Building Better Schools

Indianapolis charter operator wants to take on an epic task: Managing all the struggling Gary elementary schools

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Phalen Leadership Academy

A local charter school that has partnered with Indianapolis Public Schools could be taking on a huge new challenge — managing all of the elementary schools in the deeply troubled Gary school district.

Phalen Leadership Academies is part of a team bidding to be the state’s manager for the takeover of Gary schools. Tony Walker, a Gary attorney working with the Robert Bobb Group and a former member of the Indiana State Board of Education, shared the proposal with Chalkbeat.

Walker helped set up the match between Phalen and the Robert Bobb Group, led by the former emergency manager of the Detroit school district. Walker is board member of a Gary charter school, Thea Bowman Leadership Academy, that Phalen began operating last fall. At that school, he said, “they have done a phenomenal job.”

Because Phalen is managing a Gary charter school, Walker said they would be able to start work immediately.

“They are already in Gary,” he said. “They are already recruiting teachers to Gary and other school leaders. We could just expand those operations.”

The Gary district was taken over by the state due to academic and financial problems last month. The Indiana Distressed Unit Appeals Board is charged with selecting an emergency manager to run the district, and they may not select the Robert Bobb Group proposal. A spokeswoman could not immediately confirm how many proposals were submitted by the deadline Wednesday

If the Robert Bobb Group proposal is chosen, Phalen would manage all of the district’s elementary schools. There are currently nine elementary schools in Gary, but Walker said that the district may close some to cut costs. Still, it would be a big step for Phalen, which currently runs two charter schools and two schools in partnership with IPS.

Phalen Leadership Academies was founded by Earl Martin Phalen, the first winner of the Mind Trust’s Education Entrepreneur Fellowship in 2009. Once a foster kid, Phalen graduated from Yale and Harvard Law School. He founded a nonprofit that supported mentoring and tutoring programs in Boston. Phalen did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Phalen Leadership Academies originally began as a summer program designed to help students catch up during the school break, and opened its first charter school in 2013. The network, which won approval for as many as 10 charter schools to be opened over a about decade, has continued to grow since then.

The network is playing a significant role in Indianapolis turnaround efforts. It has won strong support from the Mind Trust, a nonprofit that supports charter schools, and is at the center of the plan to turn around failing IPS schools by partnering with charter managers and freeing their leaders of the constraints on traditional public schools.

Phalen took over IPS School 103 two years ago in the first test of the district’s plan to improve failing schools by converting them to innovation status. As innovation schools, they are considered part of the district, but their teachers are not employed by IPS and they are not part of the district union. This year, School 93 converted to innovation status under the management of Phalen.

In addition to running a Gary charter, Phalen is poised to broaden its reach beyond Indiana. Last fall, Phalen received a charter to open a school in Cincinnati, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported.

diversity plan

Advocates call on Chancellor Fariña to take ‘morally necessary’ steps to end school segregation

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Chancellor Fariña spoke about school diversity at a town hall in District 3 in 2015. She is seated next to Superintendent Ilene Altschul, second from right.

The deadline is fast approaching for New York City officials to release their “bigger vision” plan to promote school diversity, and advocates are once again demanding more input on the final proposal.

In a draft letter obtained by Chalkbeat, a self-described group of “parents, students, educators, advocates and elected officials” pushes the education department to declare integration a priority, include the community in any plans that will be put forward, and to adopt “systemic” approaches to desegregate city schools.

“We do not pretend that it will be easy,” states the letter, which is addressed to Chancellor Carmen Fariña. “But we insist that it is logistically possible, educationally sound, and morally necessary.”

In April, Councilman Brad Lander presented a similar letter to members of the “New York City Alliance for School Integration and Desegregation,” or ASID — a relatively new group of desegregation advocates from across the city.

Councilman Lander’s office declined to comment.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and the education department have said they will release a plan to address school segregation by June. The state has one of the most segregated school systems in the country, driven in large part by New York City, and advocates have been pushing for years for a large-scale remedy.

