Time will tell

Is one year enough time to make a bad school better? Experts are divided.

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Phalen Leadership Academies is running School 103.

As Indianapolis Public Schools pursues a radical new approach to saving its most troubled schools, district leaders face an increasingly pressing question: Are their reforms working?

In the first year at the first failing school to be restarted as an “innovation” school, the number of students who passed state tests actually dropped. But whether or not one year of test scores says much about a school depends on who you ask.

It is “absolutely” concerning that student passing rates dropped at School 103 in its first year in the district’s innovation program, said Gary Henry, a professor at Vanderbilt who has evaluated turnaround efforts in Tennessee and North Carolina.

“Most of the recent literature on turnover … showed positive results in the first year,” he said.

When the district converts struggling schools to “innovation” status, new principals are given full control over their budgets, staffing and curriculum. Teachers must reapply for jobs and they are not part of the IPS union. But the restarted schools are still part of the district and they still accept all neighborhood kids.

Since the innovation program began, IPS board has restarted three failing schools as innovation schools. The district’s first test case was School 103, where the charter network Phalen Leadership Academies took over management in 2015.

School supporters were likely hoping to see scores creep up a bit since Phalen took over but when ISTEP scores were released this month, the school saw its passing rate on ISTEP fall from 9.6 to 4.6 percent.

Henry says that’s a bad sign. In a recent review of research, he found that every turnaround that was successful had improvements in test scores and proficiency rates in the first year.

But other experts argue that it can take time for new or restarted schools to ramp up.

Brian Gill, a fellow with Mathematica Policy Research, lead a study of takeover schools that found that scores fell in the first year but rebounded in later years.

“I would not expect turnaround efforts that involve major changes to show improvements in student achievement in the first year,” Gill wrote in an email.

The leader of the charter network that runs School 103, Earl Phalen, takes ISTEP passing rates seriously, and he said that in the longterm, the school aims to exceed the state average. But for the first year, test scores weren’t their top priority. Instead, school officials were focused on creating a warm culture where students feel supported and encouraged to be leaders.

“You’ve got to get culture right first before you can really focus on the academics,” Phalen said. “Next year, we expect the state results to go up significantly.”

Some experts agree that the district shouldn’t expect immediate improvement in test scores. In part that’s because it could take a few years for their work to translate into test scores, said Steven Glazerman, who is also at Mathematica. For example, if a school is doing a good job in the early grades, it would be years before those students take the state standardized test.

But other researchers are more concerned by declining passing rates. Henry said that most of the research that shows it takes a few years for a turnaround school to improve was focused on less intense interventions when the teachers were retrained, rather than replaced.

At schools like the IPS innovation schools, where the existing teachers must reapply for their jobs, he said the district should expect to see immediate improvements in student test scores.

Despite his misgivings, Henry said that turnaround schools should be given at least a few years to make improvements before the district decides whether to renew their contracts.

Both Glazerman and Henry agree that there are other indicators the district can look to when it is evaluating restarted schools in the early years.

The turnaround schools Henry has studied where leaders recruit high-quality, experienced teachers and principals have improved significantly, he said. But turnaround schools with novice teachers and principals have actually had drops in performance.

“The disruption (to teaching staff) is probably needed, but the results will depend on what happens after the disruption,” Henry said. “Who is recruited? Are they experienced, high-quality, dedicated teachers and do they get compensation for the extra work that is required in these turnaround schools?”

red carpet

#PublicSchoolProud has its Oscar moment as ‘La La Land’ songwriter shouts out his schools

Songwriter Justin Paul at the 2017 Academy Awards, where he credited his public school education in his acceptance speech for best song.

The recent movement to praise public schools made it all the way to the Academy Awards stage Sunday night.

Justin Paul, one of the songwriters for the movie “La La Land,” credited his public school education during his acceptance speech.

“I was educated in public schools, where arts and culture were valued and recognized and resourced,” Paul said after winning the Oscar for best song. “And I’m so grateful for all my teachers, who taught so much and gave so much to us.”

Paul attended public schools in Westport, Connecticut, where he graduated from Staples High School. The school was also recognized in a recent documentary about its history as a rock venue in the late 1960s. Students recruited The Doors, the Yardbirds, and several other bands to play in the school’s auditorium.

