‘endrew f.’ plaintiffs speak out

Parents of Colorado student to Betsy DeVos: We are not a ‘poster child’ for your school choice agenda

PHOTO: Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat
Betsy DeVos, center, at Denver's Firefly Autism House.

Jennifer and Joe, a Douglas County couple whose teenage son attends a private school for students with autism, don’t want to be portrayed as a school choice success story.

But that’s exactly how they feel they were represented during a high-profile visit to the Denver school this fall by the nation’s top education official, Betsy DeVos.

The U.S. secretary of education, known for her support of charter schools and private school vouchers, didn’t name the Douglas County couple during her September speech to reporters, parents and school staff. But she talked about the landmark special education case they’d brought against their suburban Denver school district — the same district embroiled in a separate court battle over its plan to offer private school vouchers.

She described how the couple had pulled their son Endrew out of public school and placed him at Firefly Autism House, where he’d thrived.

“The district essentially dared them to sue, so they did and they won,” DeVos told the audience. “Endrew’s parents showed courage in rejecting the low bar set for their son.”

DeVos never mentioned vouchers directly, but her plug for school choice — with Joe, Jennifer and their son Endrew as protagonists — was clear.

“Every family should have that ability to choose the learning environment that’s right for their child,” she said. “They shouldn’t have to sue their way to the Supreme Court to get it.”

Jennifer and Joe, who asked that their last name not be used to protect their family’s privacy, said in an interview with Chalkbeat that DeVos used their case to further her school choice agenda.

“To hold us out there as a poster child on how a private school is working for our child and how this is how school choice is supposed to work, really bugs me,” Joe said.

“It was a little disappointing,” Jennifer said. “She picked the parts that she liked and used them for what she wanted.”

Liz Hill, U.S. Department of Education press secretary, responded via email to a request for DeVos’s response to Jennifer and Joe’s concerns.

She wrote, “Secretary DeVos appreciates and admires the courageous commitment Endrew F’s parents demonstrated to ensure their son received an education that met his individual and unique needs. They are but one of thousands of families across the nation who are fighting to get a better education for their children. The secretary stands with all parents who want the best for their children.”

With the recent election of four Douglas County school board candidates who oppose vouchers, it’s likely the district’s voucher program will never launch. Still, DeVos has voiced support for expanding voucher programs and putting federal funds toward them.

DeVos’s public words were particularly hard to take, Jennifer and Joe said, because they had met with the education secretary privately at her request. They were flattered by her interest, but felt she didn’t understand why private school vouchers would never work for them — or many other families who have children with disabilities.

First, the dollar amount of most voucher programs is paltry compared to what it costs to pay for specialized private schools like Firefly. Tuition there is more than $70,000 a year.

“Say, there was a voucher system in place and let’s pick $5,000.” Jennifer said. “That’s not enough for placement at Firefly. It doesn’t do anything.”

Jennifer and Joe, who own a company that sells industrial equipment, pay around half of Firefly’s tuition and their health insurance pays the rest, they said.

A 2016 report from the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, a national membership organization, highlighted the potential for such inequities.

“Voucher funding is rarely sufficient and generally does not cover the full cost of the child’s education, meaning that only parents with adequate finances truly have a choice,” the report states.

Selene Almazan, legal director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates and co-author of the report, said her organization has not taken a position on vouchers — some of its parent members are very happy using them — but has researched members’ concerns about them.

The report found the median amount of vouchers is $5,000 to $7,000, with a low of $2,000 in Mississippi and a high of $27,000 in Ohio for a student with autism.

Douglas County’s voucher program, which was put on hold because of the legal challenges, would have allowed vouchers worth 75 percent of the district’s per-pupil funding, or about $5,000.

There’s another key issue at stake in the conversation about vouchers for students with disabilities — one Jennifer and Joe asked DeVos about during their private conversation.

Do students with disabilities lose their rights to a fair and appropriate education — a guarantee under the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — if they use vouchers to attend private schools?

Yes, DeVos said.

“She answered point blank,” Joe said.

While Joe and Jennifer say they were talking about the issue in the context of Florida’s voucher program, experts say the loss of rights occurs in a number of states and oftentimes parents are in the dark.

