Building Better Schools

KIPP Indy is working to stop kids from disappearing over the summer. It’s a challenge many schools face

PHOTO: Hafsa Razi

Every summer, each teacher in KIPP Indy Public Schools gets a roster, about 20 student names long, to call before the start of the new school year.

It won’t be the only time students hear from the school before classes resume, either.

Over the course of the summer, every student gets a letter introducing them to their new teacher, a phone call to address any questions, and, if they’re new to KIPP Indy or don’t show up for orientation, additional phone calls or home visits. Administrators look at academic performance, attendance data, and behavioral issues, among other factors, to identify students in need of extra outreach.

The goal? Keeping in touch with students and making sure they’re ready to come back to KIPP Indy in the fall.

“Relationships with families are incredibly important. Staying in contact with them and making sure they know what they need to get to school ready on day one, whether that be transportation, or knowing about registration events — it’s just really important,” said Emily Pelino, executive director of KIPP Indy, an independent charter school network that oversees about 600 students.

Fewer families have left the school during the summer since KIPP Indy started these outreach efforts, according to Nick Perry, principal of KIPP Indy College Prep Middle. “There’s no silver bullet for it, but the biggest factor is we’re strengthening systems and culture and making families see this school as a good choice for their kids,” he said.

When students move from school to school, they tend to suffer academically. Nationally, most students change schools at least once during K-12, said Russell Rumberger, professor emeritus of education at University of California Santa Barbara.

A one-time switch that is planned, perhaps because a family has moved or is seeking a stronger academic program, usually won’t lead to long-lasting negative effects, Rumberger said.

But when a student moves frequently, or when those moves are unexpected — such as when a school closes, a family is evicted, or other sudden changes — the effects can be worse.

A 2010 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that students who moved four or more times during their K-12 years were more likely to come from poor families and live in single-parent households than students who moved less often. They were also more likely to be African American.

Students who change schools often are less likely to graduate, and tend to score lower on state tests, according to a National Education Policy Center report. Rumberger, who wrote the report, said this is especially true when a move is just one aspect of instability in a student’s life.

Getting kids to come back in the fall also benefits KIPP Indy and other Indiana schools themselves — their state funding is based on the number of students who enroll each year.

Pelino said reducing the number of students who leave KIPP Indy schools is a major goal for the charter network, though they try to focus on reaching students who are leaving because they are dissatisfied, or aren’t getting what they need from the school.

“If a family is moving because of something that is in our control, we always want to get that feedback,” Perry added.

But it’s also important to let families know what their options are, Pelino said. KIPP Indy works with Indianapolis Public Schools to bus students to school, but some families who are moving might not know that KIPP Indy will provide bus service as long as they live somewhere in the IPS district.

Transportation is a big obstacle to keeping students in place — under the federal McKinney-Vento Act, districts are required to offer transportation for homeless students to their original school, regardless of where they are staying. But that often doesn’t happen for students who change residence between districts, or even within districts.

Summer outreach programs at other schools in the Indianapolis area usually aren’t as comprehensive as KIPP Indy’s, though some keep up with most of their students through summer camps or enrichment programs. But student mobility is a year-round concern — and indeed, the students in most need of support are often those who move mid-year.

Paul Kaiser, superintendent of Beech Grove City Schools, attributed student movement to the fact that many families in his district rent their homes. (According to 2015 census data, 46 percent of Beech Grove district residents live on rental property).

“People come and go. That’s what happens when you have a high poverty rate. People just kind of move in and out,” Kaiser said.

But, Kaiser said, many families who move out of the district continue to enroll their students in their old schools. Because the Beech Grove district is small, he said, it’s easier for each building’s “home-school advisers” to hear about a student’s potential move, and connect them with social services or housing subsidies to help them stay.

In Warren Township, outreach efforts likewise occur at the school level, said deputy superintendent Tim Hanson. Particularly in the higher grades where there are more counselors and social workers available, school staff work to identify and offer help to students in unstable situations and connect families to community resources.

“Teachers and principals are on front lines and would know of those situations. We do what we can to try to keep those situations stable…if there’s a situation where they’re not able to pay rent or pay bills, there are resources,” he said.

Students’ family backgrounds aside, in Indianapolis, school openings and closings and the availability of charters and vouchers have also contributed to moving students from school to school.

“There’s more deliberative choices and there’s more poorly informed choices,” Rumberger said. But, he added, “As long as parents have the opportunity to choose carefully, then that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

tech trouble

New York City continues to lose track of thousands of school computers, audit finds

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
On Wednesday, City Comptroller Scott Stringer criticized the city's ability to keep track of education technology.

Thousands of computers and tablets that belong in city schools are either missing or unaccounted for — and the city has failed to create a centralized tracking system despite repeated warnings, according to a new audit from Comptroller Scott Stringer.

Just over 1,800 pieces of technology were missing from eight schools and one administrative office sampled by auditors, and another 3,500 in those nine locations were not sufficiently tracked, roughly 35 percent of the computers and tablets purchased for them.

If that sounds like déjà vu, it should: The findings are similar to a 2014 audit that showed significant amounts of missing technology — lost to theft or poor tracking — among a different sample of schools.

“I’m demanding that the [Department of Education] track these computers and tablets centrally,” Stringer said Wednesday. “I shouldn’t have to come back every two years to explain why this matters.”

Of the computers that were missing in the 2014 audit, the city could now only account for 13 percent of them, Stringer’s office said.

The audit raises questions about whether the education department can cost-effectively manage technology as it plans to expand access to it. Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised every student will have access to computer science education by 2025.

