Future of Schools

A new plan emerges among parallel discussions at Manual High School

What does the future hold for Manual High School? One possibility — designed by the school’s current leadership — goes public tonight.

The plan that will be presented publicly on Thursday comes out of one of two planning processes that are currently taking place at the school and that occasionally happen at the same time, just classrooms apart.

Manual has been in upheaval since district officials fired its principal midway through this school year following several years of declining test scores. (For background, see Chalkbeat’s series on the school’s struggles.)

To chart the path forward for the school, the district has solicited proposals for new school models for Manual and convened a group of community members, staff and parents — known as “Thought Partner meetings” — to determine how to improve the persistently struggling school’s performance.

Simultaneously, a group spearheaded by current assistant principal Vernon Jones, Jr., has focused on creating a plan that would keep the school’s current leadership team and staff intact. That plan, which Jones is presenting to the community this evening to solicit feedback, includes a focus on International Baccalaureate (IB) classes and another request for a longed-for middle school at Manual, which would also have an IB focus. (See the full description of the plan here.)

The school-led group is among several that submitted a proposal to the district during its call for new school models. Along with the other applicants, the Manual-led group will present their plans to the district-run Thought Partner group at next week’s official meeting. The Thought Partner group will make recommendations about what model the school should adopt to the district by May.

In its current form, the Manual-designed plan represents a departure from the school’s current experiential learning model, which is focused heavily on social justice instruction.

“A lot of hours, thinking, grappling, collaborating, challenging, and anything else that you can say that great teams do has gone into this plan,” Jones said. “Our process has included the voices of our staff, our scholars, our parents and guardians, and our community partners that believe in the strength of us.”

Jones says that the school’s current staff are best positioned to lead the school’s improvement efforts.

“We believe that we are best positioned to serve our scholars and our community well,” Jones said. “We know them and knowing scholars is essential to success.”

Students and staff have complained about the constant turnover in school model and leadership at the school, which they say has prevented the school from improving.

Stability and a strong desire for a middle school have been common threads at the Thought Partner meetings as well. Several staff members are parts of both groups, including Jones, Don Roy, the school’s principal whose name adorns the official letter of intent for the proposal, and English teacher Ben Butler, who is one of the school’s few veteran teachers.

The Thought Partner meetings have recently attracted the attention of high profile district officials. At Monday’s meeting, both superintendent Tom Boasberg and assistant superintendent Antwan Wilson were in attendance.

“We’re here to be part of the discussion and to listen,” Boasberg said. He also tried to allay concerns that the discussion about the school’s future was abbreviated. The meetings kicked off in March and the board planned to make a final decision about which program to place at Manual in the beginning of June, based on the group’s recommendations.

But Boasberg also said that if the Thought Partner process took too long, any school leader would not have the time they needed to craft a plan for Manual. “I think one of the things we didn’t do well enough is allow time for planning back in either 2007 or 2000,” he said, referring to the school’s 2007 closure and re-opening and early-2000’s restructuring, which led to its closure.

The group will continue to meet through the end of the school year. Times and dates are below:

  • Tonight, 6 p.m. in room 106, Manual High School: Presentation of the Manual Plan by Vernon Jones and student leaders.
  • April 15, 5:30 p.m. at Vickers Boys and Girls Club: Presentations by all applicants for Near Northeast schools, including Manual.
  • April 21, 5:30 p.m. at Manual High School (room unknown): Manual Thought Partner meeting (these take place every Monday evening).

For full dates, see here.

Note: the article has been updated to reflect the leadership of the school design working group.

IPS School Board Race 2018

Indiana teachers union spends big on Indianapolis Public Schools in election

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
IPS board candidate signs

The political arm of Indiana’s largest teachers union is spending big on the Indianapolis Public Schools board. The group donated $68,400 to three candidates vying for seats on the board this November, according to pre-election campaign finance disclosures released Friday.

The three candidates — Susan Collins, Michele Lorbieski, and Taria Slack — have all expressed criticism of the current board and the leadership of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. Although that criticism touches on many issues, one particular bone of contention is the district’s embrace of innovation schools, independent campuses that are run by charter or nonprofit operators but remain under the district’s umbrella. Teachers at those schools are employed by the school operators, so they cannot join the union.

The trio was also endorsed by the IPS Community Coalition, a local group that has received funding from a national teachers union.

It’s not unusual for teachers unions to spend on school board elections. In 2016, the union contributed $15,000 to an unsuccessful at-large candidate for the Indianapolis Public Schools board. But $68,400 dwarfs that contribution. Those disclosures do not capture the full spending on the election. The three candidates endorsed by Stand for Children Indiana — Mary Ann Sullivan, Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, and Evan Hawkins — are likely getting significant unreported benefits.

Stand for Children, which supports innovation schools, typically sends mailers and hires campaign workers to support the candidates it endorses. But it is not required to disclose all of its political activity because it is an independent expenditure committee, also known as a 501(c)(4), for the tax code section that covers it. The group did not immediately respond to a request for information on how much it is spending on this race.

