Future of Schools

Indiana superintendent hoping film will launch an education movement

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
West Lafayette School Corp. Superintendent Rocky Killion promotes his him "Rise Above the Mark," a rallying cry for public schools, at a screening in May at Anderson High School.

Superintendent Rocky Killion, standing on stage in an unfamiliar auditorium at Anderson High School late last month, was trying to galvanize a couple dozen teachers and public school activists.

“You may like this movie,” he said. “You may get mad about this movie. That’s fine. This is not about a political party.”

Killion was introducing a screening of the documentary film “Rise Above the Mark,” a film that says its goal is to expose the “corporate takeover of public schools.”

It was Killion, while serving as superintendent of the affluent, high-performing West Lafayette public schools, who led the film’s creation and then persuaded a tiny foundation attached the district to pay for it.

The movie has taken on a life of its own. The original vision — spending about $40,000 to feature some of the best attributes of West Lafayette schools — has long since been eclipsed.

The movie, narrated by Peter Coyote, who played the key-shaking scientist tracking an alien in “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial,” showcases frustrated teachers, experts and others complaining about recent changes in education funding and other new pressures placed on schools.

The film paints former state Superintendent Tony Bennett as a primary villain. Bennett, ousted by voters in 2012 by teacher champion Glenda Ritz, pushed many of the changes the film opposes.

Awkwardly for Killion and West Lafayette schools, Bennett worked in concert with the state’s then-Gov. Mitch Daniels, who now is president of West Lafayette’s economic lifeblood Purdue University.

Killion is now balancing his day job running the district with cross-country trips to promote an issue-driven documentary with a political bent. The foundation is still spending to promote the film, which it thinks will ultimately cost at least twice the budgeted amount.

“Rise Above the Mark” may have the exact opposite message of the popular 2010 education documentary “Waiting for Superman,” which starred education reform advocates including former Washington D.C. schools leader Michelle Rhee and Bill Gates, but Killion is hoping for the same result — increased attention for a point of view he believes has not been adequately represented.

Through the film, Killion joins an unofficial cadre of high-performing local education superintendents nationwide who often are caught on a delicate political tightrope, balancing leading their districts with advocating for them financially at the state or federal level.

“I have great interest in trying to influence the national conversation about education,” he said.

“Rise Above the Mark” has captured the attention of high-profile opponents of the hottest school reform initiatives being pushed by lawmakers in a host of states — school choice, more testing and greater accountability for schools, teachers and students. It has excited local public school activists who hope to reverse the trend.

But three months after its premiere, questions remain about whether the movie ultimately will make the impact Killion is hoping for in Indiana: a return of trust and funding to public schools like his that are succeeding.

“I haven’t heard one legislator say anything about the film – positive or negative,” said Randy Truitt, R-Lafayette, a lawmaker who at times straddles the fence on touchy Indiana education legislation. He was interviewed for “Rise Above the Mark” but didn’t make the final cut.

“Most of them haven’t seen it,” Truitt said of his legislative colleagues. “I don’t think most of them want to see it, because it’s a topic where there’s so much more to the story than one person or one group can illustrate.”

How, then, did Killion manage to convince West Lafayette school supporters to spend tens of thousands of dollars on an anti-education reform documentary that had a chance at alienating the legislature the school district is financially dependent on?

It all started when the West Lafayette school district faced deep cuts to their award-winning music, fine arts and athletic programs as a result of the state’s funding model.

What follows are the lengths that Killion went to protect his schools — from a referendum to restore West Lafayette’s lost state funding to the rallying cry for public schools that is the film “Rise Above the Mark.”

An unlikely epicenter

The curious thing about West Lafeyette schools becoming an epicenter for revolt against Indiana’s recent changes to its education system is that the city’s children are doing very well.

With 91 percent of students passing ISTEP last year, the district was 18 points higher than the state average.

