IPS closing down adult education programs

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Carmellia Fleming gives a graduation speech at Indianapolis Public Schools' adult basic education ceremony. The district's programs will soon be taken over by nearby townships.

Finally – finally! – the time had come for Carmellia Fleming to wear a cap and gown. 

At age 31, the single mother of three fought back tears last week at Indianapolis Public Schools’ adult high school equivalency graduation as she thought about her life during the last decade after dropping out of high school.

She’s balanced a slew of unstable jobs that paid by the hour, endured a tumultuous marriage, struggled through single motherhood and even twice flunked the GED test trying to finish school.

But her parents and IPS teachers urged her to persevere through IPS’ adult education classes so she could create a better life. If she could do it, they said, she could avoid becoming a statistic: one more uneducated single mother unable to get a decent job and forced to live below the poverty line.

“When I left high school, I felt like I failed my parents. I failed my family,” said Fleming, who beamed as her name was called in Arsenal Tech High School’s auditorium. “I owe this to my parents because they’ve never seen me walk across the stage.”

For more than 50 years, IPS has helped students like Fleming, knocked off course to a high school diploma by life’s struggles, to get back on track. But Fleming and about 100 classmates are the last class of IPS adult high school equivalency graduates.

The program, which helps nearly 1,000 adults in Marion County each year, will be shifted to other providers, mostly township school districts, starting in July. In fact, IPS will soon be entirely out of the adult education business.

IPS’ adult day and evening schools, which worked with nontraditional students in pursuit of regular high school diplomas, rather than an equivalency diploma, also will close. Those students will be referred to private providers such as the Goodwill-run Excel Centers.

Those decisions were driven in part by a practical problem: the state has changed the way it funds these programs, with a heavier focus on how good a job they do. IPS, which didn’t perform well compared with the townships, was in line for a big cut.

“We’ve been working extensively with IPS over the past year because their performance hasn’t been that great,” said Joe Frank, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Workforce Development, which now oversees adult education programs. “We don’t want to be shipping money where people aren’t getting good results. We need to be getting the biggest bang for our buck.”

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said IPS might not be the best provider for adult programs anyway.

“We want to have laser-like focus on K-12 as we think about improving student achievement,” Ferebee said. “We know we will continue to be a good partner with those (townships).”

Four providers, including Warren, Wayne and Washington township school districts plus a private provider, plan to take over IPS’ high school equivalency program.

Pending board approval, Warren Township will start serving adults in School 26, the John Hope Education Center. IPS would continue to pay the utilities, provide security and some adult education supplies.

Where the other programs will be housed has yet to be decided.

Elimination of adult programs will cost about 40 IPS staff members and teachers their jobs, but most will have an opportunity to be placed in another IPS school or will be able to apply for jobs with the new high school equivalency providers.

“Services are going to continue uninterrupted but the providers will change,” said IPS board commissioner Gayle Cosby, herself an alumna of IPS’ adult day school.  “Change is always hard. I’m confident overall that what we’re doing is in the best interest of the district as a whole.”

But some, including retiring adult education director Sherry McCoy, are cautious about other programs’ abilities to serve the city’s under educated adults.

“It’s going to be somewhat of a letdown that IPS isn’t involved,” McCoy said. “Education can solve crime. Education raises employment. I really have my fingers crossed.”

‘Need being filled’

While IPS is getting out of of serving adults, others have been getting in over the past few years.

Goodwill Industries in 2010 launched its Excel Centers, for example, which each serve about 320 adults at nine free, public charter school locations across Indiana and five in Indianapolis.

IPS and Workforce Development officials say they are confident that Indianapolis adults will have good options through Excel and other programs.

“We recognize this need is certainly being filled by other providers,” Cosby said. “IPS would never have exited that field if there was a strong demand. We feel that other organizations, other districts are willing and able to pick that up.”

But McCoy said she sees extreme need every day in the urban corridors of the city that an adult education provider like IPS is uniquely positioned to fill.  During the rough winter months when IPS buildings shut down, McCoy said one of IPS’ GED teachers met with her students at a McDonald’s so they wouldn’t fall behind on precious test prep time.

“Every evening we go to bed, and the next morning one or two or three or six people are no longer with us,” McCoy said. “I know all of it can’t be attributed to lack of education, but we were working to try to attack this issue.”’

Performance questioned

Factoring into IPS’ decision to close its program is a change in the way Indiana manages and funds adult programs.

With Workforce Development replacing the Indiana Department of Education as the lead agency on adult learning, it also changed the way grants are dispersed. State grants help pay for teachers, operational expenses and supplies.

The changeover happened in 2011, and Workforce Development’s goal is to use state dollars as incentives for high-performing adult education programs by including student achievement as a factor when it decides who gets the money.

Last year more than $21 million was distributed to regions and programs across the state to deliver the services, with IPS receiving $1.2 million, the second largest sum in the region that contains Marion County providers. The grant funds will be reallocated next year among the remaining seven providers.

IPS has the worst high school equivalency attainment rate of the Marion County providers so far this year, with just 7 percent of its adult education students earning an equivalency credential, a 4 percentage point drop since last year. That compares to a 24 percent success rate for Warren Township.

At the same time performance has become paramount, the test students must pass to earn an equivalency has gotten harder.

In January, the state started administering a harder test from McGraw Hill/CTB that focuses more on college and career readiness, which has resulted in a slight dip in scores. The new test has had an 86 percent statewide pass rate during the first quarter of the year, according to Frank, compared with a 92 percent pass rate on the old GED during the third quarter of last year.

McCoy, however, argued, each program’s impact should be judged by the individual students whose lives are changed, not a test score. It’s not fair to say IPS wasn’t doing a good job, she said.

“I’m so proud,” McCoy said. “To see people make those kinds of gains and to see the tenacity, the stick-to-itiveness, through good weather and bad weather, it makes it worthwhile. We were turning things around and would have continued.”

Teacher pay for IPS’ adult educators also changed when Workforce Development took over adult education. Instead of being paid under the IPS teacher contract pay scale, McCoy said, grants called for teachers to be paid a flat rate.

McCoy says she knows one teacher who went from making $56 an hour as an IPS contract teacher to making $40 an hour.

“We could no longer consider them certified IPS teachers,” Cosby said. “We lost a lot of good teachers. Many of them were veteran teachers who were doing quite well in terms of seniority and, consequently, pay.”

‘Failure is not an option’

Arsenal Tech’s auditorium resembled any other on graduation day. Families packed in, straining to take pictures of their graduates as they sauntered inside the auditorium while a pianist played “Pomp and Circumstance.”

The only difference was that these graduates have already lived in the real world, often finding it brought more tough circumstances and less pomp.

City-County Council President Maggie Lewis urged the graduates to not let adversity get the best of them, and to keep reaching for success.

“This is your chance to start all over,” she told them.”This is your chance to become the person you want to be. This is your time.”

That’s certainly the case for Fleming, who after Thursday’s ceremony held the black, satin cap on her 5-year-old daughter Mayia’s head, dreaming aloud of watching her children walk across the stage someday.

“They’re very smart,” Fleming said. “I tell them, ‘Don’t just stop at high school. Don’t just stop at college. Go onto grad school somewhere.’”

She can already imagine being on the other side of this equation, holding the camera and wearing a proud smile as her children wear their caps and gowns.

“I want to be at every graduation,” she said, “the loudest one, screaming until I don’t have a voice anymore.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede