Choosing college

Which Indiana colleges have well-paid grads? A new tool for applicants has answers

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
A student walks through the hallway of University Prep, a Denver charter school.

High school students making crucial decisions about where to go to college might find traditional college rankings helpful, but some Indiana leaders say Hoosier students need better tools.

The Indiana Commission for Higher Education recently rolled out a new college information system called the Indiana College Value Index that gives students and their parents a host of information about Indiana colleges and universities, including important feedback from alumni and details such as the percent of majors that earn salaries higher than the state median.

The new tool paints a fuller picture of the cost, atmosphere and support provided by the state’s public two- and four-year colleges and universities and deliberately avoids giving colleges a ranking because the best school for each student could vary with each student’s grades, interests and priorities.

“We have all this great data, but we’ve known for a long time what we’re missing is the qualitative measure of the value of a college degree that you can’t just capture in numbers,” said spokeswoman Stephanie Wilson.

The new index includes information from the commission’s existing reports about how much colleges cost, how long it takes a typical student who enrolls to graduate and how much remediation they might need later on. It also factors in results from a survey earlier this year of 14 public colleges and universities that asked alumni to answer questions about a range of topics, including internships, extracurricular activities, college debt, and job satisfaction and income post-graduation.

Some of the state’s larger institutions, such as Indiana University, did not participate in the survey, but other information about the state’s largest university is recorded in the index.

The largest source of new information in the index is feedback gathered from alumni.

“The voice of the student is a pretty important one that we should, to the extent possible, try to factor in to provide a more representative picture of what’s going on and where there’s room for improvement,” said Jason Bearce, the associate commissioner.

Using the new tool, students and families can see information about whether colleges offer services to support job searches and how Indiana stacks up nationally when it comes to relationships with faculty, among other sortable data points.

The index is still in its early stages, said Commissioner Teresa Lubbers, but it’s another part of a conversation that is happening in various stages among Indiana educators and policymakers about how to make sure students are prepared and able to eventually contribute to Indiana’s workforce and economy after they leave high school.

The tool could serve as a way to not just help students and families navigate the college admissions process, it could also be a useful way for state colleges and universities to see how they compare to their peers. Years ago, Bearce said, colleges mostly relied on enrollment numbers as the main indicator of success. Later, graduation rate became the popular metric.

By offering more information, Bearce said the goal is to encourage participation from colleges that might have had reservations about college rankings that look at just one or two factors.

Supporters of the index recognize that it’s not as simple to use as rankings like the controversial annual college list from U.S. News and World Report, but Lubbers said the Commission is working to make its new tool as accessible as possible to families that might be overwhelmed by college choices, particularly students who will be the first in their families to go to college.

As they work to add more colleges to the index and tweak how the data is presented, the Commission is also looking for feedback from people who use the tool this year. They’re working with the Indiana Youth Institute as well as local school districts and the principals and superintendents associations to figure out what information is still needed and how the index could work better.

“If we waited to have it just right … we’d never do anything,” Bearce said. “There are some gaps, but we didn’t want that to prevent us from putting something out there.”

talking it out

At NAACP hearing on charter school moratorium, foes and fans find common ground

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Nyla Jenkins, a first-grader at KIPP STAR Harlem College Prep Charter School

When the NAACP called for a moratorium on charter schools last fall, the group’s president and CEO Cornell Brooks said the group wanted a “reasoned pause,” not a “doomsday destruction” of charters.

Still, it ignited a firestorm among charter school supporters and sparked a series of hearings nationwide, the last of which was held Thursday in New York City. But rather than a heated debate, the panelists and public speakers took pains to find common ground.

“We cannot have a situation where schools are pitted against each other,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told the packed auditorium at Harlem Hospital Center.

Many panelists said the problem wasn’t school choice, but the fact that too many parents felt compelled to seek alternatives to struggling district schools.

“If you go into communities where education is working, you don’t see people scrambling around, trying to figure out what school to put their child in,” said Lester Young, a member of the state Board of Regents. “We have communities in New York City right now where parents say there is not one middle school I can place my child in. Now, that’s the issue.”