Such rules mean that families “don’t have a right to challenge the services they’re going to be receiving in private school,” said Almazan.

In other words, the legal battle Jennifer and Joe successfully fought after Endrew’s progress stalled in public school would be impossible under the rules of many private school voucher programs.

DeVos’s public responses to questions about the issue have focused on the implications under a federal voucher program, if one were launched. During Senate subcommittee testimony about a proposed federal voucher program last summer, DeVos said schools receiving federal funds must follow federal laws, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. But she has also praised existing state programs that do require students to give up most IDEA rights.

Almazan said the loss of rights stems from a provision that was included in the 1997 reauthorization of IDEA that says students who are “parentally placed” in private schools aren’t entitled to a free and appropriate education as promised by the 1975 education law. Nationwide, a number of voucher programs, including the one crafted by Douglas County School District, classify voucher-using students as parentally placed and thus their rights under the federal law are revoked.

In response to questions from Chalkbeat, U.S. Department of Education officials agreed that protections under IDEA do change for students using state vouchers, but that they are still eligible for certain services, including a consultation between the public school district and the private school about special education services.

Jennifer and Joe said DeVos told them families get their rights back if they return to public school after using a voucher. Still, given that families often leave public school because they are dissatisfied with the program, returning in order to reclaim their rights doesn’t make sense, they say.

“It seems like a lose-lose to me,” Jennifer said.

“I’m not theoretically opposed to vouchers, but … I don’t think it has any place in special needs education,” Joe said.

Jennifer and Joe had only a brief period to meet with DeVos so there’s at least one thing they didn’t get a chance to explain.

That is, why private school — even one as good as Firefly — was never their first choice for Endrew. Unlike the local public schools, which are close enough to see from their Highlands Ranch home, the private school is a 25 minute drive away.

Firefly, “has been immeasurably helpful and good for him and for our family,” Jennifer said. “But he’s missed out on all of those years of friendship and growth with all of his peers in his neighborhood.”

Q and A

In a wide-ranging interview, Carranza takes issue with admissions to New York City’s gifted programs

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Since becoming schools chancellor, Richard Carranza has questioned city admissions methods that critics say exacerbate segregation. Here, he speaks to a crowd at a town hall about school diversity.

Ever since the city launched a push to scrap the entrance exam for its vaunted specialized high schools, Chancellor Richard Carranza has made it clear that he doesn’t believe a single test should be used to make school admissions decisions.

In an exclusive back-to-school interview with Chalkbeat on Friday, he said that also goes for the city’s gifted and talented programs.

Just like specialized high schools, gifted programs are deeply segregated. Only 22 percent of students in gifted programs are black or Hispanic, compared with 70 percent citywide. And just like specialized high schools, admission to most of the city’s gifted programs hinges solely on the results of an exam.

“I think that’s not a good idea,” Carranza said. “When you look at the disparities in representation across this system, you have to ask the question, ‘Do we have the right way of assessing and making decisions about students?’”

Most students enter gifted programs when they’re in kindergarten, so they are only 4 years old when they take the test — an approach that Carranza questioned.

“There is no body of knowledge that I know of that has pointed to the fact that you can give a test to a 4-year-old or a 5-year-old and determine if they’re gifted,” he said. “Those tests — and it’s pretty clear — are more a measure of the privilege of a child’s home than true giftedness.”

A full transcript of our interview with the chancellor is coming soon. We’ll have interesting insights about Carranza’s relationship with his predecessor, what he thinks about the city’s Renewal turnaround program now that he’s had time to get to know it better, and the problems he’s trying to solve with a recent bureaucratic overhaul. Here are some highlights to hold you over until then.

Why few schools may get shuttered under Carranza’s leadership — even though he’s ‘not scared’ of closures

In one of his very first moves as chancellor, Carranza spared a storied Harlem school that was slated for closure. Since then, he has shaken up the school’s leadership, initiated new partnerships, and brought in a different support structure.

It’s just one example, but it could be a hint of what’s to come during Carranza’s tenure.