The candidates’ fundraising varied widely in the reporting period, which covered the period from April 14 to Oct. 12, with Taria Slack bringing in $28,950 and Joanna Krumel raising $200. In recent years, candidates have been raising significantly more money than had been common. But one recent candidate managed to win on a shoestring: Elizabeth Gore won an at-large seat in 2016 after raising about $1,200.

Read more: See candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

One part of Stand for Children’s spending became visible this year when it gave directly to tax campaigns. The group contributed $188,842 to the campaign for two tax referendums to raise money for Indianapolis Public Schools. That includes a $100,000 donation that was announced in August and about $88,842 worth of in-kind contributions such as mailers. The group has a team of campaign workers who have been going door-to-door for months.

The district is seeking to persuade voters to support two tax increases. One would raise $220 million for operating funds, such as teacher salaries, over eight years. A second measure would raise $52 million for building improvements. Donations from Stand for Children largely power the Vote Yes for IPS campaign, which raised a total of $201,717. The Indiana teachers union also contributed $5,000.

Here are the details on how much each candidate has raised and some of the notable contributions:

At large

Incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan, a former Democrat state lawmaker, raised $7,054. Her largest contribution came from the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which donated $4,670. She also received $1,000 from Steel House, a metal warehouse run by businessman Reid Litwack. She also received several donations of $250 or less.

Retired Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Susan Collins, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $16,422. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $15,000. She also received several donations of $200 or less.

Ceramics studio owner and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Joanna Krumel raised $200. Her largest contribution, $100, came from James W. Hill.

District 3

Marian University Executive Director of Facilities and Procurement and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Evan Hawkins raised $22,037. His largest contributions from individuals were from businessmen Allan Hubbard, who donated $5,000, and Litwack, who donated $2,500. The Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee contributed $4,670 and web design valued at $330. He also received several donations of $1,000 or less. His donors included IPS board member Venita Moore, retiring IPS board member Kelly Bentley’s campaign, and the CEO of The Mind Trust, Brandon Brown.

Frost Brown Todd trial attorney and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Michele Lorbieski, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $27,345. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $24,900. She also received several contributions of $250 or less.

Pike Township schools Director of Information Services Sherry Shelton raised $1,763, primarily from money she contributed. David Green contributed $116.

District 5

Incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an Indianapolis Public Schools parent, raised $16,006. Her largest contributors include Hubbard, who donated $5,000; the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which gave $4,670 and web design valued at $330; and the MIBOR PAC, which contributed $1,000. She also received several contributions of $500 or less, including from Bentley.

Federal employee and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Taria Slack, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $28,950. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $28,500.

Innovation zone

Two more Denver schools win additional freedom from district rules

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki/Chalkbeat
Alex Magaña, then principal at Grant Beacon Middle School, greeted students as they moved between classes in 2015.

Two more Denver schools this week won more flexibility in how they spend their money and time. The schools will create a new “innovation zone,” bringing the district’s number of quasi-autonomous zones to three.

The Denver school board on Thursday unanimously approved the schools’ application to operate more independently from district rules, starting in January.

The new zone will include Grant Beacon Middle School in south Denver and Kepner Beacon Middle School in southwest Denver. The two schools are high-performing by the district’s standards and follow a model that allows students to learn at their own pace.

With just two schools, the zone will be the district’s smallest, though Beacon leaders have signaled their intent to compete to open a third school in the growing Stapleton neighborhood, where the district has said it will need more capacity. The district’s other two innovation zones have four and five schools each.

Schools in zones are still district schools, but they can opt out of paying for certain district services and instead spend that money on things that meet their specific needs, such as additional teachers or aides. Zones can also form nonprofit organizations with their own boards of directors that provide academic and operational oversight, and help raise extra dollars to support the schools.

The new zone, called the Beacon Schools Network Innovation Zone, will have a five-member board of directors that includes one current parent, two former parents, and two community members whose professional work is related to education.

The zone will also have a teacher council and a parent council that will provide feedback to its board but whose members won’t be able to vote on decisions.

Some Denver school board members questioned the makeup of the zone’s board.

“I’m wondering about what kinds of steps you’re going to take to ensure there is a greater representation of people who live and reside in southwest Denver,” where Kepner Beacon is located, asked school board member Angela Cobián, who represents the region. She also asked about a greater representation of current parents on the board.

Alex Magaña, who serves as executive principal over the Beacon schools and will lead the new zone, said he expects the board to expand to seven members within a year. He also said the parent council will play a key role even if its members can’t vote.

“The parent council is a strong influence,” he said. “If the parent council is not happy, that’s going to be impacting both of the schools. I don’t want to undersell that.”

Other Denver school board members questioned the zone’s finances and how dependent it would be on fundraising. A district summary of the zone’s application notes that the zone’s budget relies on $1.68 million in foundation revenue over the next 5½ years.

Magaña said the zone would eventually seek to expand to four schools, which would make it more financially stable. As for philanthropic dollars, he said the zone would work to ensure any loss of revenue doesn’t hurt the schools’ unique programs or enrichment.

“I can’t emphasize enough that it won’t impact the schools,” he said.

Ultimately, Denver school board members said they have confidence in the Beacon model and look forward to seeing what its leaders do with their increased autonomy.