The Oscars stage shoutout comes as people across the country have begun praising their own public schools on social media. The #PublicSchoolProud movement is a response to new U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who has advocated for policies that let students leave public schools for private and charter schools.

survey says

How accessible are New York City’s high schools? Students with physical disabilities are about to find out

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Midwood High School is considered inaccessible to students with physical disabilities.

Michelle Noris began her son’s high school search the way many parents of children with physical disabilities do: by throwing out most of the high school directory.

She knew her son Abraham would only have access to a few dozen of the city’s 400-plus high schools because of significant health needs, despite being a bright student with a knack for writing.

“I tore out every page that didn’t work in advance of showing [the directory] to him,” Noris recalls.

Even once they narrowed the list of potential schools, they still couldn’t be sure which schools Abraham — who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair — would be physically able to enter. The directory lists whether a school is considered partially or fully accessible, which, in theory, means that students should have access to “all relevant programs and services.”

In practice, however, the situation is much more complicated. “We had schools that are listed as partially accessible, but there’s no accessible bathroom,” said Noris, who is a member of the Citywide Council on Special Education. Some “accessible” schools might not have water fountains or cafeteria tables that accommodate students with mobility needs. A school’s auditorium could have a ramp, but no way for a wheelchair-bound student to get up on the stage.

Most of that information is not publicly available without calling a school or showing up for a visit — a process that can be time-consuming and demoralizing. But now, thanks in part by lobbying from Noris and other advocates, the city has pledged to begin filling the information gap. The education department will soon release more detailed information about exactly how accessible its high schools are.

Based on a 58-question survey, the city is collecting more granular data: if music rooms or computer labs are accessible, for instance, or whether there’s a slight step in a library that could act as a barrier. The survey also tracks whether a student in a wheelchair would have to use a side or back entrance to make it into the building.

“Sometimes, [parents] actually have to visit four or five of our schools to see if their child could get to every area of the school that’s important to them,” said Tom Taratko, who heads the education department’s space management division. “We didn’t think that was right.”

Virtually every physical amenity will be documented, Taratko said, down to whether a school has braille signage or technology for students with hearing impairments.

Education department officials are still fine-tuning exactly how to translate the city’s new accessibility inventory into a user-friendly dataset families can use. Some of the new information will be made available in the high school directory, and the results of each school’s survey will be available online.

Officials said the new data would be provided in “the coming weeks” for all high schools in Manhattan and Staten Island. The rest of the city’s high schools should be included before the next admissions cycle.

The survey will help identify which schools could be made accessible with relatively few changes, Taratko explained. “Everything — our shortcomings, our strengths — everything will be out there.”

The decision to release more high school accessibility data comes less than two years after a scathing U.S. Department of Justice investigation revealed “inexcusable” accommodations in elementary schools.

Many of the city’s school buildings were built before the Americans with Disabilities Act became law, and despite committing $100 million in its current five-year capital budget to upgrades, many schools are still not accessible. According to 2016 data, the most recent available, just 13 percent of district and charter schools that serve high school grades are fully accessible. About 62 percent are partially accessible, and 25 percent are considered inaccessible.

Making accessibility data public could help change those numbers, said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children who has pushed for greater transparency and praised the initiative.

“Once it’s out there, there’s so much more self-advocacy a parent can do,” Moroff said. “Then they can make requests about specific accommodations.”

Greater transparency is just one step in the process. Moroff hopes the city will consider taking students’ physical disabilities into account during the admissions process so that academically qualified students get preference for accessible schools. Once students arrive, she added, they must be welcomed by the school community.

“There needs to be much more work to hold the schools accountable to actually welcoming those students,” Moroff said. “It has to go hand in hand with making renovations and making accommodations.”

Even though the data comes too late for Noris, whose son submitted applications to just two high schools out of a possible twelve due to accessibility constraints, she is optimistic future families will have an easier time navigating the process.

“They didn’t say, ‘We’re going to do this over the next ten years.’ They said, ‘We’re going to do this in two years,’” Noris said, noting that she hopes more funding is allocated to upgrade buildings. “I think it’s a real example of the Department of Education hearing the needs and being willing to act on it.”