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)


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.”

Why not Michigan?

As Michigan’s poorest 4-year-olds wait for classroom seats, free pre-K for all kids seems elusive

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
All New York City four year-olds — including these kids who attend school is in the city's education department headquarters — are guaranteed a spot in a city-funded pre-K. In Michigan, far fewer students have access to free preschool.

Michigan is the home to America’s most famous study on the benefits of early childhood education.

But when it comes to providing free prekindergarten for all children, other states and cities are leading the way.

Vermont, Florida, Washington, and the District of Columbia have public programs for all 4-year-olds, regardless of income. Seven more states have greatly expanded their pre-K programs, too, including Wisconsin, where free voluntary pre-K is in the state’s 1848 constitution.

But not Michigan. Not yet, at least.

The pioneering Perry Preschool Study began in Ypsilanti in 1962 and followed 123 study participants starting at age 3 through the age of 40. Among the study’s  findings: Those who went to pre-K were more likely to graduate from high school and less likely to repeat grades. They were also less likely to use drugs or commit crimes.

As they grew older, they were more likely to be employed and to have stable homes, savings accounts, significantly higher incomes, and report good relations with their families.

Skills such as cooperative play lay the groundwork for children to get along with others. In addition, learning to use fine motor skills and mastering shapes, colors, numbers, and the alphabet, contribute to future growth.

Further research has underscored the worth of pre-K, making it a rare realm of bipartisan support. In fact, funding for early childhood education has risen under the past three governors.

“I’ve been around long enough to see Democrats and Republicans in office, and early childhood education continues to be on the radar as a positive,” said Lena Montgomery, director of the Wayne County branch of the Great Start Readiness Program, a state funded initiative for 4-year-olds from low-income families.

But even though the governor’s own 21st Century Education Commission recommended that Michigan expand pre-K with $390 million in new investment, he chose instead to further study the impact of Great Start. In his most recent budget, he allocated $300,000 to do that research, and kept spending for Great Start flat at $245.6 million.

Momentum toward providing publicly funded pre-K, often called universal preschool, has been slowed by cost, teacher shortages, and family resistance, advocates say. They also note that there is no incentive for different institutions to pool their money to pay for a more comprehensive pre-K program in the state.  

Other states and cities have navigated similar challenges. But Michigan families face a patchwork of options. They may keep young children at home, pay for private childcare or pre-K, or, if they meet income or disability requirements, they can enroll them in Great Start or federally funded Head Start. Both are designed to support vulnerable children, including families with low-incomes.

But there aren’t enough seats, even for every child in need. Great Start’s Montgomery said she has 27 programs with qualified families on wait lists. It’s common, she said, for policymakers to say they support children. But some families are still falling into the gaps because more money is needed, she said.

About 133,000 Michigan children are not enrolled in any early childhood program.

Half of Wayne County’s 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in various pre-K programs, said Iheoma Iruka of Highscope, though she added that “we can’t vouch for the quality of these programs.”

The education plan of Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic nominee for governor, advocates for a universal program that expands Great Start until all 4-year-olds are eligible, similar to what the 21st Century Education Commission recommended. It would be paid for, according to her campaign staff, with anticipated increases in the School Aid Fund, which is mostly made up of sales, income, and property taxes. It would also use tax revenue from, among other things, the marijuana ballot initiative that’s expected to pass in November. Tax hikes shouldn’t be necessary, her staff said.

Bill Schuette, the Republican nominee, has an education plan that emphasizes third-grade literacy over pre-K. It mentions need-based transportation scholarships for preschoolers, and he said in a recent interview that universal pre-K was an option that he’d consider.

Hope Starts Here, the $50 million initiative created by the Kellogg and Kresge foundations to improve Detroit’s early childhood systems, has a number of suggestions to pay for universal pre-K. Among them: a dedicated tax proposal, a local sales tax on alcohol, coordinated philanthropic and corporate giving, and leveraging all federal grant money.

States and cities around the nation have experimented with other strategies. Georgia tied pre-K funding to the state lottery. New York City’s new universal program for all 3- and 4-year-olds comes from a mix of city, state and federal funding. Oklahoma, a pioneer in the field, discovered that school districts with half-day kindergartens were receiving state money meant for full-day programs. Lawmakers reformed the state aid formula so that those resources went into pre-K. (The districts had been spending the extra money on sports.)

Others have expanded access by combining different sources of money. North Carolina integrated pre-K with its K-12 schools and contributed part of the Title 1 money that’s allocated to school districts. Chicago is moving toward universal pre-K with a mix of state and district budget increases, and block grants. Washington, D.C. blends Head Start and local funding into its education formula.

A pilot model for blended funding in Michigan can be found in Flint, where the state’s only Educare program is based on the grounds of a former elementary school. The national Educare Early Learning Network draws from multiple revenue sources, including federal, state, and philanthropic dollars.

But regardless of where the money is coming from, opportunities to expand pre-K programs may be missed because of the statewide teacher shortage. In addition,  salaries are not as high as they are in K-12 schools. The median salary for Head Start teachers is $27,613, and for lead Great Start teachers, $37,440, according to a statewide advocacy organization.

To recruit and retain more teachers at all levels, including pre-K,  a new public-private initiative called Teach 313 launched in Detroit in August. Other places facing shortages or high turnover for its preschool teachers have turned to Teach for America to fill gaps, or provided scholarships for early childhood educators to obtain degrees that would raise their wages.

But before Michigan can explore other strategies and expand into universal pre-K, it needs to make the program it already has available to more families.

If you ask Montgomery from Great Start about her wish list, it begins with providing pre-K to all the children who are sitting on waitlists.

“It would be wonderful to to say to parents, ‘We have a spot for your child,’” Montgomery said. “ ‘You don’t have to wait for someone to drop out or leave.’ It would be wonderful to say to the people who want to run programs, or to expand their programs in their communities, ‘We have the funds for you set up and run a high quality program.’ ”


Who’s in and who’s not? Chicago schools announce new boundaries for popular Taft High

PHOTO: Tim Boyle / Getty Images
Taft High School is one of Chicago Public Schools' most overenrolled campuses. In 2019, it will spin off its freshman class to a separate campus.

The Chicago school district has announced a much-anticipated proposal for new attendance boundaries for one of its most crowded schools, William Howard Taft High School on the Northwest side.

Starting next school year, Taft will spin off one grade level to a new campus, the Taft Freshman Academy, which is expected to enroll 1,000 freshman. Chicago Public Schools will give those living within the new attendance area priority in enrollment.

“I look forward to what CPS has to say about the new campus,” Taft Principal Mark Grishaber told Chalkbeat Chicago. “This is good for every kid on the Northwest side.”

A community meeting on the boundary proposal for the freshman campus will be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Wilbur Wright College, 4300 N. Narragansett Ave.

At its regular monthly meeting at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, the board will discuss the Taft boundaries and also what to do about its underenrolled schools, which are primarily neighborhood schools.  A state law signed in August requires Chicago to make a plan for intervening in schools that do not have enough students.

The Chicago school district faces a critical decline in enrollment, but still plans to invest $1 billion to shore up existing schools and build new ones.