IPS educates so many poor students, it gets more money from the state. Next year, the district is expected to receive a base rate of nearly $7,000 per student from the state, while Herron will receive about $5,500. Under the agreement approved tonight, IPS will give Herron and Riverside $6,000 per student next year.

If the school’s demographics fit the projections from the state, the district would be giving the charter schools more than $475,000 on top of what they would normally get from the state.

Herron leaders are taking steps to increase the number of low-income students they serve, said Taft. In addition to joining the innovation network, Herron will participate in EnrollIndy, a planned unified enrollment system that will allow students to apply to Herron and other charter schools through the same website as IPS schools.

Ferebee also said joining the new enrollment system should help increase the number of low-income students at the schools.

“We have been very intentional with this agreement around ensuring that the student population with these schools mirror as much as possible our IPS population,” said Ferebee.

As innovation network schools, Herron and Riverside will also be able to give students from the surrounding neighborhoods first dibs on seats at the schools, which could increase the number of students who live within IPS boundaries. (With a few exceptions, charter schools are required to admit students by lottery.)

That was one of the most important reasons Herron wanted to join the innovation network, said Taft. Riverside staff have been working closely with neighborhood leaders around the new campus, and they wanted to be able to give local students priority in admission.

That’s an attractive prospect for board member Kelly Bentley, because the nearby students who will get an edge come from within the IPS boundaries.

“I think that Herron is an excellent academic program,” she said. “I’m really excited that our students will have a better chance of getting into that program.”