Still, many of the speakers also acknowledged problems with charter schools, particularly in states where the laws governing them are more lax than they are in New York.

“We want to make sure that those schools are going to accept students that have special needs,” said Rebecca Pringle, vice president of the National Education Association. “We want to make sure that we do not create separate systems that are unequal.”

The charter school advocates on the panel seemed to agree that some charters weren’t working. They were quick to denounce for-profit charters, for instance. “For-profit operators have no business in education,” said Katie Duffy, CEO of Democracy Prep Charter School. Our children “are not assets and liabilities and they shouldn’t be treated as such.”

Rafiq Kalam id-Din II, who founded a charter school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, spoke about the need for more schools like his, founded and staffed by black and Hispanic community members. Without naming names, he called out charter schools that believe “if you don’t sit a certain way, you can’t learn” or are using suspension as a “first response” rather than a last resort.

“Criminalizing the behavior of our children — there should be a moratorium on that,” he said.

But it was Nyla Jenkins, 7, a first-grader at KIPP STAR Harlem College Prep Charter School, who drew the most applause of the night when she took the microphone and declared herself a junior lifetime member of the NAACP. “Let’s find a solution for all of us,” she said.

Building Better Schools

IPS broke its own rules to work with a for-profit charter operator. Now it’s having second thoughts.

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Donnan Middle School was taken over by the state and handed off to be run by Charter Schools USA in 2012. The school now includes an elementary school in partnership with Indianapolis Public Schools.

An unusual partnership between a for-profit charter operator and Indianapolis Public Schools could be on the rocks.

That’s because during its first year of operation, Emma Donnan Elementary School students had some of the lowest test scores in the district and did not make significant gains from the prior year — landing it on the shortlist for district intervention.

If scores are not good this year or in 2018, the district might terminate its contract with Charter Schools USA to operate Donnan, according to Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

“They struggled in last year’s performance,” he said. “They did not perform at our standard.”

Florida-based CSUSA began managing three Indianapolis schools, including Emma Donnan Middle School, after the schools were taken over by the Indiana State Board of Education six years ago. In 2015, they opened Donnan Elementary as an IPS innovation school in the same building as the middle school. The district is responsible for the school’s — so far low — test scores, but the staff are employed by the charter operator, which handles daily operations.

IPS suspended a policy against working with for-profit operators when it agreed to work with CSUSA to launch Donnan Elementary. The move was intended to give the district more involvement in a building that otherwise would be state-controlled and give CSUSA a chance to work with students earlier. Middle schoolers at Donnan often enroll far behind grade level.

Eric Lewis, a senior official with CSUSA, said the organization is “thrilled to be in partnership” with IPS, and he is not concerned about pressure from the district to improve test scores because “we always intend to improve.”

CSUSA operates 77 schools across the country, many of which also have struggled academically. In the six years since Indiana handed management of three IPS schools over to the charter-manager, those schools have not shown significant improvement.

In recent years, CSUSA has appeared poised to expand in Indiana, but earlier this week the Indiana Charter School Board canceled charters for two schools that were expected to be managed by CSUSA because the company had stopped communicating about its plans.

IPS board members have been skeptical of Donnan Elementary’s progress in the past, but they were relatively quiet during a presentation from CSUSA at their meeting Thursday. (Innovation schools must present their progress to their board twice a year.)

Board member Diane Arnold said the report, which included information on enrollment and scores on tests used to track student progress throughout the year, showed more improvement than the last report school leaders presented to the board.

She is cautiously optimistic Donnan will improve with support.

“We kind of pushed the envelope to give them the elementary school,” she said. “My expectation is we should see results. … And I am hopeful.”

But it’s unclear what help the school will get from the district to improve test scores. Lewis said he did not “have any sense” of what resources the district could provide the school through its new intervention process, but “we look forward to partnering with them.”

Board president Mary Ann Sullivan said she was concerned that Donnan appeared on the list of low-performing schools, and she is relying on the staff overseeing innovation schools to track its progress.

“When we have partners … their purpose is to improve student achievement, and (if) that doesn’t happen, then yes, we will absolutely intervene in those schools,” she said. “We are going to be looking for accountability.”