Future of Schools

Parents, teachers rally to bring Project Restore to School 93

School 93 parent Lechess Taylor gets a parent to sign a petition to bring Project Restore to the school. (Scott Elliott)

While other School 93 parents pulled up to the building wearing knit hats and heavy jackets against Tuesday’s unusually bitter cold at the school day’s end, a coatless Kesha Harris chased along behind them, clipboard and pen in hand.

“Have you signed our petition yet?” she asked, staying warm apparently only from her frenetic movements.

Harris was in a group of parents working the sidewalk, aiming to collect just 11 more signatures so they could present to the Indianapolis Public School Board with 100 names in support of their mission: to bring the district’s Project Restore program to their school.

“We’re at the F level,” Harris said. “If that isn’t a reason to bring them here, what is?”

The effort to overhaul School 93, also called George H. Fisher Elementary School, has several elements that are potentially groundbreaking for IPS.

In this case, the impetus for change is coming not from the central office, but is driven by parents and teachers. They’ve been aided by a new initiative of an outside group, Stand For Children. And the reform they are aimed squarely at adopting is not a national model or magnet theme. It’s a homegrown, IPS-invented program with a track record of success at the kinds of low performing neighborhood schools that plague the district.

Facing tough challenges

School 93 is deeply troubled, ranked in the bottom 15 percent of schools in one of the poorest performing school districts in the state. Only six of 56 IPS schools that took ISTEP had a lower passing rate than School 93’s 30 percent in 2013.

The school’s trend line is even more concerning. Between 2005 and 2009, School 93 actually earned two A’s and a B. But since then it has been rated an F three consecutive years and this year landed on Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s list of 11 high priority schools targeted for extra attention because of low and declining test scores. School 93’s passing rate has fallen by an alarming 23 percentage points since 2008.

School 93 parent Kesha Harris helped lead the signature gathering effort at school 90 on Tuesday. (Scott Elliott)
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
School 93 parent Kesha Harris helped lead the signature gathering effort at school 90 on Tuesday. (Scott Elliott)

Why?

Special education teacher Kevin Ludwig has some theories. The school’s population has changed over his three years there, he said. Ludwig remembered an unusual influx of more than 100 new students from other schools in a single year, possibly driven by redistricting or another school being closed. That’s a lot of new students for a school of just 349 kids.

The school’s students face significant challenges and troubled home lives. This year alone, Ludwig said, two students at the school have been shot in incidents in their homes. Another significant subset of its students are homeless or in foster care.

“Every teacher up here can tell you of situations where they are simply at a loss as to how to reach and inspire our children to learn,”Ludwig told the school board Tuesday night. “To be clear, it is not the fault of our young people. Our students walk into school every day with terrible, tragic and overwhelming challenges.”

Some of School 93’s other numbers: 89 percent of its children are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, 90 percent are minorities and 20 percent are in special education.

Similar schools see more success

Even so, another East side school with similar challenges just a couple miles away is on an opposite trajectory — getting the better results School 93 teachers and parents covet.

School 99, also known as Arlington Wood Elementary School, was an F school in 2009 when two of its teachers, Tammy Laughner and Dan Kriech, created what became Project Restore and ultimately persuaded the rest of the school to try it. Project Restore is a schoolwide reform model aimed at improving discipline through consistent rule enforcement and promoting better student learning through frequent testing and review of what’s been taught.

School 99, where it all began, has a profile that is much the same as School 93: 88 percent of School 99’s kids are poor, 93 percent minority and 16 percent in special education. Like School 93, its students had trouble with low test scores and disruptive behavior.

Laughner and Kriech’s approach had several distinctive features. For discipline, they outlined 20 common, serious offenses — 10 that result in suspension and 10 that earn students a trip to the discipline office. Discipline deans handle it all, including calling parents.

“Teachers just keep on teaching,” Laughner said. “Teachers like that.”

There is also a system of rewards when students do well and competitions to earn prizes for good academic work. Every class routinely posts its test scores, for example, identifying the top scoring classrooms.