West Lafayette also isn’t poor, like many of the big urban and small rural districts that have been the most vocal opponents of changes like expanded teacher evaluation, testing and school choice. With only 15 percent of its students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, West Lafayette has the fourth wealthiest student body in the state behind only Zionsville (5 percent), Carmel (10 percent) and Hamilton Southeastern (14 percent).

But one of the reasons Killion argues that Indiana’s education changes have gone too far is that West Lafayette has suffered despite its success. The core of the district’s trouble was financial.

When state legislators in 2009 removed property tax revenue from school districts’ general funds for tax relief, shifting that responsibility to the state, Killion feared he’d have to gut the award-winning extracurriculars to balance the budget.

He estimated West Lafayette Schools would lose between $500,000 and $700,000 per year based on the new funding formula, he wrote at the time. The district soon launched a campaign to pass a seven-year tax referendum. Relying on West Lafayette political strategist Steve Klink for guidance, Killion succeeded: the referendum passed by a 2-1 margin.

But already he was thinking about what came next.

“We know that we have a small window of time to prepare ourselves for our future,” Killion wrote after the referendum passed. “If we don’t find additional funding opportunities by the time our referendum ends, we may face the reality other school districts are currently facing.”

The first blueprints for “Rise Above the Mark” were drawn up shortly after, said West Lafayette school board president Alan Karpick.

“I think it’s realistic to say we had hoped that there would be some ability to raise a fair amount of money from (producing a film),” Karpick said. “Did we think it could solve our funding problems? No.”

From promotional film to politics

A local school foundation isn’t usually the sort of organization that financially backs films meant to help fan the flames of a national movement. In West Lafayette, most of the West Lafayette Schools Education Foundation projects pay for backpacks for poor children, school improvements or other supports for teachers and students.

“We’re not a political group,” said Beth Bangs, a school nurse for West Lafayette’s Happy Hollow Elementary School who is a member of the foundation. “We fund the backpack program.”

The film was paid for entirely by donations to the foundation, with gifts anywhere from $50 to $12,000. The foundation’s development director Sally Miller, who also applied for grants to fund the film, declined to release the identity of the organizations who donated.

“We have donors across the political spectrum,” she said. “What’s been interesting is that because people made donations while we were in the process, they didn’t all know how it was going to turn out.”

Miller estimates so far Rise Above the Mark has cost about $72,000 and she expects more spending. They won’t know the final costs until the showings and events die down, she said.

“Rise Above the Mark” did not turn out to be what the foundation’s first leaders expected it to be: a film to promote the district’s schools.

“The idea from the foundation was we wanted to do a video that said, ‘look at our school and what a unique school system this is,’” said Brad Cohen, the foundation’s immediate past president. “Not all public schools are failing. All of a sudden our mission started twisting, or changing. It became a much bigger project.”

As he developed the film, Killion looked to a former partner: Klink, the strategist who helped with the referendum.

Steve Klink became executive producer of “Rise Above the Mark” and his son Jack Klink, a 23-year-old Purdue University student, became the director. Steve’s wife and Jack’s mother, West Lafayette author Angie Klink, wrote the narrative for the film.

The Klinks didn’t mind being at odds over the film with Indiana Republicans, who are driving most of the education reform legislation in Indiana, even though self-proclaimed conservative Steve Klink worked on the reelection campaign for West Lafayette’s Republican Mayor John Dennis and previously served on the Lafayette City Council.

“We didn’t want to hold ourselves back because we were scared,” Jack Klink said. “That’s what so many people are doing. What we wanted to do was point out these issues and provide a platform for others to come forward.”

One potential partner quickly got cold feet.

A Lafayette marketing firm the foundation had sought out to help produce the film backed away because of its blunt tone.

“What we began to realize is this is a politically charged endeavor,” said Miller, the development director. “I mean, like lightning in a bottle.”

Unlikely political bedfellows

So far, the film’s donors seem to be OK with the tone of the film.