The school that won the reprieve is a part of the mayor’s high profile Renewal program, which aims to boost student learning by offering social services and a longer school day. The program has shown mixed results, at best, and many Renewal schools have been shuttered after failing to make progress. 

Carranza indicated there could be more closures ahead: “Let me be clear: I’m not scared of closing a school if it’s not serving the needs of the students,” he said.

But he added: “My experience — nine times out of 10 — has been that we haven’t done all we can do to give schools that are struggling to improve the right conditions, the right resources and the right support to actually improve.”

Did Carranza push City Hall to do something about segregation at specialized high schools?

City Hall has indicated that its plans to overhaul admissions at the city’s vaunted specialized high schools had been in the works for some time. Indeed, de Blasio promised to do something about the stark underrepresentation of black and Hispanic students at the schools during his first run for mayor.

Carranza wouldn’t reveal much about what happened behind the scenes in the lead-up to the city’s June announcement that officials would lobby to scrap the exam that serves as the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The chancellor said he brought up the issue in his talks with the mayor before coming onboard, and said his boss shared the same vision.

“I can tell you the mayor is passionate about making sure that our schools are just as diverse as our city,” Carranza said.

Asked whether he personally played a role in the decision, Carranza would only say that the mayor “knew what he was getting,” when he was tapped to be chancellor.

He later added: “One of the things that I appreciate is, that what the mayor hired was an educator to be the chancellor, and he lets me do my job.”

Alex Zimmerman contributed reporting. 

Ignite

Inside a struggling Indianapolis school during its pivotal first year of ‘innovation’

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students from Ignite Achievement Academy performed for the Indianapolis Public Schools Board at a meeting November 16, 2017.

When Deonah Doyle first heard the elementary school her two children attend could be overhauled with a new principal and new teachers, she was afraid.

A neighborhood school northwest of downtown Indianapolis, School 42 has been through a lot over the years — a lot of principals, a lot of teachers, and a lot of turmoil, she said. It was also plagued by years of low test scores, leading to the threat of state intervention.

But the overhaul would likely remove most of the educators Doyle and other parents knew and trusted. “It was very scary for the kids and for me,” she said.

When the school board voted in March 2017 to restart her school, Doyle became one of hundreds of parents caught up in a movement that’s redefining Indianapolis Public Schools. Last summer, School 42 became an innovation school, a new model that allows outside operators to run district campuses.

Over the last three years, the innovation network has grown to 20 schools, including new and existing schools that chose to join. School 42 is one of six struggling campuses that have been restarted as innovation schools in an aggressive attempt to improve test scores and stave off state intervention. This year, innovation schools are expected to enroll 6,000 students — close to 20 percent of the district.

Innovation schools, like many facets of school choice, are politically contentious, with advocates and skeptics sparring over how they could ultimately reshape the district. Three years in, there are some data points that show test score improvements and growing enrollment at some innovation schools. But most of the changes that the transformation has wrought are not as easy to capture on spreadsheets.

It’s people inside schools — parents, teachers, and community members — who have a close-up perspective on how innovation is changing them. At School 42, they talk about the added extracurricular activities, the new approach to discipline, and the increased community engagement. They also talk about the teachers who left and the steep challenges the school still faces.

Although Doyle was initially wary of the restart, she changed her mind once she came to trust the new co-principals who led the overhaul of School 42. “When I talked to them, I could really tell that they were truly here for our babies. They were truly here for the community,” she said. At a meeting at Starbucks, the principals gave her their cell phone numbers, and they asked what they could do to help her, she added. “That sold me.”

*****

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
A neighborhood school northwest of downtown, School 42 enrolls over 500 students.

School 42 has an unremarkable campus: a boxy red brick building sits in a neighborhood with tree-lined streets and small houses and duplexes. The vast majority of the school’s students are black, and nearly all of them come from low-income families. The school was named Elder W. Diggs after a principal there who was also the first black graduate from the Indiana University School of Education. When it was taken over in the summer of 2017, the school was renamed Ignite Achievement Academy at Elder W. Diggs School.

There was a time when School 42 had a good reputation, and students typically went on to Crispus Attucks, the city’s storied black high school, said Reginald Jones, who led the nearby Watkins Community Center in the 1980s.

