New school option

Mike Miles, former superintendent in Colorado and Dallas, opening charter school in northwest Aurora

Mike Miles, former superintendent of Harrison schools, visits a classroom in this file photo.

Former district superintendent Mike Miles, whose reforms in Dallas and Colorado Springs stirred controversy, is set to open a new charter school in Aurora this fall serving at-risk kids.

The Academy of Advanced Learning will borrow strategies Miles has employed elsewhere, including keeping school doors open early and late to help ease families’ child care burden, and differentiating pay for teachers based on their roles so the school can afford extra staff.

“I knew I wanted to continue to be engaged in public education,” said Miles, the school’s CEO. “Public education is the most important work of our time. I’m just convinced of that.”

Others helping with the school’s launch include former state education commissioner Dwight Jones and Kevin Smelker, a former chief operations officer for the Dallas district.

The Aurora school board approved the Academy of Advanced Learning in June. The charter school, which will be near 6th Avenue and Sable Boulevard in northwest Aurora, will open with kindergarten through sixth grade students and add seventh and eighth graders the following year.

The school will follow a model similar to Pikes Peak Prep in Colorado Springs. The school hired Miles last year to make improvements, and he is now its CEO.

The Aurora school will pay teachers different salaries based on the importance of their roles. For example, a reading teacher — expected to help students make large gains to get to reading at grade level — could make $80,000 per year while a physical education teacher would make about $45,000 annually. Most districts don’t differentiate teacher pay by subjects taught, but may give bonuses for hard-to-staff positions.

It’s something Miles says he knows not everyone will agree with, like many of the reforms he has had a hand in over the last decade.

Miles is working to open the Aurora charter school a year after returning to Colorado after leaving his superintendent job in Dallas with two years left on his contract. During his time in Dallas, Miles made headlines for creating new evaluations for teachers and principals and for firing three principals after the district’s school board voted to keep them.

“If you’re going to prioritize resources, high-quality instruction, whatever you’re going to prioritize, that’s a very political act,” Miles said. “When you prioritize you make some people feel like they’re not a priority. If you want to please everyone, don’t be a superintendent.”

Before the Dallas job, Miles had been superintendent of the Harrison School District in Colorado Springs for six years. In that role, he led the district to adopt one of the first teacher pay-for-performance models in the state that tied salary and raises to annual evaluations.

Tammy Clementi, a former chief academic officer for Aurora Public Schools who now works as a consultant and is on the founding board of the charter school, said she is aware of the criticisms of Miles over the years but believes they are a reaction to his drastic changes.

“I’ve worked with Mike, he was my boss and anytime somebody has approached me with ‘Oh Mike Miles?’ I’ve always said, ‘If you’re working hard and you’re doing your job, you don’t have anything to worry about,’” Clementi said. “He is all about holding folks accountable. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Clementi said even though she was unsure about joining a board for a charter school, she was persuaded by a model that will focus on serving at-risk students and that won’t pick and choose its students.

If more students enroll than the school has room for, the school will hold a lottery.

School officials say the Aurora school will focus on at-risk students through the educational model and by providing them a reliable — and free — place to hang out before and after school.

The school promises to have staff at the building from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. every school day — as it the case at Pikes Peak Prep — so parents who work don’t have to leave kids home alone. Students can sign up for after-school activities, receive tutoring, get help with homework or just watch television.

The school doors will be open on snow days when classes are cancelled.

“We’ll close if Starbucks closes,” Miles jokes.

Brenda Balderas, a mom of two young boys in Aurora, said the school’s hours are one of the most attractive features for parents she has talked to about the school.

“That right there just opens a lot of doors for parents,” Balderas said. She helped gather parent feedback for the school and said she may send her own kids to the school when they are school-age.

The school will also offer free, full-day kindergarten and will follow a competency-based model that will move students through grade levels as they prove they’ve learned certain competencies, not based on time spent in class. The school will also use personalized learning, relying on technology, such as programs on computers or tablets, that move students through lessons at different paces based on each student’s needs.

By saving money on differentiating teacher pay, Miles said he will be able to hire more staff, like teacher’s assistants to get students more one-on-one help.

“That’s kind of what intrigued me the most,” Balderas said. “It’s a very good opportunity for parents, for their kids, that want a little bit more attention.”

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.