“Indiana’s a conservative state, and when you have businesses and chambers of commerce who are rolling in a conservative manner, you’re going to step on some toes,” Miller said. “Nobody so far has withdrawn their support, or demanded their money back.”

“Rise Above the Mark” has the support of Dennis, West Lafayette’s Republican mayor, who described his school corporation as the “crown jewel” of the community.

“When you engage in discussions that challenge things, sometimes the conversation has no choice but to turn political,” Dennis said.

The doesn’t mean everyone in West Lafayette is thrilled with the foundation’s intense focus on producing and marketing the film.

Truitt, the Republican legislator, said he has heard from community members who are upset about the cost of the film.

“A lot of people were trying to figure it out,” Truitt said. “We’re spending 60, 70, 80 thousand on this, and that’s a lot of education scholarships for kids. The proof will be somewhere down the road when it turns into something.”

Cohen said he understands those concerns.

“Can we question the time spent? Sure,” Cohen said. “Did it cost a little more time than we planned? Yes. Is it perfect? No. But I celebrate what we have.”

Some people started feeling anxious about the tone of the film when Daniels, who recruited Bennett and backed his run for state superintendent, became president of the nearby Purdue University a day after he left the governor’s office in 2013.

The West Lafayette school district and Purdue, the largest employer in Tippecanoe County, are inextricably connected. Many of the district’s children have at least one parent who works at the university.

“It could be a little uncomfortable,” Miller acknowledged.

Daniels has not seen the film, according to his spokeswoman Shelley Triol at Purdue.

“The movie is not meant to kick Mitch out or throw Mitch under the bus,” said Cohen, who was a founding director of the foundation. “It’s just meant to spark a conversation and hold our legislators accountable.”

Keeping the movement going

Perhaps the film’s apex came in early March at a showing at Butler University. The 2,000-seat Clowes Hall was mostly full with cheering teachers and others who were sympathetic to the film’s themes. A rollicking panel discussion afterward included education historian Diane Ravitch.

Once a champion of standards, testing and school choice, Ravitch has rejected that ideology and become the chief national voice in opposition to it. She drew wild applause during sometimes sharp exchanges with advocates for educational change.

“I’m opposed to testing and accountability,” she said. “The only thing we learn from testing is which families have the most income and most education and which have the least. Then we punish the children whose families have the least. Teacher evaluation by test scores is junk science.”

But the crowds haven’t maintained that size or energy.

The Anderson premiere panel discussion drew local anti-reform advocates, and a much smaller crowd.

Speaking to a crowd of not more than 30 people, Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson; Justin Oakley of the Just Let Me Teach radio show; and anti-corporate reform “Hoosier School Heist” author Doug Martin, who has been known to bust out his guitar at meetings and sing about how Tony Bennett and other Indiana reformers ruined education, made their case for public schools.

“You’re being duped,” Oakley told the audience. “You’re being bamboozled. Rome is on fire. We’ve got to fight back.”

Austin hasn’t give up hope that legislators will see the film and hear its message.

“I hope we can get a copy for every legislator in the Indiana general assembly,” she said.

Not everyone in attendance was convinced by its message, including Anderson English teacher Elizabeth Knost.

“It’s a little unfair, because legislators are doing the best they know how to do,” Knost told her colleague, fellow teacher Jordan Pridemore, who was more taken with the film’s message.

“Our students hear it,” returned Pridemore, who said she agreed with the film’s negative characterization of Indiana’s school accountability system. “They say things like ‘Oh, we’re a D school.’”

Driving halfway across the state to show the film to a sparse crowd is worth it for those conversations, Killion said. There’s a chance of reaching another voter, another politician, another teacher that can join his cause.

“The future is hard to predict, but I believe this documentary is going to continue to expand and conversation will definitely reach a national level,” he said “Twenty people here, 30 there. That’s what it takes.”

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

next steps

Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.