School 93 a step closer to possible takeover despite new law's timeline changes

A change in state law that could see failing schools taken over by the state two years quicker won’t affect schools that have already earned four or five F grades in a row.

It will still take six years of F grades to face possible takeover, not four, for those schools. They will be the last schools in the state to get that long to try to raise their grades to at least a D. But that doesn’t mean the schools don’t still have serious problems.

Case in point: Indianapolis Public School 93.

A dismal report on School 93 from the Indiana Department of Education to the Indiana State Board of Education raised alarms for some board members who wanted assurances that state and district officials would help the school get back on track.

“I hope there are outreach and other support folks parachuting into these schools to help them,” board member Gordon Hendry said. “The situation is extremely dire.”

When House Bill 1638, signed into law by Gov. Mike Pence last month, changed the timeline for the failing schools, those that already had consecutive F grades got to remain on the six-year timeline. Any school that drops to an F grade after July 1, 2016, could face takeover in just four years if it can’t raise its test scores enough to at least reach a D.

Although the state and district are planning to take steps to improve School 93, takeover is off the table until at least 2017, even if the school is rated an F again in 2015 and 2016.

The overhauled Indiana State Board of Education, with five newly appointed board members taking their seats today, heard the reports on School 93 and five other failing schools. The board, which has struggled through two years of long meetings fueled by tense debates and disagreements with state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, held a smooth, cordial meeting at Purdue University and discussed a series of routine matters.

The School 93 report raised questions about how state takeover and other actions to improve failing schools will be handled in the two years before the new law kicks in.

School 93, education department officials said, needs better leadership, academic programs and communication. The school just this year began implementing Project Restore, a homegrown school turnaround program started by two IPS teachers six years ago.

Project Restore has helped two failing IPS schools quickly earn A grades, but the effort appears stalled at School 93.

The school ranked in the bottom 15 percent of schools in one of the lowest-scoring school districts in the state. Only five of 49 IPS elementary schools that took ISTEP had a lower passing rate than School 93’s 35.7 percent in 2014.

The program’s goal is to improve discipline through consistent enforcement of rules and promote better student learning by doing more testing and review of what’s been taught.

Tammy Laughner, one of the program’s founding teachers, said one challenge was working with the school’s former principal, Amanda Pickrell, who she said didn’t completely embrace the program’s mission. The report says staff members didn’t understand who was in charge —  the principal or Project Restore. Department officials also said there were tense relationships between Pickrell and the program’s leaders.

“We’ve gone for six or seven months not doing it the Project Restore way, which has been really frustrating for us,” Laughner said.

Pickrell, a first-year principal, recently resigned. Teresa Brown, the department’s assistant superintendent of school improvement, said the position was filled just last week.

Brown said she wasn’t sure the program’s approach to discipline was having the intended effect — from her team’s observations, it led to more dysfunction, not less.

“That’s resulted in thousands of discipline referrals, and a lot of out-of-class time for kids,” Brown said. “I’m not sure exactly what they are doing when they are out of class.”

The report explored in-depth eight different areas of improvement for the school, including leadership, curriculum, effective teaching and use of time. On five of the eight turnaround areas, the school was rated “ineffective.” The other three areas garnered “needs improvement” ratings.

Brown said education department staff talked about the concerns with Superintendent Lewis Ferebee and other district officials, who said they were aware of the problems and were working to address them. Calls seeking comment from IPS were not returned today.

“There are very significant and serious concerns in that school, as well as from our teams,” Brown said. “And we have shared them very frankly.”

Laughner said, however, that with a new principal and a re-focus on getting student behavior under control, she’s ready to make progress next year.

“We need quiet halls, we need order and we need for teachers to be able to teach all day,” she said. “I just want to look forward, and I could spend a lot of time looking back on what didn’t work, but it’s not going to get me anywhere.”