School 99 dramatically improved under Project Restore. (Scott Elliott)
School 99 dramatically improved under Project Restore. (Scott Elliott)

Instruction in math is an example of how Project Restore works. Cumulative tests Laughner and Kriech created add new concepts as students learn them and the tests get longer each time. But students are always tested on what they had previously learned, building in review.

“They are constantly reinforcing the curriculum,” said Ludwig, who previously taught at School 99. “Kids prepared for ISTEP this way. They walked in to ISTEP with heads high and were like, ‘I got this.’ And they did.”

In five years, School 99 went from 31 percent passing to 60 percent passing before a slight dip to 58 percent last year. Still, the school remains in the top quarter of IPS schools when it comes to passing ISTEP. It reached an A in 2012 before sliding to a C last year after the test score drop.

Just a few miles down the road, however, Project Restore’s second turnaround story did the flagship school one better.

School 88, named the first Project Restore expansion site in the fall of 2012, jumped from an F to an A in one year on the strength of a 19-point jump on ISTEP to 56 percent passing. Its profile compares strongly with Schools 99 and 93: School 88’s students are 90 percent poor, 78 percent minority and 18 percent in special education.

Ferebee said he’s been impressed with Project Restore’s track record.

“We do choice really well between charters and magnet schools in Indianapolis,” he said. “But this is a promising model for neighborhood schools that we should explore.”

Getting outside help

Lechess Taylor had never heard of Project Restore before she started attending Stand Up classes. But she liked what she heard. Her son, Anthony, is in first grade and has a long way to go before he’s done at School 93.

“I want my son to learn more and to get him ready for college,” she said.

School 93 is rated an F and has among the lowest ISTEP passing rates in IPS. (Scott Elliott)
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
School 93 is rated an F and has among the lowest ISTEP passing rates in IPS. (Scott Elliott)

Stand Up is an initiative of Stand for Children, a group that advocates for educational change in IPS. Parents at three IPS schools signed up for its 10-week course, in which they learn how to be better informed advocates for their children.

In the class, parents learn about how to analyze school test data, how to assess whether their kids are on a track to be ready for college and other skills. One presentation was on Project Restore.

“We found if you provide parents with information on how their school is doing and how it relates to their child’s future they want to take action,” said Stand’s executive director, Justin Ohlemiller. “We saw the lightbulb go off that their kids’ lives are at stake.”

Harris was among the parents who quickly saw value in Stand Up for herself and her children.

“I joined immediately,” she said. “My question was, what a I supposed to do as a mom?”

School 93’s poor performance was quickly identified by parents in the group as a concern to be addressed. They didn’t like their school being rated an F.

“You can’t go any further down,” said Eugenia Murray, mother of three students at the school. “My children do well here but it’s not just about my children.”

With 100 parent signatures gathered and near unanimous teacher support, the group came to Tuesday night’s school board and asked for an endorsement their plan. Ludwig spoke for a group of six teachers who made the plea.

“We believe Project Restore is exactly what we need to change the trajectory of our school and to provide our students with the confidence and structure necessary for them to succeed in the classroom,” he said. “We’ve put in countless extra hours trying to turn our school around. But we’re not getting the results we want or our young people deserve. So we respectfully request your help.”

Ferebee was pleased by the strong support of teachers and parents.

“When you have community support, and the number of signatures they had, we should give an opportunity to hear more,” he said. “I’m inclined to be very supportive of it.”

The biggest questions in Ferebee’s mind are logistical. The district has already announced plans to seek a new principal for the school. Among his questions:  Is there a potential candidate to lead the school with Project Restore experience who would be a good fit? Should the school be part of IPS’s “innovation school” network that is trying out new ideas? Or should it operate independently under a new law just passed by the Indiana Legislature?

Whatever the set up, Murray said parents are ready to support the turnaround push.

“Hopefully we can get it turned around from an F school to an A school,” she said. “It’s going to be a collaborative effort.”

Future of Schools

How this Indiana district realized counselors weren’t spending enough time counseling

PHOTO: Denver Post file

About a year ago, the counselors in the Beech Grove school district made a discovery: They were spending less than half of their time on counseling.

Instead of meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups, they were spending most of their days on routine tasks, such as overseeing lunch, proctoring exams, and filling in for secretaries.

