IPS challenge: Expanding successful Project Restore

Students in Megan Smith’s sixth-grade class at Indianapolis Public School 99 took turns at the white board Wednesday tackling tough math problems. A big test was only a day away.

In fact, at School 99, which is part of a homegrown school turnaround program called Project Restore that was started by two IPS teachers at the school six years ago, frequent testing is a central strategy to making sure kids remain on track.

The school has results that it says proves the method works: Since it began following Project Restore, School 99 has transformed to an A school from an F under the state’s accountability system.

“Keep walking us through it,” Smith, a first-year teacher, told one of her charges as she weaved through the desks.

These were problems that have tripped the students up once before. So she was making sure they remembered the order of operations: parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction.

“How come you did subtraction there?” she asked the student. “I thought PEMDAS says addition comes first?”

Project Restore founder, teacher Tammy Laughner, watched Smith’s instruction from the back of the room, as she led a group from The Mind Trust through the school as part of a recent bus tour. Laughner doesn’t come around to the classroom as much as she used to now that Smith and the other teachers have gotten the hang of teaching the Project Restore way.

“It took a lot of hand holding and guiding,” Laughner said. “She’s very impressive.”

Instead, Laughner and Project Restore co-founder Dan Kriech focus most of their time at School 88 and School 93 where the program has expanded in the last two years. Project Restore has three key strategies: consistent discipline, frequent testing and regrouping of students, and rewards to create incentives for students to raise their test scores.

Developing training for administrators and teachers to take ownership of Project Restore is the next step in making sure the program continues to succeed. There’s no plan to expand to more schools until the two new schools demonstrate they can manage the program on their own and succeed, Laughner said.

“It’s about us getting teachers up to speed,” Laughner said. “Too often, teacher training is missing the mark. They walk in behind the eight ball, and that’s where we come in.”

Turning around a school isn’t about simply starting a successful program.

Principal Tihesha Gutherie found that out the hard way last year when School 99, after earning an A in 2012 dropped down to a C in 2013. She said part of the problem was that the school got complacent. A renewed dedication to doing their best helped propel the school back to an A again in 2014.

“It’s easy to come into an environment like this and not have the skills or the tools in your tool belt to maintain it,” Gutherie said. “You can’t just get there. You have to keep it up. We worked so hard this last year to get back to an A.”

School 88 appears ready to take off, Laughner said. The school recently got a new principal, so most of the work there is aimed at helping school leaders adapt to their roles as Project Restore ambassadors. So far, it seems to be working. After the program was implemented there in 2013, the school’s grade went from F to A in a single year.

School 93, where the program was instituted after parents rallied for it last year, is a different challenge. Only six of 56 IPS schools that took ISTEP had a lower passing rate than School 93’s 30 percent in 2013. The school earned an F from the state for three consecutive years before Project Restore was put in place last fall.

“School 93 will take longer because it’s been a failing school for so long,” Laughner said. “The teachers see why it works, but it’s a lot of work.”

Laughner also wants more support from the administration.

Project Restore needs a true coordinator to help coordinate and plan weekly assessments, and help with data collection and analysis, she said. A teacher would be perfect for the job, Laughner said.

“There are tons of teachers that live and breathe this program that are ready to step up and lead,” Laughner said.