Early Childhood

In rare legislative appearance, Pence touts preschool

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence testified on behalf of a bill for the first time as governor today, making a personal plea for support for his proposed preschool pilot program.

His goal: Get reluctant fellow Republicans on the Senate Education Committee to vote yes on House Bill 1004 to create the program.

But the bill could still be in trouble. After Pence’s remarks, Republican committee members remained skeptical, asking a long list of questions about the cost, practicality and need for state-paid preschool.

Pence’s testimony was an unusual move for a sitting governor and a first in his 13-month tenure in office. The bill, which is near the top of Pence’s legislative agenda, would establish a framework to provide tuition support for about 1,000 low income four-year-olds in five counties to attend preschool.

Pence said preschool is critical to reducing childhood poverty because it can help the state’s poor children to be ready for school and to have a better chance in life.

“I have come to the conclusion that we will not succeed in this fight if we do not honestly deal with the fact that too many children do not do well in school because they simply aren’t ready to learn,” Pence said. “With great respect, I ask you to move this bill out of committee so that the Senate can continue consideration of this important measure.”

Pence’s Center for Education and Career Innovation estimates the program would cost about $10.6 million when fully implemented. No money would be spent on preschool until after the state’s next biennial budget is created in 2015, according to CECI. Start up costs in the first year cost would be about $650,000 with the first children enrolling in 2016.

Without preschool, many poor children never get on track academically, Pence said.

“They arrive in kindergarten and spend too much time trying to catch up, and when that fails, they spend too much of their lives dropping out – out of school, out of work and out of our communities,” he said.

Pence said poor children struggle in school through no fault of their own.

“It’s not that they are not willing and bright,” he said. “As a parent and as your governor, I find that not only unacceptable, but heartbreaking.”

House Bill 1004 easily passed the House last month 87-9. But its fate in the Senate Education Committee is expected to be key to its chances for becoming law.

A similar preschool pilot program passed the House last year but was dismantled when it could not garner enough support in the Senate Education Committee. Committee members at the time expressed concerns about the cost and need for such a program. Committee Chairman Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said last month he had not detected any change in attitudes about creating a new preschool pilot program in 2014.

Republicans on the committee who had doubts last year asked pointed questions today of the bill’s author, Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis.

Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, asked Behning if the bill was “premature” because it created a program that required funding before next year’s budget-making process. Kenley chairs the Senate’s powerful appropriations committee.

“If we pass this now, do we give it special treatment in budget?” he asked.

Behning said it would still be up to the legislature to decide if it should fund the program next year along with all of the state’s other budget priorities.

Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, asked whether the program was needed when the state already had federally funded Head Start programs for children in preschool and if preschool should be funded instead of adding more aid for kindergarten.

“Does it bother you we are not making Kindergarten mandatory but we are doing this pilot?” she asked.

Behning said the kindergarten issue was all but solved even without a state requirement to attend. More than 95 percent of seven-year-olds are now enrolled since the state added more funding for it last year.

Leising said she wants to hear about how the pilot program will interact with federal programs like Head Start.

“Nobody could answer my questions,” she said. “I want to know before I vote.”

Kenley said cost is his big worry. The program may only be planned for $10 million, he said, but there will be pressure to expand it in the future.

“It may or may not be a good idea,” he said. “I think that is really deals with a potentially large budget commitment on our part. So we have been having discussions on if that is a legitimate concern on my part or not.”

Committee members heard about three hours of testimony on the bill and expects to vote on it next week.

Super Search

The pressing question at Denver’s final forum: How will Susana Cordova tackle inequity?

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Susana Cordova poses for a portrait in December 2018.

The challenges that Susana Cordova will face if she’s hired next week as superintendent of the Denver school district were laid bare at a public forum Tuesday night.