In 2015, advocates sent a similar letter to the department that included some of the same requests, including the adoption of a formal policy statement making integration a priority. When asked about that in an August 2016 interview, Fariña told Chalkbeat: “Proclamations, without a plan of action, are proclamations.”

A new element of the advocate’s proposal calls for integration efforts to start in pre-K. Parents can apply to any of the city’s universal pre-K sites, but pre-K classrooms are more segregated than kindergartens, according to a recent report. The letter also calls for the education department to set “measureable goals” towards desegregation.

In recent years, the education department has moved forward with some plans to increase diversity in schools, such as allowing schools to set aside a certain percentage of seats for students who are low-income, learning English, or meet other criteria. But advocates have criticized that approach as piecemeal and are eagerly awaiting the city’s promised diversity plan.

See full letter below:

Revised Letter to DOE 5 5 17 (Text)

schools' choice

Betsy DeVos’s comments on discrimination drew headlines, but her stance isn’t unique among private school choice backers

PHOTO: Matt Barnum
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at Providence Cristo Rey in Indianapolis.

Betsy DeVos drew incredulous reactions this week when she said she would let states decide on the rules for voucher programs vying for federal money — including whether schools that discriminate against LGBT students could participate.

But the education secretary’s position isn’t out of the mainstream among voucher supporters, or out of step with how private school choice programs work across the country.

For instance, Robert Enlow of the Indianapolis-based EdChoice, a group that advocates for vouchers, emphasized that his group does not support discrimination but declined to take a position on whether private schools that receive public funds should be prohibited from discriminating based on sexual orientation.

“As an organization we are working [toward] our position” on that issue, he told Chalkbeat, the day before DeVos’s comments to Congress. “It is something we are concerned about and that we need to confront head on, but we don’t have a position yet.”

That stance is also reflected in model private school choice legislation from the American Federation for Children, the advocacy group that DeVos used to lead. It says only that schools should comply with federal discrimination law, and does not include rules regarding sexual orientation. A spokesperson for the group did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Voucher programs give families public funds to pay private school tuition. The vast majority of private schools in the country are religious; in Indiana there are just seven non-religious private schools participating in the state’s voucher program, compared to nearly 300 Christian schools.

Federal law bans discrimination based on “race, color, or creed” in private schools that receive tax exemptions but is silent on the issue of sexual orientation. According to a 2016 study, no school voucher program in the country includes such protections, meaning that students or families who elect to participate may have no legal recourse if they face discrimination based on sexual orientation.

And a number of schools that are part of publicly funded private school choice programs in Indiana, North Carolina, and Georgia — initiatives backed by national school choice groups — include explicitly anti-gay language.

Blackhawk Christian School in Fort Wayne, Indiana, says in its handbook that it may refuse admission or expel a student for “practicing homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity, promoting such practices, or otherwise having the inability to support the moral principles of the school.”

Another Indiana school highlights differences between public schools and private Christian schools on its website, including that while teachers in public schools “may be straight or gay,” those in private schools are “committed believers seeking to model Christ before their students.” Both schools participate in Indiana’s school voucher program.

Choice programs differ. Some, like Washington, D.C.’s federally backed initiative, prohibit discrimination based on religion or gender, while other don’t. Attempts to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in D.C.’s program have been voted down by Republicans in Congress.

Public schools are not free from discrimination, according to survey data compiled by GLSEN, a group that pushes for fair treatment of LGBT students in school. According to the survey, LGBT students reported experiencing more discrimination in private religious schools as compared to public schools — but were less likely to experience verbal or physical harassment in private schools.

Supporters of school choice worry that banning discrimination would stop some private schools from participating in voucher programs and prevent them from practicing their religion.

“If you support private school choice, then you have to be comfortable with allowing private schools to remain private,” Michael Petrilli of the conservative Fordham Institute said earlier this year. “One part of that is allowing them to be religious, to have a set of values they believe in, and to have an admissions process to make sure kids are a good fit for their program.”

Enlow pointed to research compiled by EdChoice that private schools instill a greater sense of tolerance and civic virtue than public schools.

Enlow suggested that questions of discrimination can be addressed locally. “We believe that families and schools working together can solve this,” he said.