Building Better Schools

How one Indianapolis neighborhood says it can save a struggling school by taking control

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Kindergarten students at School 15 were stuck inside for recess because of damp and rainy weather.

Residents on the near east side of Indianapolis have worked hundreds of hours, held dozens of meetings and spent over $100,000 in the last year on an ambitious project: Planning a new future for their struggling neighborhood school.

Now, leaders are on the cusp of finding out whether their plan will be approved by the Indianapolis Public Schools board. If it wins support, it could be the first neighborhood-led effort to create an IPS innovation school, offering a model for other community groups across the city.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 15 has long struggled with low test scores, but community leaders say they have a plan to help turn the school around.

Neighbors who have a stake in the success of School 15 would have control, said James Taylor, CEO of the John Boner Neighborhood Centers, which is one of the community groups behind the plan.

“That really creates a different kind of context when you are making decisions in terms of staffing, in terms of the structure of the school,” he said. “There is a direct accountability that we all hold.”

Their vision for the school includes new staff, a longer year and more support for struggling families. But at its core, the planners are looking to create a traditional, thriving neighborhood school, where families can walk and parents play an essential role.

School 15 has lots of challenges. Last year, 32 percent of students were learning English and 87 percent were poor enough to get subsidized meals. Many families at the school have unstable housing, so students leave and new kids enroll throughout the year. The school has struggled academically for years, and it received an F from the state in 2016.

Community leaders are betting, however, that they can turn the school around by improving academics, making life more stable for current families and drawing in neighborhood parents who are choosing other schools.

If the proposal to convert School 15 to an innovation school is approved, it would be led by Principal Ross Pippin, a long-time teacher who took the helm last spring. But it would be overseen by a new nonprofit that would make decisions on everything from spending to the calendar and curriculum. The nonprofit would also employ most of the teachers, who would not be part of the district union.

“You get ultra-local control of your school, and so you can really be responsive to every detail of your school,” Pippin said. “That’s really to me the biggest excitement about innovation schools.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Principal Ross Pippin took over leadership at School 15 last spring. He joined the school as a teacher in 2008.

Innovation schools have most of the independence of charter schools but they are still considered part of the district. Since the Indiana legislature created innovation schools three years ago, the district has converted a handful of schools to innovation status. But most of those are managed by outside charter operators. School 15 would be the first innovation school planned by local leaders — notably from the Boner Center and Englewood Christian Church, which is active in community development.

One reason Taylor and others embraced the idea of creating their own innovation school was precisely to avoid a school “restart” led by an outside manager. School 15 has grappled with low test scores for several years — even landing on a federal warning list over a decade ago — and as IPS moves to radically overhaul failing schools, its future is uncertain, Taylor said.

“A lot of the most strongly pro (traditional) public school advocates that we have in our neighborhood are the ones that are driving this planning on the innovation school because they knew change was coming,” Taylor said. “Either we lead and help guide and help shape what that change is going to look like or it’s going to happen to us.”

Their plan for improving the long-struggling school includes extending the school day, creating new blocks of time for teachers to collaborate and adding a second educator to many classrooms. There will also be on-site staff from the Boner Center — the community center already provides services to many families in the area — who will help parents with challenges like finding jobs or getting stable housing.

Shiwanda Brown, a member of the nonprofit board, said that she hopes a neighborhood innovation school will attract staff who are more committed and that there is less teacher and principal turnover. Brown sent two daughters to School 15, her youngest finished last year, and she said keeping staff has been on ongoing challenge.

“(We want to) make sure the teachers that come on board are … there because they want to be there — they are there because they love to do what they are doing,” Brown said.

Creating a community-led school is a steep challenge. Over the past year, the group has spent hundreds of hours and about $100,000 in grant funding on forming a nonprofit, applying for federal funding and reaching out to families, Taylor said. But the near eastside neighborhood around School 15 is unusually well prepared for this kind of work, and several leaders involved with the effort were already working together on plans to revitalize the neighborhood.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
A mural brings a spark of color to an empty lot across the street from Englewood Christian Church. The church runs a community development corporation that has been instrumental in revitalizing the neighborhood around School 15.

It’s also a diverse community, with many stable, middle-class families that could help School 15 thrive. But as it stands, those parents often aren’t choosing their neighborhood school, instead opting for magnet or charter schools. The hope is that as an innovation school, it will be able to attract some of those families.

Taylor said that School 15 will be a “much healthier” school regardless of whether it is able to attract those families. But the aim is to create a school that is so successful that all kinds of families want to enroll.

“Our belief is that if we do our work well and if we do it right, those issues will take care of themselves,” he said.

The proposal for School 15 is already attracting interest from local parents — and sparking conversation.

Principal Pippin, who become involved when leaders were first fleshing out the idea of a neighborhood-run school, said that parents who don’t currently have kids at the school have been contacting them to learn about the proposal and stopping by for tours.

“For some reason, they didn’t think Thomas Gregg (School 15) was an option, but they see innovation as suddenly, now the school becomes an option for their family,” Pippin said. “The neighborhood’s excitement about the potential has really been not just surprising but exciting to me.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Kindergarteners serve paper breakfast at School 15.