Standing in a high school cafeteria with a microphone in her hand, the deputy superintendent and sole finalist for the top job faced tough questions about why struggling schools have high numbers of inexperienced teachers, whether she would commit to removing all police officers from schools, and what she would do about what one student called the “charter-ization” of Denver Public Schools — that is, the district’s practice of replacing low-performing district-run schools, sometimes with charter schools.

The most heated and emotional exchanges, however, were about inequities: Why is the district not serving black, Latino, and Native American students as well as white students? Why do test score gaps exist between students from poor families and those from wealthier ones?

Onecia Garcia, a senior at East High School, the city’s largest school and one of its most diverse, told Cordova there is a noticeable gap at East between the kids whose parents have money to pay for tutors and SAT prep courses, and the kids whose parents don’t.

“I want to know what your plan is to get that gap in order,” Garcia said.

In response to Garcia’s question and others like it, Cordova acknowledged that institutional racism exists in Denver Public Schools and has contributed to those gaps. She said the district needs to do a better job informing families about opportunities such as free SAT help and concurrent enrollment classes that allow students to earn college credit while in high school.

Cordova, who grew up in Denver and climbed the district ranks from teacher to her current position of deputy superintendent, talked about making it mandatory for all teachers to undergo training on bias and being culturally responsive, instead of allowing some to opt out.

Cordova said one of her top priorities would be to take the myriad and disparate efforts the district has started over the years to address specific inequities and combine them into one comprehensive plan. She called it “an equity plan that is for all kids, but that also has the specifics for African-American kids, for Latino kids, for low-income kids.”

“It is important that we’re not introducing too many things that you can’t keep a focus,” she said. “I think that’s a valid criticism of the work that we’ve done: We’ve introduced too many things that have made it hard to understand what is the progress that we’re trying to get at.”

But after the forum, Garcia said she didn’t feel Cordova had fully answered the questions. Other students who attended said they felt the same way.

“She wasn’t willing to commit to anything,” said Jonathan Bateman, a freshman at George Washington High School, where the forum was held.

“She answered questions like a politician,” said Carlye Raabe, also a freshman at George Washington.

Cordova emphasized that if she’s hired as superintendent, she’ll approach the job differently than her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, who stepped down in October after nearly 10 years of leading Denver Public Schools. Boasberg was often criticized for not listening to the community.

“I believe deeply in the power of relationships,” Cordova said. “I think it’s really important that we’re not just listening to people who think like I think or who sound like I sound, but who have different experiences, because Denver is an incredibly diverse place.”

The school board is expected to vote Monday on whether to appoint Cordova to the top job.

An Introduction

What you need to know about Aleesia Johnson, IPS’ interim superintendent

PHOTO: Stephanie Wang/Chalkbeat
Aleesia Johnson was named the interim superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools on Friday, Dec. 7, 2018.

Even before she was chosen as interim superintendent last week, Aleesia Johnson was a rising star in Indianapolis Public Schools.

Johnson spearheaded the district’s innovation strategy under departing superintendent Lewis Ferebee, developing controversial partnerships with nonprofit or charter operators and giving schools more freedom.

About Aleesia Johnson, IPS’ new interim superintendent:

  • Johnson started at Indianapolis Public Schools in 2015 overseeing the district’s innovation schools. She was promoted to deputy superintendent of academics earlier this year.
  • Johnson started her career as a teacher through Teach for America. She came to Indianapolis to teach at KIPP Indy and later led the charter network’s middle school. She has also worked for Teach for America’s Indianapolis office.
  • She graduated from Agnes Scott College and received master’s degrees from the University of Michigan and Oakland City University.
  • An Evansville native, Johnson comes from a family of educators. Her mother was a longtime teacher and is now an elementary school principal. Her grandfather was one of the few black administrators in Evansville in the 1970s and 1980s, she said.
  • Johnson has three children who all attend district schools.

