Building Better Schools

Choosing a school in Indianapolis is changing. Here’s what you need to know.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students at Phalen Leadership Academy at IPS School 103.

When the charter school where Daphaina Davis-Coleman sent her two children abruptly closed last spring, she was suddenly faced with an urgent deadline. She had just two months to find a quality new school for her kids — but no idea where to begin.

Davis-Coleman attended a school fair. She asked friends for recommendations and visited five different charter and traditional public schools in hopes of finding a good fit for her family.

“I spent a lot of gas running to different schools and trying to see which would be better,” she said.

Just days before the school year started in August, Davis-Coleman applied to Cold Spring School, an environmental science magnet in Indianapolis Public Schools. But district staff told her they never received her application. Eventually, with classes about to begin, she chose a charter school recommended by her son’s football coach.

“It was just like a real long, irritating process,” she said.

It’s that same exhausting process, faced by thousands of Indianapolis parents every year, that the new Enroll Indy initiative aims to address.

Advocates for the unified enrollment system say it will make things easier by giving parents a single way to apply simultaneously to district and charter schools.

At a time when the changing school system has made choosing a school increasingly difficult, the goal is to help parents figure out which of their many school options will meet their children’s needs and demystify the process for enrolling.

But how effective the system will be — and who it will benefit from it — are questions that will be determined over the next year as school officials hammer out the details and try to convince schools to participate.

This much seems likely: Starting next year, choosing a school in Indianapolis could be a fundamentally different process. Though some parents may be focused right now on applying for September — early IPS magnet applications are due Friday — they may want to keep an eye on the changes that are brewing for next year.

Here’s what we know for now:

How does it work?

With Enroll Indy, instead of submitting applications to several different schools that could have different application deadlines or procedures, parents will be able to use a single application online or in person. Parents will rank the schools they want for their children. Then, once the application window closes, Enroll Indy will randomly assign children a lottery number that will determine whether they get their top-choice school or a school ranked farther down on their list. Every student will be placed in just one school, cutting down on the guess work for schools that will have a better idea early in the year about who they can expect to enroll.

Enroll Indy plans to offer three cycles for admission that mirror the timeline IPS is using for its magnet lottery this year, with lotteries in January, March and April, according to founder Caitlin Hannon.

For parents like Davis-Coleman, who are faced with a school decision later in the year, Enoll Indy would show them what schools still have seats available, sparing them from having to spend hours calling or visiting schools that don’t have space.

What’s the goal?

Unified enrollment is designed to level the playing field for parents and make it easier for them to find and apply to schools. The idea is that by making the application process and timeline clearer for parents, it will reduce the inequities that have long given savvy, affluent parents a better shot at good public schools.

Poor families are less likely to know about their school options — or how to access them, said Hannon.

“This is why choice was created, but we haven’t managed it very well,” Hannon said at a lunch to celebrate the launch of the Enroll Indy information site in November. “A lot of families, many of our neediest families, have fallen through the cracks. That changes now.”

Will Enroll Indy make admissions more fair?

Unified enrollment could dramatically change how families pick schools. But even with Enroll Indy, schools can still limit who gets in by giving preference to nearby families or siblings of current students.

That’s one reason why Bethany Gross, a researcher at the Center for Reinventing Public Education, said she is reluctant to describe the system as inherently more “fair.”

“It doesn’t solve all your problems,” Gross said. “It can make things easier for families, but it doesn’t necessarily make it easy.”

In Indiana, charter schools are required to treat nearly all children who apply equally when deciding admission, and they cannot prioritize students based on their family income, neighborhood or achievement.

But traditional public districts like IPS are allowed to use test scores or other criteria to select students. IPS has one school for gifted students and others that give priority to families who live in certain neighborhoods.

Enroll Indy won’t change that. Traditional districts and charter schools will still be able to set their admissions rules, and those rules will be built into the algorithm that determines where students win spots.

Will it change who gets in?

Even though unified enrollment systems don’t change the rules, they do make the application process more consistent, Gross said. Before unified enrollment came to Denver, for example, it was often completely unclear how students ended up in the schools they chose and it seemed likely that some parents had pulled strings to land seats. Gross said the new system virtually eliminated that problem.

“What you get in the end is some confidence that the rules and the procedures that have been laid out and agreed to are in fact followed consistently,” she said.

This could be particularly important for students with special needs and those who are still learning English. Those students have typically faced challenges in school applications, with some schools trying to steer the harder-to-educate kids away. That may be less likely to happen in a unified enrollment system since it creates a clear record of where those students initially matched. If schools turn those students away once they are matched, that could raise red flags for advocates.