When they realized how much time those other tasks were taking away from counseling work, it was “an eye-opener for everyone,” said Paige Anderson, the district college and career coordinator.

The counselors began tracking their time as part of a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy. In 2016, the foundation launched Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students, a $49 million effort to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

What Beech Grove staff members learned during their planning process is already changing their approach to counseling, said Trudi Wolfe, a counselor at Central Elementary School, who was instrumental in applying for the Lilly grants. Now, administrators are taking on more tasks like proctoring tests. And one intermediate school hired a new counselor.

“The schools will take counselors and meet the needs of the school,” Wolfe said. “Part of the process is helping administrators understand, school counselors need to be doing school counseling.”

Last month, the endowment announced its second round of implementation grants, which awarded about $12.2 million to 39 schools and districts. Beech Grove will receive $259,727 to redesign its counseling program to focus on the social and emotional needs of students, with the largest chunk of that money going to staff training.

The aim is to develop a strategy for handling the trauma that students face at home, said Wolfe. Over the past 10 years, the number of students in the district who are poor enough to get subsidized meals has risen by about 25 percentage points to 72 percent of students.

Beech Grove has also been affected by the opioid crisis, said Wolfe. “We have kids living with parents who are dependent on drugs, and they are not meeting the needs of their children.”

Those growing challenges mean that it is essential for counselors to have a plan for helping students instead of just meeting the needs of each day, Wolfe said.

Counseling is an investment that can have long-term benefits. After Colorado began an initiative to hire more school counselors, participating schools had higher graduation rates, increased enrollment in career-and-technical programs, and more students taking college-level courses. A 2016 report found that by keeping students from dropping out, the Colorado program saved taxpayers more than $319 million.

But in Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-2015, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor, above the national average and significantly higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of no more than 250 students per counselor.

Hiring more counselors alone is not enough to create stronger school counseling programs, said Tim Poynton, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies counseling. They also have to spend their time on meaningful counseling work.

“You need more school counselors. That’s necessary, but it’s also not sufficient,” said Poynton. “If you hire more school counselors, and you have them doing lunch duty and things that basically you don’t need a master’s degree in school counseling to do, then you’re not going to see those important metrics move.”

When schools were applying for the Lilly Endowment grants, many reported that counselors were focused on urgent social and emotional challenges and struggled to help students plan for the future, according to the endowment.

Those challenges can have ripple effects, making it harder for school staff to tackle long-term goals such as ensuring that students sign up and meet the requirements for the state’s scholarship program, 21st Century Scholars.

If counseling is done well, most students will be prepared to go to college, even if they do not seem interested when they are in high school, Poynton said. But when counselors are dealing with urgent problems, they have significantly less time to devote to college preparation, he said.

“In urban schools, school counselors are often focused on getting students to school and meeting their immediate needs,” Poynton said. “In the higher-performing suburban schools, where the students and families don’t have those same kind of issues or concerns, the emphasis is almost entirely on the college-going process.”

In a statement from the endowment, Vice President for Education Sara B. Cobb said the response to the Lilly grants shows increased awareness of the crucial need for counseling programs.

“We are impressed with how school leaders have engaged a wide variety of community partners to assess the academic, college, career and social and emotional needs of their students, and respond to them,” Cobb said.

The Lilly grants are going to a broad array of schools, and they are using the money in different ways. At Damar Charter Academy, which educates students with special needs, few students earn traditional diplomas or have good options for higher education. That’s why school staff plan to use the $100,000 counseling grant they received to build relationships with employers and create training programs for skills such as small engine repair, automotive maintenance, landscaping, and culinary arts, said Julie Gurulé, director of student services.

“If we can commit to getting them the skills they need while they are with us,” she said, “they will be able to go out and gain meaningful employment, and … lead the kind of lives that we all want to.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Beech Grove City Schools $259,727
  • Damar Charter School $100,000
  • Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township $671,300
  • Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis High School $100,000

Delayed decision

Officials promised to update a Giuliani-era agreement between the NYPD and city schools almost a year ago. So where is it?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A school safety agent at Staten Island's New Dorp High School.

