Charter school backed by Chicago hip-hop artist Common gets second chance

Chicago hip-hop artist Common and mother Mahalia Hines at the 87th Annual Academy Awards

An arts charter school backed by Chicago hip-hop artist Common will get a second chance to launch, the latest chapter in a lengthy saga that raised bitter opposition from neighborhood groups.

The Art in Motion Charter School won an update to its five-year charter from the city’s Board of Education last week.

The school was originally going to open this fall, intending to share the campus of Hirsch Metropolitan High School in Greater Grand Crossing. Now it hopes to open in fall 2019, contingent on finding a suitable location by Jan. 1 within the neighborhood.

The delayed opening shows the difficulty that even well-connected charters—Common’s mother, Mahalia Hines, sits on the Chicago Board of Education—encounter when trying to find suitable buildings.

In addition to pledges from Common, the AIM charter will also receive funding from New Life Covenant Southeast Church in Greater Grand Crossing. Charter schools are independently run but publicly financed, although many of them also raise private funds.

In its application, AIM stated that it plans to spend just under $3.6 million in its first year of operation; $25,000 would come from private fundraising. An AIM representative said the fundraising goal might be raised in later years.

Distinctive Schools, a Chicago group that manages four other charter schools in the city, will manage the school, which has emphasized personalized learning, tailoring curriculum and teaching to individual students’ abilities and preferences. AIM plans to open with 200 students in seventh and eighth grades, then expand a grade level every year until it includes 12th grade and 1,200 students.

In its initial charter application, AIM had proposed another possible location: a 100,000-square-foot church and arts center that New Life Church is building. Scott Frauenheim, president of Distinctive Schools, said that AIM’s board is no longer considering the megachurch because it won’t be built in time and will not be large enough to house AIM’s growing student body.

“We are so excited to be in the final stages of securing our new home for AIM,” said Karen Ratliff, chair of the school’s board, in a statement after the school board’s decision.

The board had approved AIM’s charter application in December, despite opposition from community groups. The Chicago Teachers Union argued that Joseph Wise, co-founder of Distinctive Schools, had fiscal ties to SUPES Academy. The training organization for school administrators was involved in an illegal kickback scheme with former CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett. But a spokeswoman for Distinctive Schools has said since that Wise never had a financial relationship with SUPES. 

Hirsch parents have decried the lack of community input. In a public hearing in January, Maria Owens, a member of Hirsch’s Local School Council, said that AIM would divert critical funding that Hirsch would need to expand its programming, such as an ongoing collaboration with City Colleges to create a First Responders Academy.

She also said that AIM did not engage with the Greater Grand Crossing community when drafting its charter application.

“There was none, no collaboration whatsoever,” she said.

When applying for its charter last year, AIM cited surveys that showed “a strong need and desire for more access to the performing arts in the community.” But those surveys were given only to members of the New Life Church. Frauenheim said that after submitting the charter application last year, it passed out 300 to 400 more surveys to non-church members. The results of those surveys were not released; however, Frauenheim said that AIM has gathered signatures from 1,000 community residents in favor of the plan and support from dozens of community groups. 

Frauenheim said that in response to community requests for more arts programming, AIM will also offer after-school arts for nearby K-5 and Hirsch students.

It’s uncertain whether AIM will provide programs that are or could be offered by existing neighborhood schools.

AIM has stressed its personalized learning model as one of its prime features. Frauenheim said that unlike traditional personalized learning models, which rely on data to track students’ progress, AIM will take a “relationship-based” approach, meaning teachers will shape curriculum based on one-on-one interactions with students.

Frauenheim added that “the idea of bringing rigorous academic curriculum in addition to the arts is something that we’re priding ourselves on based on community input. The community is saying, ‘yes, arts are great, but we still want to be able to compete.’”

Among the other schools that Distinctive Schools manages, three are rated Level 1 and one is rated Level 2-plus. The district’s highest-rated schools are rated Level 1-plus.

While there are no arts-focused high schools in Greater Grand Crossing, Dyett High School for the Arts is located about 20 blocks north. Dyett is a Level 1 neighborhood public school, and will also begin a personalized learning curriculum next school year, said its principal, Beulah McLoyd.

She said that there is always a benefit to more arts programming.

“I’m looking at the data as it pertains to Dyett being a neighborhood high school, having 93 percent attendance, having 98 percent Freshman OnTrack rate” – referring to students on a course to graduate – “and what do I think the contributing factors are? Students having the ability to study the arts,” she said.

“I don’t know if that means we need to open up five or six more schools,” she added. “It could be you just expand arts programming within the schools that you already have.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Wise did not have financial ties to SUPES Academy and that Distinctive Schools gathered 1,000 signatures from community residents in favor of its plan. 


Frustrations over principal turnover flare up at IPS School 43

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 43

It began with a tame slideshow presentation about hiring a new principal at School 43. But the Wednesday night meeting soon spiraled into a venting session — as parents and teachers pleaded with Indianapolis Public Schools to send in more staff.

Bakari Posey, the principal of School 43, departed for another job last week in the latest upheaval at the school, which is also known as James Whitcomb Riley. The assistant principal, Endia Ellison, has taken over in an interim capacity, as the district searches for a new leader for the school, which has faced significant turnover in recent years.

“This school needs help,” said Natasha Milam, who has three children at School 43, which serves about 450 students in prekindergarten to eighth-grade. “We need you all to listen. And we need you all to hear us.”

Milam, who volunteers at the school, said that because the building does not have enough staff to handle behavior problems, students are suspended far too often — meaning students are at home doing chores or getting into trouble, instead of in class learning.

