Future of Schools

DPS board finalists tackle creationism

Correction: This story was updated Friday morning to fix an error regarding how sitting board members ranked MiDian Holmes. No board member ranked her as first choice. EdNews regrets the error. 

Two people vying for a seat on the Denver school board representing Northeast Denver said Wednesday that they support the teaching of creationism in public schools.

Antwan Jefferson, a former teacher at Montbello High School who now teaches in the urban education program at the University of Colorado-Denver, and MiDian Holmes, head of Denver chapter of Stand for Children, both held up “yes” signs when asked if they would support the teaching of creationism during a candidate forum Wednesday evening at Smiley Middle School. Jefferson also said he supported the teaching of evolution.

One sitting DPS board member listed Holmes as a second choice; two board members listed her as their third choice to fill the

MiDian Holmes

District 4 seat, according to anonymous ballots reviewed by EdNews. Three board members listed Jefferson as their second choice to fill the vacant seat.

“To be honest, I’m a mom who really cares about giving kids the public education they need,” Holmes said Thursday. “I am new to the political world. I was thrown off by that question. I am a faithful person, but I do believe a strong line should be drawn between private faith and public education.” (Watch the video by clicking on the agenda for the Feb. 20 meeting and scrolling to the “video” link).

However, the so-called “lightning round,” held in a game-show type format with candidates seated in a row facing the audience, had candidates holding up “yes” and “no” signs as they were barraged with provocative questions by the host. The finalists for the seat were given no advance warning.

Antwan Jefferson

Jefferson also held up a “yes” sign when asked if he would support the teaching of evolution, while Sean Bradley, legislative director for the American Federation for Children, and Lisa Roy,  executive director of the Timothy and Bernadette Marquez Foundation, held up a “no” sign. Two sitting DPS board members listed Roy as their second choice.

Jefferson said Thursday he believes education is about broadening students’ knowledge base and educating them about how different people view the world, not “promoting an agenda.” Therefore, students should know about both creationism and evolution so they can understand the political debates over both and where they stand on the issues.

“I don’t think we should … perpetuate ignorant students by not giving them access to information” he said. “We can leave religious proselytizing to religious schools.”

Meanwhile, Bradley also held up a “yes” sign when asked about support of vouchers, which allow public school students to attend private schools using taxpayer funds. One DPS board member listed Bradley as a top choice to fill Easley’s seat. Holmes held up her sign part way. Bradley could not be reached for comment. One sitting board member listed Bradley as a top choice to fill the seat.

Holmes said while vouchers might make sense in some contexts, they don’t “really have a place in a district like Denver.”

“We have such a strong system of public school choice,” Holmes said. “If I am selected for this seat, my goal is for parents like me to have a choice to send their kids to any public school that best meets their needs.”

In a second lightning round, all nine candidates seemed to indicate they supported bilingual education; that busing should be provided for gifted and talented students and those who attend magnet schools; and that physical education should be mandated in light of the nation’s obesity epidemic.

On the controversial topic of co-locating more than one school or program in a single building, candidates Mary Sam, a retired DPS teacher, and Vernon Jones Jr., an assistant principal at Manual High School, held up “no” signs, while Fred Franko, founder of the Out-of-School Time Network, Jefferson (and possibly others) kept their signs on their laps.

As for whether the district’s limited resources should be spent to air condition all Denver schools, only Sam voted “no” while the remainder voted “yes.”

When asked if another school should be built in Stapleton even though there is space at other DPS schools, Holmes, Hansen and Roy held up “yes” signs. Jefferson, Bradley, Sam and Jones held up a “no” sign. Franko and Taylor kept their signs down.

Finally, candidates were asked whether they supported Superintendent Tom Boasberg. Sam was the only candidate to hold up a “no” sign. Franko and Jefferson kept their signs down and the others held up “yes” signs.

Jefferson said he thought the question was “unnecessarily reductionist.” Jefferson said if the question was about Boasberg’s support of the rapid growth of charter schools in District 4 he would have held up a “no” sign. If the question was about Boasberg’s support of doing what needs to be done to turn around low-performing schools, he would have voted “yes.”

“To say, ‘Do you support the superintendent?’ insults the intelligence of the public,” Jefferson said.

By the middle of next month, the board must fill the vacant seat to meet a 60-day limit set by the state. If the six current board members cannot agree on a replacement, board President Mary Seawell has the authority to make an appointment. Seawell has said she’ll pick that person from among the nine finalists.

The new board member, however chosen, will have to run in next November’s election if he or she wants to serve a full four-year term.

The seat is viewed as pivotal to the future direction of DPS since the board is typically divided between those members who are generally more supportive of the superintendent and current reforms – including Seawell – and those who are concerned about improving quality at neighborhood schools – not just charters – and who question how well the district is educating growing numbers of English language learners.

None of the nine finalists are Latino, which prompted concerns from the Colorado Latino Forum, which asked the board to reopen the process to fill the seat. Board members Arturo Jimenez and Jeannie Kaplan publicly backed the forum’s request to reopen the process even though neither of them listed Hispanic candidates among their choices for the board seat, according to anonymous tally sheets reviewed by EdNews.

EdNews will post the video from Wednesday’s forum as soon as it’s available.


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.”