These are the 11 IPS schools Ferebee is most worried about

School 93, one of IPS's most troubled schools that Superintendent Lewis Ferebee has targeted for extra support and close monitoring, saw its principal's contract not renewed by the school board for next year. (Scott Elliott)

Taking over in September as superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools presented Lewis Ferebee with a daunting question: where to begin?

Two thirds of the schools were rated a D or F last year by the Indiana Department of Education.

IPS has many needs and lots of schools that Ferebee hopes to turn around. In fact, 38 of the district’s 65 schools are getting at least some level of extra scrutiny from Ferebee and his administrative team as part of their school improvement effort.

Even so, 11 IPS are on red alert, having been named “priority” schools because Ferebee considers them the most troubled. This is where the district is focusing its heaviest attention.

Big changes at the schools already have begun. Several of the 23 IPS administrators whose contracts were not renewed by the school board Tuesday were principals or assistant principals at priority schools.

All of the priority schools were rated an F by the state the past two years. But more concerning to Ferebee is that all of them saw low growth, no growth or even falling test scores. Each has also been identified by the Indiana Department of Education as in need of additional support.

Ferebee came to Indianapolis with a reputation as a school turnaround specialist. In his prior work in Greensboro and Durham, N.C., he has success grouping low performing schools under teams of administrators he led with a goal of raising test scores.

He is taking a similar approach in Indiana.

“We do have schools that have not performed well over an extended period of time we need to improve student outcomes there, he said. “I believe this approach will yield positive results for all our schools and students.”

Students at priority schools are regularly tested during the school year to assess progress and central office administrators are spending more time on those campuses. In March, the IPS school board will hear a report on the progress of the schools.

The 11 priority schools have a few common themes.

Most are neighborhood schools rather than magnet schools, which generally perform better in IPS. Two of them are the junior high school portion of combined junior-senior high schools. Ferebee last week spoke of his concern about grouping middle school age students with high school students and said the district would be examining its grade configurations.

Some of the elementary schools on the list were once good performers that have seen their test scores slide. A few have been long term low performers. Here’s a look:

John Marshall Junior High School

In 2012, the state reclassified IPS 6 to 12 and 7 to 12 high schools to separate middle and high school students. So each of those schools now receives two grades — one for high school students in grades 9 to 12 and one for middle school students.

The 7th and 8th grade students at John Marshall have earned consecutive F grades from the state since that shift, based on its very low test scores. More troubling is the trend line. Last year, just 18 percent of middle school students passed both English and math on ISTEP, a drop from 22 percent the prior year.

Northwest Junior High School

As with John Marshall, Northwest’s High School’s middle school classes collectively were rated an F the past two years. Its passing rate on ISTEP trended slightly up, to 23 percent passing from 18 percent the prior year, but those rates are very low.

School 14

Also called Washington Irving Elementary School, School 14 has seen a steady slide in its test performance over the past decade. A neighborhood school located just east of downtown, it was rated an A in 2005. It’s been rated a C three times in the past seven years, but it’s recent scores have been poor.

The school was rated an F the past two years and its passing rate on ISTEP is in a four-year decline. In fact, its 41 percent passing rate last year was School 14’s lowest in eight years.

School 42

Also called Elder W. Diggs Elementary School, School 42 is a neighborhood school on Indianapolis’ North side. It was mostly a C school that fell to an F in 2012 and has stayed there. The school’s 42 percent ISTEP passing rate has barely budged in the past eight years. Its highest rate was 45 percent passing in 2007 and lowest was 33 percent passing in 2009.

School 44

Also called Riverside Elementary School, School 44 is a neighborhood school located less than a mile from School 42 on the city’s North side. The school has not seen a grade above a D since 2005. Test scores at the school made a big drop from an already low 37 percent passing in 2011 to 25 percent last year.

School 51

Also called James Russell Lowell Elementary School, School 51 is a neighborhood school on the city’s Northeast side. It was an A school in 2007 and was mostly rated a C before it dropped to an F in 2012. School 51’s ISTEP passing rate of 32 percent has been mostly flat for eight years, with high of 35 percent passing in 2012 and a low of 27 percent in 2008.

School 58

Also called Ralph Waldo Emerson Elementary School, this neighborhood school on the city’s East side was earning decent grades for several years, including an A in 2010. But it has had three consecutive F grades since then. Its 44 percent ISTEP passing rate is well below the school’s 2008 high of 60 percent passing.

School 61

Also called Clarence Farrington Elementary School, School 61 is a neighborhood school located on the Northwest side of the city. This school’s grade has been in a steady decline. It dropped from an A in 2007 to a pair of C’s and then a D in 2011. The school has been rated an F since then.

The percent of students passing ISTEP at School 61 has hovered around 40 percent passing for eight years, with a low of 34 percent in 2008 and a high of 46 percent in 2009. Last year 42 percent passed ISTEP.

School 69

Also called Joyce Kilmer Elementary School and located on the North side of Indianapolis, it was an A in 2010 but has earned three straight F’s since then. The school made a good jump in test scores last year, to 30 percent passing ISTEP from 18 percent the year before, but it remains one of the district’s lowest performers. The school has not exceeded 35 percent passing ISTEP in six years.

School 93

Also called George H. Fisher Elementary School, School 93 is another school that has seen a reversal of fortune. Located on Indianapolis’ Northeast side, School 93 had two A’s and a B between 2005 and 2009. But since then, it has earned three consecutive F’s. Just 30 percent of School 93’s students passed ISTEP last year, down dramatically from 53 percent passing in 2008.

School 103

Also called Francis Scott Key Elementary School, School 103 has been a long time poor performer on state tests. Located on the city’s Northeast side, School 103 has earned a D or F six of the last eight years and an F for the past three years. Its grade has never been higher than a C in that period. More alarming, its ISTEP passing rate has been trending down for six years to 22 percent passing last year from 47 percent in 2009.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.