Many in the neighborhood had hoped Posey, who is from the community, would be able to turn the school around after the previous two school leaders left their posts just months into the job. But under Posey’s leadership, the school continued to struggle on state tests, with just 7 percent of students passing both the math and English exams last year.

And after two-and-a-half years on the job, Posey left and began working this week as assistant principal at Fall Creek Valley Middle School in Lawrence Township. In an email Thursday, Posey said that he left because he thought the position in Lawrence would help him grow professionally and it was closer to his home.

Posey also disputed the picture of School 43 as a campus in crisis. He said this school year, there hasn’t been “turmoil in the school in regards to student behavior,” suspensions were down, and the campus has been “very calm.” (Suspension numbers could not immediately be verified.) He also said that Indianapolis Public Schools provided “great support” to school staff.

Nonetheless, parents and teachers’ at the meeting Wednesday said the school has serious problems.

Ryesha Jackson, a 4th-grade teacher who has been at the school a little over a year, said there are not enough staff to help with student discipline problems. That makes it hard for educators to teach, she said.

“We have fights almost every day,” Jackson said. “I guess my question is, ‘What are we doing right now to support teachers?’”

School 43 is a neighborhood school, on the north side of the district. More than 75 percent of students there are black, and almost 70 percent are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals — about the district average.

Indianapolis Public Schools interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said district and school leaders would work together to develop a plan to address the urgent problems at School 43.

“But what I can’t give you right now is the plan for that help,” she said. “That takes time and coordination with the school staff.”

The district is gathering input about what school community members are looking for in a principal before posting a listing, officials said. Finalists will be interviewed by committees of parents, community members, and school and district staff. The goal is to name a new principal by April.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting was a small contingent from the IPS Community Coalition, a group that is often critical of the Indianapolis Public Schools administration, particularly the district’s partnerships with charter schools.

Michele Lorbieski, a resident from the north side who ran unsuccessfully for the Indianapolis Public Board with the support of the coalition last year, said the district cannot just rely on the next principal to fix the school.

“What I’d hoped to hear tonight was what the school district was doing to put things in place to stop this revolving door of principals,” she said.

District officials did not directly address why turnover has been so high among principals at School 43. But Brynn Kardash, a district official who recently began working with the school, said that the central office is doing more to support it this year.

School 43 was added this year to the transformation zone — an effort to help troubled schools that includes dedicated support and regular visits from a team at the central office, said Kardash, the district’s executive director of schools for the zone. Educators in the zone get additional training, extra planning time, and help analyzing student data, she said.

“The goal is to really support Ms. Ellison in work that she’s doing,” Kardash said, “which then leads to, hopefully, teachers feeling that support in the classroom.”

technical difficulties

This personalized learning program was supposed to boost math scores. It didn’t, new study finds

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A student at I.S. 228 in Brooklyn does online work through Teach to One, a program that grew out of the iZone.

A program that Bill Gates once called “the future of math” didn’t improve state test scores at schools that adopted it, according to a new study.

The research examines Teach to One, a “personalized learning” program used in schools across 11 states and which has drawn support from a number of major funders, including the Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings. (Gates and CZI are also funders of Chalkbeat.)

At five schools in Elizabeth, New Jersey, students who used Teach to One didn’t improve any faster than similar students who didn’t use the program, even after three years. The results underscore the limited evidence for claims that such technology programs can dramatically improve student learning, even as they have become magnets for philanthropic dollars.

“The original aspirations, that Teach to One programs were going to have huge positive effects on math scores — we can rule that out with these studies,” said Jonah Rockoff, a Columbia professor who studied an earlier iteration of the program.

Teach to One says its approach is designed to help students steadily learn math skills, regardless of how unprepared or advanced they are. Students spend time on a computer as well as with a teacher and working in small groups. Students receive individualized schedules each day based on their progress, and a computer program adapts the curriculum to students’ strengths and weaknesses in the form of a “playlist.”

New Classrooms, the organization behind Teach To One, suggests that the Elizabeth results aren’t the full story.

It points to a separate analysis released this week that looks at a broader group of schools — 14, from several districts — that used the program. That study shows Teach to One students making above-average gains on a test known as the MAP, which is taken on a computer with questions changing as students answer correctly or incorrectly.

New Classrooms co-founder Joel Rose suggested in a statement that those computer-adaptive tests capture something that state tests can miss: students’ progress.

“What seems to be emerging is a real tension in math between approaches focused on long-term academic growth and state accountability systems,” he said.

Rockoff said there might be something to New Classroom’s argument that the study using adaptive test is better able to showcase students’ gains. “If [students] are at a grade four level but they’re in grade six, teaching them grade four material is going to hurt them on the state test,” he said.

But the author of the second study, Jesse Margolis, and a number of other researchers who spoke to Chalkbeat note that it cannot show whether Teach to One caused any of the students’ gains, though — a major limitation.

“While this study cannot establish causality, it is encouraging,” Margolis wrote. (The New Jersey study is better able to establish cause and effect, but it also has limitations and does not rely on random assignment.)

The New Jersey study isn’t the first to show that Teach to One didn’t improve test scores: so did Rockoff’s 2015 report on three New York City middle schools that looked at both state and MAP tests.

One possible explanation is that Teach to One is helpful to students in some places but not others. Margolis said his study examined the same five Elizabeth schools as the Columbia study and also found minimal gains there, but that schools elsewhere seemed to see larger improvements.

Researcher John Pane of RAND, a leader in studying personalized learning, says the results are important to understanding a field with limited research to date.

“Because we have so little evidence on personalized learning,” he said, “every data point can be helpful for us to start triangulating and piecing together what works and what doesn’t work.”