“It was kind of a different neighborhood,” he said. “The parents knew each other. The children knew each other. It was a poor neighborhood, but it was not a violent neighborhood.”

Over the years the community changed, and there is now persistent violence, said Jones, who volunteers at Ignite. He counsels a group of boys with behavior problems, and last year, many of those students told him they had family members killed in the community, he said. “Some saw it happen,” he added. “When you’re dealing with traumatic experiences like that, you can see how it loses the importance of education.”

In recent years, the school has had a rocky path academically. Its passing rates on state tests have been consistently low, and the school received years of failing grades from the state. A principal who took over in 2015 was making improvements at the school, parents and teachers said. Its state letter grade rose to a D.

When district officials were considering whether to restart the campus as an innovation school, that principal resigned. Instead of hiring a replacement to lead the school, the school board decided to hand over management to Ignite, a new charter school founded by Shy-Quon Ely II and Brooke Beavers.

It was a controversial decision. When the school was restarted, teachers who wanted to stay had to apply to work for Ignite — and the vast majority ultimately left the school.

More broadly, opponents of innovation schools raise a host of concerns. Most teachers at innovation schools don’t work directly for the district, so they are not part of the Indianapolis Public Schools teachers union. Skeptics say the schools do not have enough oversight and the district is ceding schools to outside operators that are not controlled by voters or parents.

Ignite started last school year with about 500 students. A combination of good word-of-mouth and families moving meant that by the end of the year, enrollment reached about 560 children, a significant bump from before the takeover, according to Ely. Most students come from the surrounding neighborhood, but Ignite is also open to students outside the school boundary.

Beavers and Ely previously co-led a school across town in the Tindley charter network. When they took over School 42, they hired nearly all new teachers and school staff, extended the school day, and rolled out new approaches for dealing with students who have discipline problems. They also began a sustained effort to get families and community members involved with the school.

Their ultimate vision is one of reciprocity, where the community invests in the children and they, in turn, have a positive impact on the neighborhood around them. That started with recruiting community partners like Ivan Douglas Hicks, the pastor at a church about a half mile away from the school. First Baptist Church has been involved with School 42 for decades — the school’s first graduation took place at the church, Hicks said. Over the years, congregants have mentored and tutored students, he said. But the relationship has waxed and waned, said Hicks, who has led the congregation for nearly 20 years.

When Ely and Beavers took over, the ties between the church and the school grew tighter. Hicks has a doctorate in African American Studies from Temple University, and he once attempted to start a charter school. When Hicks learned Ignite would use an Afrocentric curriculum, he offered to help get the school off the ground.

Now, Hicks leads the Ubuntu Council, a group that brings together Ignite parents, teachers, and community members that he described as a parent-teacher organization “on steroids.” Ubuntu means “I am because we are,” and the group aims to surround parents and teachers at the school with a wider community, Hicks said. Last year it attracted about 45 people, Hicks estimates. “There’s been a very intentional effort to reach out to, not just neighborhood, but wider community organizations,” Hicks said. “It’s the culture.”

*****

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Ignite is infusing Afrocentrism, including African dance and music.

Even though Ignite has existed for just one year, the school has already created enough enthusiasm for parent events that routinely attract crowds — a sharp contrast with many neighborhood schools. On a Wednesday in April, close to 100 parents and students jammed around tables for a learning party. They discussed why raisins bounce in Sprite and what happens when dish soap is added to pepper and water.

On a mic that worked only intermittently, co-principal Beavers led the students through the scientific method. “After you do your experiment, you’re going to draw a conclusion. What do you think that means?” she asked. “Turn and talk to your parent. What do you think ‘make a conclusion’ means?”

The joy of science isn’t the only enticement that brought such a big crowd: Occasionally, Beavers stopped to read off winning raffle numbers. By the door, a table was piled high with boxes of pizza.

Before Ignite, meetings or events at School 42 attracted just a handful of people, parents and staff say. Now they are filling the gym. “It’s changed a lot,” said Philica Baker, a mother at the science party. “There’s a lot more parents involved.”