Her work overseeing innovation schools — sometimes used as a turnaround approach for the most struggling schools — has transformed the district into a more decentralized, hybrid model that has attracted the national spotlight. Because of innovation schools, Indianapolis is widely regarded by reform advocates as a district among the “most inventive and dynamic in the country,” as the Center on Reinventing Public Education put it last year.

Now Johnson, 40, is the first African-American woman to serve as the district’s superintendent, and she appears a likely contender when the district begins its search for a permanent successor to Ferebee.

“I’m under no illusion of the challenges that face our district and the tough decisions that will have to be made,” Johnson said in a district blog post about her appointment.

As deputy superintendent of academics, Johnson has often been a public face of the district, speaking on panels about racial equity in education and forums about the district’s innovation work. Personable and confident, she’s well respected within the district and in Indianapolis education circles, even though her work with innovation schools can be controversial.

As a key leader in Ferebee’s administration, Johnson is closely tied to charter schools and school reform in Indianapolis. A former Teach for America and KIPP Indy leader, she has said she supports the path the district is on, which means she’ll likely have the support of the majority of the school board. Johnson told the Center on Reinventing Public Education that she was drawn to Indianapolis Public Schools in 2015 because she “connected really strongly with the vision the superintendent laid out.”

“She’s had the opportunity to see first-hand some of our strategy and transformation efforts,” Ferebee said Friday.

Under Johnson’s leadership, the district would likely continue to broaden its innovation strategy. A district of some 30,000 students, made up of mostly students of color and from poor families, Indianapolis Public Schools serves about a quarter of its students in 20 innovation schools.

In interviews, Johnson has often touted how innovation schools can move more nimbly than schools that have to wait for district-level changes.

“I think what we’re trying to do is create a third way of thinking — how do you marry empowering schools with flexibility with lots of the resources that are available to schools in a traditional public schools district structure,” Johnson told the Reinventing America’s Schools project, a pro-charter school reform movement led by David Osborne.

It’s hard to make a blanket statement on the performance of innovation schools. Because most of them are less than three years old, many are graded based on the growth of their students alone without taking into account their proficiency levels. Many of the schools have seen early gains in passing rates on state tests.

Johnson has been upfront about the challenges of the innovation strategy. In the book “Reinventing America’s Schools,” Osborne wrote that she acknowledges “constant problems to be worked out,” such as funding to support innovation schools and uprooting teachers when schools convert to innovation.

“It’s never, ‘No, we can’t do that,’” she said in the book. “It’s, ‘Oh, we’ve never done that, so let’s talk about it and figure out how to get it done.’”

In an interview with the local Indy Education blog, Johnson said she invites critics to see the changes strong leaders can make in innovation schools.

She also said innovation can allow community members to feel like they have ownership of the schools in their neighborhood: “I see this work as an incredible opportunity for there to be, unlike ever before, a much stronger community voice, much stronger way for parents to interact and engage in their schools.”

Still, Johnson was careful to note Friday that she won’t be a carbon-copy of her former boss, who has both won the hearts of many national reformers and rankled community members with the dramatic changes to the district. “I think obviously I am a different leader,” she said.

She won’t be immune to criticism. The IPS Community Coalition, a grassroots group that is critical of innovation schools, posted on Facebook about Johnson’s appointment to interim superintendent: “Although that is a great milestone for IPS in terms of equity and diversity, we have continued concern about the IPS agenda. The statement this appointment makes about pushing innovation schools and charter ‘choices’ on poor, and black and brown students is concerning — as charters have not proved to be more effective, nor equitable in their treatment of students.”

Others, though, including school board members, have heralded her appointment. Andrew Pillow, a teacher who worked with Johnson at KIPP Indy, wrote on the Indy Education blog that Johnson is “infinitely qualified and the perfect choice to lead Indianapolis Public Schools.”

So far, Johnson has said she will wait until the school board decides the superintendent search process to say whether she’s throwing her hat in the ring to lead the district long-term.

Asked again in her first television interview as interim superintendent this week, she said, “We shall see.”