Future of Schools

Tindley says it can't afford to keep running Arlington High School

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Marcus Robinson, CEO of Tindley Schools, (center) addresses the Indiana State Board of Education in 2014.

Tindley Schools, the charter school group that has run Arlington High School in Indianapolis for two years under a contract with the state, said today it wants out.

The leader of the nonprofit group that also operates a network of Indianapolis charter schools told the Indiana State Board of Education Tindley simply couldn’t afford to keep managing the school unless it received an additional $2.4 million in aid. Otherwise it would have to subsidize the cost of running the takeover school with money earmarked for the charter schools it runs.

Tindley CEO Marcus Robinson said he’s not willing to do that.

“We made a promise before we started,” he said. “Tindley is a small non-profit. It is not some big corporate conglomerate or an entity that can afford to take $1 million or a half million dollars to prop up an operation. Does the charter school need to carry the turnaround school? The answer to that is that cannot be.”

After the state board balked at Tindley’s request to add more money for Arlington, Robinson instead proposed a year-long transition to hand the school back to Indianapolis Public Schools.

If not, Robinson said, he would exercise an option to end Tindley’s contract within 60 days.

“There is no way I put my team in that building without some clarity about what happens after this year,” he said.

State board members, appearing caught off guard, ultimately decided to establish a task force with representatives of Tindley, IPS, Mayor Greg Ballard’s office, Gov. Mike Pence’s Center for Education and Career Innovation and the Indiana Department of Education to work on a “transition plan” for Arlington.

“You can’t hold the young people you committed to serve hostage,” a frustrated state board member Dan Elsener said during the debate.

Ritz asked that the committee meet and complete a plan in a short nine-day window by July 18.

Arlington is one of five Indiana schools — four in Indianapolis and one in Gary — that were taken over by the state after six straight years of F grades in 2011.

Since the takeover, all of the schools have remained among the worst performers on state tests and none has risen above an F. Arlington’s modest test score gains, however, were the biggest of the group.

But funding has been a problem from the start. Under former Superintendent Eugene White, IPS pledged to compete with the takeover schools by aggressively recruiting their students to other IPS schools. It worked. After the takeovers, a fraction of the enrollment remained at the schools.

Because state funding is heavily based on enrollment count, the takeover groups faced the danger of far less money to operate the schools than they anticipated. In fact, when the state board at Bennett’s urging funded the takeovers at the same amount as the prior year to start, IPS sued and won.

Robinson said federal school improvement grants were a way to fill the gap, describing the expectation that the takeover schools would continue receiving them as “an enticement from prior administration to get groups to take over these schools.”

But the grants are not guaranteed. A similar dynamic played out last summer, when Tindley said it would invoke the out clause in its contract if the state education department, which was late issuing grant notifications, did not award the school one of them.

After it won the grant, which is administered by the state through a competitive process, Tindley was satisfied.

This year, Tindley’s grant will be less than the $1.3 million it received lass year.

That and other factors mean “the operational overhead outstrips revenue generated by students assigned to the school,” the letter states.

Since then, Robinson said he had discussions with IPS about ways the two groups might work together that he was hopeful would lead to “creative solutions” that might relieve some of the financial pressure on Tindley.

Even so, Robinson was counting on relief in the form of extra money from the state in response to his letter. But board members said the only way to give Arlington more was to take money from other schools that would receive the grants. The state board doesn’t have the leeway to assign other funds to the school.

When the board voted down Tindley’s request, Robinson shifted tone immediately, saying instead he wanted transition the school back to IPS for the 2015-16 school year.

Board member Sarah O’Brien cautioned that she wasn’t sure returning the school to IPS was the best option, or that a decision to move in that direction should be made hastily. Other options for a school in state takeover that the board could choose include merging it with a higher scoring school, closing it or turning it into a charter school.

She and others also noted that IPS officials were not present and Tindley had no formal agreement with the district.

“My hesitation is we are being asked to vote for a partnership that may or may not exist,” she said.

The task force is charged with figuring that out.

The operator of three other former IPS schools in state takeover — Donnan middle school and Howe and Manual high schools — said there is no danger it would walk away from the schools.

“CSUSA remains fully committed to educating our students in Indianapolis and the actions and discussions at today’s State Board of Education meeting don’t change that,” the Florida-based company said in a statement.

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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.

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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.