The learning night was one of more than a dozen events Ignite has hosted, Ely estimates. There was a peace march. A homecoming dance. A spring celebration. A literacy fiesta. And a back-to-school block party.

Those events take a lot of work, but they are an essential piece of the growing community, Ely said. They build trust between the school and families, and they give parents and children a chance to create positive memories around education.

“We wanted to make sure that we had a lot of opportunities for parents to be involved, for them to come in and see their children,” he said. “We are inviting you in.”

*****

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Shawanda Tyson often brings her younger son with her to visit Ignite.

When it comes to seeing how innovation is changing School 42, parents have on-the-ground insight, and their perspectives are often shaped by the details that define their children’s experience. For Shawanda Tyson, whose son is a fourth-grader, one of the most significant changes at Ignite over the last year is the focus on trying to keep kids in school by reducing suspensions and teaching them to control their emotions.

When Tyson visits School 42, it’s obvious she is a fixture. As she walked the halls on a Thursday afternoon in May, she talked with students, and a passing staff member asked if Tyson made it to her shift at Walmart that day. She skipped her shift to come help her son with school, Tyson said, but “it’s OK.”

The main reason that Tyson spends so much time at School 42, including several hours that Thursday, is because her 10-year-old son has autism. School can get overwhelming, and he often gets in trouble, she said. Sometimes he struggles to focus. Other times, he throws chairs or turns over desks. When he was 8 years old, he walked out of the building and headed down the street. “He would just take off running,” Tyson said.

“What I feared the most with my child having the autistic abilities that he had was that they would give up on him because he sometimes can be a hard case,” she added.

Like many other parents at School 42, Tyson liked the last principal, and she thought the school was improving. Some things about the restart were hard on her son, like losing his beloved special education teacher. But, ultimately, Tyson supported the restart. She is in the parent organizing group Stand for Children, which often supports innovation schools, and she trusted Beavers and Ely.

Over the last year, Tyson said, her son still struggled. He was in a traditional class, and Tyson loved his teacher. But she had taken on many of the more challenging students, and they could be distracting, Tyson said. He had to go to summer school because he didn’t pass the state reading test. This year, he is in a class for students with special needs, she said.

For all the challenges her son faced, Ignite has improved the school in many ways, Tyson said. For much of the year, her son was happier, and he took extracurricular classes he liked. He also spent far less time out of school. The year before Ignite took over, Tyson was routinely asked to pick him up from school because he was having problems, and he was suspended several times, Tyson said. In Ignite’s first year, her son was suspended twice, and he was sent home a handful of times, she said.

Many bad days he was able to stay in school, Tyson said. Instead of asking her to pick him up, Ignite staff asked her to talk with him. They call and say, he is “having a bad moment,” Tyson said. They take him to the resource room, where he has activities to calm himself down, or they ask Tyson to come in and help get him back on track so he can stay in school. “They have not ever given up on him,” she added.

*****

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Janelle Nolan started at School 42 three years ago, and when the district decided to restart the school, she couldn’t bring herself to leave her students.

Parents are often the best witnesses to what changes when a campus is restarted as an innovation school because the vast majority of the staff and teachers typically leave. At School 42, one exception is Janelle Nolan, a teacher who was at the school before and after Ignite took over.

When the school restarted, the existing teachers were displaced, and if they wanted to stay, they had to apply for jobs with Ignite. Because the teachers work for the charter school, they cannot join the district union, and there might be financial costs to switching jobs. Nolan is one of two teachers who remained.

On a quiet spring morning, allergies and end-of-school lethargy had gotten so bad that about half of Nolan’s class was out. But her talent for keeping second-graders on track was clear, as she switched casually between her comments on student behavior — “That’s not kind, sir.” — and the academic topic at hand.

Students clustered in small groups playing a game where they compared pie pieces to see who had the largest fraction. Nolan asked a student to imagine the pieces were a pizza. Then, a boy left the others playing on the carpet and headed to the other side of the classroom. “He don’t want to play anymore. He’s mad,” said another boy. “He’s going to go to the cool-down corner,” replied Nolan. At a desk in the corner, the boy who was upset rested his head on his arms.