Last October, city officials said they were on the cusp of announcing changes in the way the New York Police Department interacts with schools — an overhaul that began more than three years ago and sparked months of negotiations with advocacy groups.

But nearly 10 months later, the city has not announced any revisions to the “memorandum of understanding” that governs police involvement with school security, leaving in place a nearly two-decade-old agreement that has not been altered since Rudy Giuliani was mayor and “zero tolerance” discipline policies were in vogue.

Now, police and education officials say revisions won’t be made public until this fall. That timeline has infuriated advocates who said they made progress with senior city officials but have recently been kept in the dark and fear their recommendations are being ignored.

“Here we are three years later without any explanation from the administration,” said Kesi Foster, an organizer with Make the Road New York and the Urban Youth Collaborative who serves on a mayoral task force charged with revising the agreement. “It’s extremely frustrating and disheartening.”

As Mayor Bill de Blasio has worked to overhaul school discipline policies, which have reduced suspensions and student arrests, advocates say the outdated MOU has become a roadblock.

The 1998 agreement officially gives the city’s police department authority over school safety agents, a force that rivals Houston’s entire police department in size. The agreement was controversial at the time, with some city officials saying the presence of police officials made student misbehavior more likely to end in arrests.

Mark Cannizzaro, head of the city’s principals union who was a school administrator in the 1990s, said it was not unheard of for principals to consider calling the police for incidents as minor as shoving. “There was, at one point, a zero tolerance approach that didn’t make sense,” he said.

The current memorandum is a reflection of that era, advocates say, and is one of the reasons students of color are disproportionately likely to wind up in the criminal justice system instead of the principal’s office. It was supposed to be updated every four years, but has still never been revised.

De Blasio seemed to agree that the memorandum needed to be reformed, and convened a group of advocates and senior city officials who recommended changes. Among the group’s recommendations, released in 2016, were giving school leaders the lead role in addressing student misbehavior, making it more difficult for school safety agents to place students in handcuffs, and ensuring students are informed of their rights before they’re questioned.

Johanna Miller, the advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said senior officials — including Mark Rampersant, the education department’s director of security, and Brian Conroy, the chief of the police department’s school safety division — participated in the task force and seemed receptive to changes. The group agreed there should be limits to the type of offenses that could trigger police involvement, multiple participants said, excluding offenses such as smoking cigarettes, cutting class, and certain instances of insubordination.

But when the city presented the group with a draft agreement, many of their recommendations had vanished, according to people who were present during the meetings, some of whom requested anonymity because the city required that participants sign nondisclosure agreements.

“They basically eliminated all of the major changes that we made,” Miller said, adding that the group requested another opportunity to change the agreement more than a year ago. “And that was the last we heard of it.”

City officials would not comment on why the process has been delayed or why key recommendations never made it into the draft agreement. Some task force members said they believed education and police department lawyers, who had not participated in the group’s discussions, played a role in stripping the draft agreement of the most important changes.

An education department spokeswoman acknowledged in an email that “agency lawyers have been involved in order to ensure the MOU is aligned with existing local, state, and federal laws and in the best interest of students and families,” but did not comment further on why certain changes were not included.

Asked why task force members were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, the official said the decision was made “To protect the confidentiality of any shared student data and remain within (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) compliance.”

The task force still meets quarterly, although several of its members say they have not received updates and did not know the city planned to release an updated memorandum this fall.

“The DOE and NYPD have been working in close partnership to finalize updates to the MOU and ensure that the changes are done correctly in the best interest of students and families,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote in an email.

Cannizzaro, the principals union chief, said he has not been informed about potential changes to the agreement, adding that school leaders should have discretion in how misconduct is handled and noted the police play an important role in school safety. “We certainly appreciate their presence — we need their presence,” he said.

Some members of the task force wondered whether the selection of a new schools chief has delayed the process, and at their most recent meeting in May, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza stopped by. “He said something to the extent of, he knew it was an issue and was going to put eyes on it,” said Nancy Ginsburg, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society and a member of the task force.

Ginsburg said she appreciates that changes take time, but also stressed that the current memorandum can make it difficult to hold officials accountable since the agreement is so vague.

“It’s impossible to hold the agencies to anything if there are no rules,” she said.