Is Enroll Indy a sure thing?

Unified enrollment systems are an increasingly popular idea for cities with lots of charter schools, but getting schools on board is one of the biggest challenges. Some of the most elite charter schools in New Orleans still haven’t joined the city’s  OneApp, and in Detroit, a new application system was crippled by low participation from schools, largely because the city’s main district, which enrolls nearly half of its students, declined to participate last year.

There’s a lot of momentum behind Enroll Indy. It launched with $240,000 in support from the Mind Trust, an Indianapolis nonprofit that has been instrumental in fostering collaboration between charter and traditional public schools. IPS recently voted for its schools to participate — including its coveted magnet schools.

Mayor Joe Hogsett’s office, which oversees most of the city’s charter schools, has strongly supported the plan. But for now, the mayor’s office is leaving it up to charter schools to decide whether to join the unified enrollment system.

There is still a possibility that low participation could unravel plans for Enroll Indy. The agreement with IPS stipulates that the district may drop out of the system if fewer than 80 percent of charter elementary schools or 80 percent of charter high schools join.

Why wouldn’t schools join?

While there is no organized public opposition from charter leaders, there are schools that have hesitated to join.

Among them is Herron High School, a classical liberal arts school on the near north side of the city that is consistently ranked one the best high schools in the state. Admission to Herron is open to anyone but winning a spot requires planning ahead: The school holds its application window during a single week in November — weeks before most other Indianapolis schools.

If Herron joined Enroll Indy, it would need to follow the nonprofit’s timeline, which would force the school to cede some of the control it has over enrollment.

Early enrollment windows like Herron’s are controversial because experts — and IPS admission data — say that low-income families tend to make school decisions later in the year so an early enrollment window is more likely to draw students with fewer challenges.

Herron’s head of school Janet McNeal said the school runs its admission cycle early in the year so that school staff can plan course offerings around the specific needs of future students. She said the school makes an effort to recruit at-risk children but a large share of the school’s students — 64 percent — are white and just 32 percent are poor enough to qualify for federal meal subsidies.

McNeal said there are “many advantages” to unified enrollment, but the school’s board hasn’t yet decided whether to participate next year.

Why would schools want to join?

With the current system, families can enroll in more than one school. Every year, traditional public and charter schools have students who withdraw days before school starts or simply don’t show up because they got off a waitlist or chose another school.

Enroll Indy will only give students admission to one participating school, making enrollment more predictable for administrators across the city and cutting down on the time they spend managing waitlists.

It also could help families learn about schools that aren’t well known, such as top-performing neighborhood schools in IPS or newly-opened charter schools since a key component of Enroll Indy is a guide with detailed information about schools.

Will it make schools more diverse?

As unified enrollment systems have rolled out across the country, researchers have paid close attention to the question of whether they change the demographics of the schools that participate.

The results suggest they can help diversify schools but are not a panacea. Gross notes that, in Denver, low-income families are still less likely to use the application than more affluent parents — and are more likely to attend neighborhood schools that rank lower on the district’s quality measures.

“The kids who aren’t making choices are more commonly finding themselves in the city’s lowest-performing schools,” Gross said.

But Marcus Winters, a professor at Boston University and researcher with the Manhattan Institute, found that unified enrollment has diversified Denver’s charter schools by encouraging students with high needs — such as those learning English — to apply.

In his prior research, Winters found that charter schools have fewer students who are learning English or have special needs than traditional public schools because students with those challenges are less likely to enroll in the first place. But with unified enrollment, he said, children of color and students learning English were more likely to enroll in charter schools in kindergarten.

For some critics, the possibility that more kids — even high-needs students — will enroll in charter schools is precisely what’s worrying about a unified enrollment system. But Winters argues that parents who want other options should be able to access them easily.

“If this is opening a door for parents to enroll in schools that they want to enroll in but don’t understand how to enroll in now,” Winters said, “that’s a good thing.”

What’s next?

For now, Enroll Indy leaders are focused on creating a single enrollment system for IPS and the city’s charter schools. But there are hundreds of other schools that could eventually participate including private schools in the city and public schools in Indianapolis’ townships or suburbs.

In New Orleans, the OneApp system lets families apply for spots at private schools that accept tuition vouchers, adding many more schools to the mix.

Scott Bess, who leads the planned Purdue Polytechnic High School — a charter school that intends to participate in Enroll Indy — suggested that unified enrollment could reshape school admission across the county.

“If we can get this up and running here in Center Township at least, long term it’s something that then starts to look more countywide,” he said. “The more schools participate, the better the system will be.”

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.”