Nolan studied education at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, and she got a job at School 42 three years ago under the last principal. It was the only school where she had ever taught, and when the district decided to restart the school, she couldn’t bring herself to leave her students.

She says there have been dramatic changes since Ignite took over. Students at School 42 face lots of turmoil at home. There are children in foster care. Children with parents who are in jail. And children who have seen their parents shot, Nolan said. Ignite leaders have put a new focus on student mental health and discipline, she said.

Instead of having a single person who deals with behavior issues, they have a team, Nolan said. When students are frustrated, they have a cool-down corner in the classroom, as her student used, or they can go to another buddy classroom. There are two classrooms dedicated to students who are having behavior problems in class. And there are counseling services for students.

Ignite’s approach isn’t unique, Nolan said. Indianapolis Public Schools is trying those strategies at traditional schools. But at Ignite, she believes more staff members are dedicated to those issues. And because new staffers came on with the restart, they are on the same page about the right approach, she said.

Nolan left the school when she moved across the state. But after observing the change, she thinks the switch to innovation was the right move. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all thing,” she said. “It just depends on the building. And I really believe this has been good for the kids.”

*****

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Ignite Achievement Academy is one of 20 innovation schools that are transforming Indianapolis. At an event last spring, city education leaders including Mayor Joe Hogsett, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, and Mind Trust CEO Brandon Brown, gathered at the school.

Three years into Indianapolis Public Schools’ innovation experiment, it can be difficult to draw broad conclusions. The schools are diverse by design, with different management structures, challenges, and educational philosophies.

“Innovation tells you they have some flexibility to do some things differently, but outside of that it’s very difficult to characterize them all in the same bucket,” said Indianapolis Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Aleesia Johnson. “There are lots of different schools who happen to be innovation schools.”

Officials often turn to data, such as test scores or rising enrollment, when measuring success. At the individual school level, the district looks at those measures to see whether innovation schools are making progress, Johnson said. While innovation schools run independently in most ways, the district still gets credit, and blame, for their students’ standardized test scores. Data on innovation schools is slowly accumulating, and some have seen boosts in their scores or rising enrollment.

State test results have not yet been released for 2017-18, the first year Ignite ran the school. The improvement on the school’s internal tests fell slightly short of its goals. This year, Ely said, the school will make some academic changes, including hiring three new instructional coaches.

The outstanding question is whether the cultural changes parents notice — new extracurricular activities, changes to discipline, more parent involvement — will eventually be paired with academic results. From Ely’s perspective, those changes are definitely laying the groundwork.

“Culture has to come first,” Ely said. “If we can see evidence that the culture is changing, then we can be patient and we can be content knowing that the academic piece is coming.”

Doyle, the mother who once opposed the restart, said that she is already seeing academic benefits for her daughter. Sitting on the gym bleachers last spring, she described how the school had helped her 8-year-old daughter during the first year. In the past, her daughter struggled academically but flew under the radar because she didn’t have discipline problems.

“She would tell me, ‘mommy, I’m slow,’ because kids would tell her [that]. I’m like, ‘no, you’re not,’ ” Doyle said. When Ignite took over, the second-grader started going to Saturday school and tutoring with New Era Church. Soon, she caught up to grade level for reading.

Despite the progress parents, teachers, and community members have seen, there is uncertainty in Ignite’s future. This year, the school will have small changes, such as shorter school days without as much time for extracurriculars. But it will also have a seismic shift: co-principal Beavers left the school at the end of last school year. Ely is now a solo principal.

Beavers, who is now principal of the Tindley middle school, said she left Ignite because running a charter school that is not part of a network entails significant administrative responsibility and she wanted to focus on her passion, instructional leadership. “I’m so proud to have launched the school,” she said.

Her departure is a source of anxiety for some parents, including Doyle, who said Beavers went above and beyond for the kids. It’s another moment of instability for the school. But Doyle now works at the school in the front office and doing parent engagement. She believes the team is resilient enough to cope with Beavers’ departure.

“I’m not saying that everything here is perfect, but it’s better than what it was,” she said three days into Ignite’s second year. “It ended up being a great opportunity for this community.”