Education department spokesman Will Mantell called the report’s methodology “fundamentally flawed and unreliable,” arguing in part that the comptroller’s office didn’t always use the right inventory list or interview the correct staff. He noted the city is working to improve its inventory management.

The city “will continue to invest in cost-effective solutions that catalog and safeguard technology purchases in the best interests of students, schools and taxpayers,” Mantell added.

Good reads

How one Nashville school uses classic novels to get young students ahead in reading

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Second-grade students read The Magician's Nephew at Nashville Classical Charter School.

For John Little, the hardest part about reading The Magician’s Nephew as a second-grader wasn’t the book’s mid-century British vocabulary, or the fact that the C.S. Lewis classic is on a fifth-grade reading level.

It was the temptation to read ahead of his classmates at Nashville Classical Charter School.

“That would spoil it!” said the 8-year-old, referring to daily group book discussions that he enjoyed last spring at his K-5 school.

At Nashville Classical, reading the classics is foundational to the school’s philosophy on learning to read — and reading to learn.

“For us, it’s important for students to be reading across a variety of genres, a variety of cultures, for students to be reading across a variety of times,” said Charlie Friedman, the school’s founder and leader.

Magician’s Nephew is a really wonderful book,” he added, “because it’s full of all of these phrases that are sort of mid-century British phrases, and it forces students to step out of our time, culture and place and read something that really opens doors and windows to them.”

Nashville Classical was borne out of concern that 75 percent of its neighborhood public school students were behind in reading. Friedman and community activists partnered with Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools in 2012 to open the charter school with literacy proficiency at its core. It now has about 375 students.

While the world is changing quickly, Nashville Classical leaders believe that reading the classics is one of the best ways to prepare for college and career. Such texts are challenging to students and build their knowledge about geography, history and culture, they say.

The idea is that learning to read goes beyond sounding out words; it’s also about learning about different people, places, and ideas.

But that mindset also has critics. Much of classic literature lacks racial and gender diversity to the point that it’s sometimes characterized as stories about “dead white men,” especially concerning for a school that serves mostly minority students from low-income families.

Friedman says teachers at Nashville Classical draw from a deep well of texts and resources and strive to make the material relevant to their students.

“We really think about it more as stories and ideas that have stood the test of time and those come from a variety of cultures,” he said. “We think it’s really important that our canon represents our students. At the same time, we think that text selection should be a mirror and a window.”

During the first half of the school year, John’s second-grade class used the Core Knowledge curriculum, which was briefly used district-wide in Nashville more than a decade ago before being scrapped because it didn’t align to state tests at the time. The curriculum was designed by American educator and literary critic E.D. Hirsch to address “knowledge gaps,” a challenge that can be particularly acute for low-income children who have less access at home to books and other enriching activities. The second half of the year focused on reading and discussing novels such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the Boxcar Children series and Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.

The novels for second-graders are selected to be enjoyable reads, but also to introduce students to cultural vocabulary that they might not encounter elsewhere, as well as geographical landmarks far from Tennessee, like Central Park in New York City.

Students are broken into groups based on how well they can do things like read aloud, write out their answers, or read to themselves. To an outside observer, it’s unclear how the students are grouped, or which groups are more advanced, but it’s based on scores from a literacy assessment designed for urban educators by the University of Chicago.

Kathleen Cucci reads "The Magician's Nephew," by C.S. Lewis, to second grade students at Nashville Classical Charter School.
PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Kathleen Cucci reads aloud to her students during group time.

In John’s group with teacher Kathleen Cucci, students took turns reading aloud to one another, and were urged to read with expression.

“We believe really deeply in the power of reading aloud,” Friedman said. “It’s an opportunity to model joy, and to model reading as a social activity, which is really important to us.”

In another group, teacher Emma Colonna read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing aloud to students who were struggling to comprehend the material after reading it silently to themselves. Then they talk together about what happened.

Still another group was free that day to pick out their own books from nearly 500 volumes in bins lining a classroom wall.

“The purpose is giving autonomy and choice over what they read, and letting them read their favorite authors or series about their favorite topics,” Friedman said. “Reading for pleasure is how you develop that lifelong love for reading.”

Reading, especially in the early grades, is a statewide focus in Tennessee. State tests show that more than half of third- and fourth-graders are behind on reading skills. And on the most recent test known as the Nation’s Report Card, only one-third of Tennessee fourth-graders earned a proficient reading score.

But the state is also making strategic investments through Ready to be Ready, an initiative launched last year through the State Department of Education that highlights many techniques already in use at Nashville Classical. Those include an emphasis on reading aloud and picking material that’s fun for students to read. The goal is to get 75 percent of third-graders reading on grade level by 2025.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
John Little reads a story at the 2016 kickoff of Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Recognized as an exceptional reader, John Little was part of last year’s kickoff event for Read to be Ready. He even read a story to the crowd, which included Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

On average, Nashville Classical students score better than 77 percent of students nationwide on the NWEA/MAP reading test required in many Tennessee districts. And according to to the STEP assessment designed by the University of Chicago, 91 percent of the school’s students read at or above grade level.

The school has some advantages over other Tennessee public schools. Parents have bought into the model and chosen to send their children to the charter school. While about 70 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged and about 80 percent are of color, many families who are white and middle income are also choosing Nashville Classical, making it one of the most diverse schools in rapidly gentrifying East Nashville.

Eventually, the school is slated to expand to the eighth grade. And as it grows, literacy, with a focus on canonical novels, will be at its core, says Friedman. Next school year, all Nashville Classical students will take a daily “Great Books” class modeled after the reading discussions in John’s class.

“We want to push a love of reading from the moment they enter kindergarten,” said Colonna. “It’s not something you ever teach explicitly. It’s something we try to have as our culture.”