April Adams, a teacher who lives in the neighborhood and worships at Englewood Christian Church, said that fellow congregants have started to ask for advice on whether to choose School 15. Although they are interested, they are also afraid that there might be better options for their children.

But Adams, who is pregnant, said that she and her husband are already planning on sending their children to School 15. She also hopes to work at the school eventually.

“It can’t just be one type of family that’s going to School 15,” Adams said. “If we are going to make this a community school, then the community needs to be invested.”

Fiery remarks

Memphis lawmaker, voucher advocate says ‘unraised’ students hold back public schools, teachers

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Rep. John DeBerry, a Democrat, has represented House District 90 in Memphis since 1995.

A state lawmaker from Memphis delivered a fiery speech Tuesday in which he said public schools are filled with “immoral” students whose parents “can care less” about their education. He also defended student suspensions and the right of teachers to fight back.

The comments came from Rep. John DeBerry, who is Memphis’s strongest proponent of school vouchers in the legislature, during a discussion of a Teachers Bill of Rights that lawmakers are considering putting in place.

The remarks offered new insight into DeBerry’s motivation for wanting families to be able to use public funding to pay private school tuition — to allow students to escape surroundings he described as an educational hellscape.

“We’ve got people who can care less whether or not their child is educated, just as long as their child is out of the house so they can go back to bed. And while it is not politically correct to say stuff like that, we all know it exists,” said DeBerry, a Democrat who consistently has promoted vouchers as a tool to help students escape “failing” schools.

“So when we take that teacher and take 25 to 30 unraised, untaught, irremannerable [sic], immoral, don’t-care-you-can’t-teach-give-a-flip, you can’t teach that,” he said. “You’ve got chaos and you’ve got good little children who want to learn trapped in that mess and a teacher who wants to control it.”

The Teachers Bill of Rights — written with input from the Professional Educators of Tennessee, the second-largest teachers association in the state — is intended to signify lawmakers’ respect for the teaching profession. It declares that teachers should be allowed to defend themselves against students and to report offensive behavior to administrators.

“We hope teachers are going to feel empowered,” said J.C. Bowman, the group’s president. “At last this legislative body is sending a message that (teachers) are indeed respected for what they do.”

The measure originally included items about teacher evaluation and out-of-pocket spending, but now features only rights related to student behavior. One sponsor of the bill, Rep. Jay Reedy, said he hopes to add those rights back in the future.

The House Education Administration and Planning Committee on Tuesday passed both the Bill of Rights and legislation from Rep. Raumesh Akbari, another Memphis Democrat, that would require the state to try to reduce suspensions in prekindergarten and kindergarten. DeBerry questioned if alternatives to suspension are necessary.

“Of course they’re going to [need to] send students out of school, even in kindergarten, because you’re not sending a student to school; you’re sending a problem,” DeBerry said.

audit findings

Audit finds educational services lacking at Rikers Island, but corrections officials dispute report

PHOTO: Matt Green/Flickr

Corrections officials “systemically neglected” to ensure that young adult inmates knew they could enroll in school courses, according to an audit released Tuesday by Comptroller Scott Stringer. The audit also found that the city Department of Education failed to put mandated educational plans in place for incarcerated students with disabilities.

“That’s wrong, because if we’re going to reverse decades of backwards criminal justice policies, it’s going to be with bigger and better schools — not bigger and tougher prisons,” Stringer said in an emailed statement. “We have to do better.”

But officials from the city Department of Correction disputed the findings, and a response from the education department suggests the audit takes a narrow approach that misses “critical context.”

In 74 percent of sampled cases, the comptroller’s office couldn’t find evidence that inmates between the ages of 18 and 21 attended an orientation and were informed of their right to attend classes. In 68 percent of the sampled cases, auditors could not find required forms from inmates either accepting or rejecting educational services. In its response to the findings, a representative for the corrections department noted that some inmates may simply “refuse to sign the form.”

The corrections department wrote that it “disputes the overall finding” that inmates are not informed of their right to educational services. Furthermore, the audit “failed to capture” additional steps the department takes to do so.

In responses to the findings, included in the audit, corrections and education officials said all eligible students are offered the opportunity to attend classes. Every school day, the education department prints a list of eligible students who are in facilities with school programs, and the list is shared with corrections staff in the housing areas. Inmates who are interested can attend an information session and enroll immediately.

The corrections department’s response also states that inmates receive a handbook that includes information about enrolling in classes, and that signs are posted in common areas to inform inmates of their right to request educational services. Furthermore, the department conducts regular focus groups to create alternative programs of interest to young offenders who choose not to go to school, according to the response.

The audit also found that 48 percent of eligible students did not have a Special Education Plan, based on their Individualized Education Program, created for them within 30 days of beginning classes, as required. Those plans were never created for 36 percent of sample students, according to the audit.

The Department of Education responded that it is working to implement a new electronic system to track progress on education plans for students with disabilities, and that students who had such plans before being incarcerated continue to get the services they need.

The audit does note that all 16- and 17-year olds were receiving the educational services required by law. Those students have to attend school, whether they are incarcerated or not. Older students are eligible to receive educational services if they are under 21 years of age, have not already earned a high school diploma and will be incarcerated for 10 or more days.