Building Better Schools

Days after DeVos touts Indianapolis’s ‘innovation schools’ initiative, three more schools are added

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

The Indianapolis Public Schools board pushed forward with its vision for creating a more decentralized — and less unionized — district Thursday night, approving three new innovation schools.

The move comes just days after U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos highlighted the Indianapolis innovation school program as a model strategy for giving local communities more control over schools.

DeVos focused on School 15, a neighborhood-led innovation school that will partner with local community groups. School 15’s plan was approved Thursday night, but so were two other schools with very different stories. School 42, a neighborhood school that has struggled on state tests, will be turned over to a charter operator as a way to stave off state intervention, and its teachers and principal will be replaced. A local charter network, Avondale Meadows, will be opening a third innovation school from scratch.

Although their situations are different, all three schools will be part of the district’s rapidly growing innovation network. Schools in the network can tap into district services such as busing and special education, and unlike charter schools, they benefit from local taxes. IPS in turn gets credit for test scores and other performance measures at the schools when the district is assessed by the state. The administration also counts students at innovation schools in the district’s enrollment — a boon to the long-shrinking district.

But the schools are controversial because they are managed by outside partners — either non-profits or charter operators. Because teachers are employed by the management groups, they are not part of the district teachers union.

That was why Elaine Bultman, a teacher and union member, said she was at the meeting to speak against the innovation conversion at School 15.

Innovation schools “are sold as a way to improve student learning, when in fact they are chiefly a measure to separate teachers from their professional association,” Bultman said. “These ideas are about adults and power over adults, not about the kids and their education.”

But Bultman was an exception at the meeting: Dozens of parents and community members turned out to support the schools.

School 15 was in the spotlight this week because DeVos highlighted it as a positive example of “out-of-the-box approaches” in a speech she gave Monday. But in fact, many of the people planning the new innovation school envision it as return to the traditional neighborhood-school model, an approach they believe will help revive a school that has chronically low test scores.

School 42 will convert to an innovation school because it is in distress. After five years of failing grades from the state, it is facing state intervention and its principal is leaving for another position. IPS is fending off the possibility of state intervention by restarting School 42 as an innovation school, managed by Ignite Achievement Academy, a charter school led by Shy-Quon Ely II and Brooke Beavers. The pair previously led Tindley Summit Academy.

“If we are not able to produce a compelling plan … the state board of education has the authority to intervene,” Superintendent Lewis Ferebee told the board when it discussed the school last month. “We believe this is the strongest recommendation that we can present.”

Ignite leaders have been meeting with parents at School 42 in recent weeks, and they have won some support.

“I was opposed to the move to innovation at first. … I was concerned about the staff changes that come with innovation,” Courtney Byrd, a parent at School 42, told the board. But once she learned more about the school, she became supportive. “Ignite has programming that fit the needs of our kids today. Ignite wants to make learning fun for our kids again.”

Avondale Meadows Middle School will open as a new school this fall. It is an extension of an existing charter network that operates to K-8 schools, and although it will be part of the innovation network it will not be in an IPS building.

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.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”