Future of Schools

Schools with graduates who fail state tests face scrutiny

PHOTO: Photo by David Armstrong via Flikr

Indiana schools that let too many kids graduate even after they fail state tests will have to explain to the state how they will improve under a new rule.

The state has a waiver process to allow students who have not passed one of Indiana’s two required graduation tests — in 10th grade English and Algebra 1 — to receive a diploma if they meet other criteria. In 2012 more than 9 percent of Indiana high school graduates needed a waiver or their test scores would have blocked them from receiving diplomas. By comparison, Ohio has a similar rule but less than 1 percent of graduates there use waivers.

In 2012, an Indianapolis Star investigation found Indiana schools made widespread use of waivers to boost graduation rates, prompting a summer study of the issue by the Indiana legislature and changes to state law in 2013. As part of a series of changes to state laws about remediation help for struggling students, the legislature last year made those who use waivers to graduate ineligible to receive any state financial aid for college. That rule goes into effect starting next school year.

That helped cause the percentage of graduates using waivers to drop dramatically, to 6.8 percent for 2013. But the Indiana State Board of Education wants even fewer waivers.

That’s because even with the three-percentage-point drop in waiver use statewide, many schools still use them liberally. In fact, state board members were told in a meeting last week that about a third of all high schools allowed 10 percent or more of their graduates to use waivers in 2013, a number that has been relatively steady for three years.

Last year, seven Indiana schools saw at least half their graduating classes use waivers, led by Kokomo’s Victory Christian Academy with all 17 graduates using one. John Marshall High School of Indianapolis Public Schools had the highest use in Marion County at 33 percent of graduates. (Find your school’s waiver rate here.)

Statewide, about one in six Indiana high schools had more than 10 percent of graduates using waivers in each of the last three years, which means they would be subject to the new rule the state board passed last week.

That rule requires any school with more than 10 percent of graduates using waivers for three straight years to submit a plan to the Indiana Department of Education for how they will reduce the number. If they remain above 10 percent for a second year, the state will assist in rewriting the plan.

“I want all children to get a diploma that means something,” state board member Dan Elsener said before a unanimous vote in favor of the rule.

The new standard was established after a study of waiver rates and a survey of 137 principals around the state. The study showed waiver rates were not strongly affected by students in special education, as some principals suspected. Special education students must meet the same graduation criteria as other students and can obtain a waiver by following the same steps.

The survey showed most principals were comfortable with the new rule, a sentiment echoed by Steve Baker, principal of Wells County’s Bluffton High School.

“Ten percent over three consecutive years is a fair number for students and a fair number for schools,” said Baker, who is on the executive board of the Indiana Association of School Principals. “Assisting schools, versus punishing, is alway a better route.”

Baker defended the use of waivers, saying students who complete all their other high school requirements and meet the waiver expectations should not be blocked by a test score.

“If you’ve looked at the waiver, it is a very comprehensive criteria a student must meet,” he said. “Those students who were granted waivers are very productive members of our community.”

Seniors who fail to pass one of the required tests can earn a waiver if they had 95 percent attendance and earned a C average in that subject. They must have taken the test each time it was offered, undertaken any test preparation help offered at school and presented a teacher’s recommendation as well as one from the principal. If they do all those things, they can be granted a waiver.

Critics say waivers were not intended for so many students but only for unusual cases, such as students with serious test anxiety who otherwise do quality schoolwork.

Henryville High School Principal and state board member Troy Albert said involving the state after three years above 10 percent made sense.

“You have to have a trend that shows you are not trying to meet that standard,” he said. “It will discourage a lot of principals from cheating.”

Big money

Chunk of $55 million AbbVie gift will go toward more counselors in schools

PHOTO: Courtesy of Communities in Schools
Counselors in Schools site coordinator Artesha Williams and student Nasje Adams at the King Academy of Social Justice in Chicago

Sixteen more Chicago schools will add full-time counselors charged with reducing dropouts and helping students with critical mental health issues, thanks to a chunk of a $55 million donation gift from a North Chicago pharmaceutical giant.

The AbbVie donation, announced Friday, will be split among three nonprofit groups with a Chicago presence, though not all the money will be spent here. Communities in Schools will receive $30 million for its national efforts to broker relationships between community organizations and schools; the University of Chicago’s Education Lab, which focuses on dropout prevention and college persistence, will receive $15 million; and City Year, which places AmeriCorps tutors and mentors in schools, will receive $10 million.

Communities in Schools, which received the largest gift, will spend $6 million of its $30 million on its Chicago chapter, while the City Year money will be split among Chicago and a project in San Jose, California.

Jane Mentzinger, the executive director of Communities in Schools Chicago, said the $6 million is “transformational” and will be spent on a program that assigns full-time, master’s-level counselors to public schools on the South and West sides.

The AbbVie gift will grow a program that currently places full-time counselors in 15 Chicago schools, adding five schools this year and another 11 next fall.

“In each school, they case manage the 50 highest-need students who are at risk of falling behind and dropping out,” said Mentzinger. “They really work with students is to help resolve conflict, regulate emotions, and provide exposure opportunities, from support and mentoring to counseling.”  

The counselor piece helps fill a dire need within Chicago’s schools: mental health and trauma services. Students, educators, parents, and union leaders regularly lament that the district does not staff enough counselors and mental health practitioners, and that recent efforts have been too focused on college and career-readiness — including helping students draft a post-secondary plan. Starting with the Class of 2020, seniors must produce such a plan to graduate, a controversial idea championed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

In July, Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson announced that the district would hire some 250 new social workers and special education case managers for schools.

Mentzinger said the value of sending in counselors who are employed by an outside agency, and not by the district, is that they have fewer administrative duties and so can cast a “wider net” among master’s degree candidates who might have non-traditional degrees such as art therapy or dance. “The level of need of our kids — we need to have more layers, more layers of work.”

A recent Steinmetz High School graduate, Emily Jade Aguilar, told Chalkbeat on Election Day that she was knocking on doors to get out the vote. Aguilar, who identifies as a trans woman, said the biggest issue driving her activism was mental health for students. “We need more mental health resources in our schools,” said Aguilar, whose school had four counselors for 1,200 students last year.

According to federal data from the 2015-16 school year, Chicago had 2.8 guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists for every 1,000 students — fewer than in many other large cities. National guidance counselors and social workers groups recommend having one counselor and one social worker each for every 250 students. In schools with “intensive” needs, that ratio falls to one social worker for every 50 students.

In addition to providing counselors, Communities in Schools brokers relationships between nonprofit organizations and 160 schools to provide art and enrichment, mental health services, health care and college and career readiness programming.

snow fallout

From stalled buses to canceled programs, New York City schools are bearing brunt of snow storm

PHOTO: Guillermo Murcia / Getty Images
A school bus on Dekalb avenue in Fort Greene Brooklyn during a snow storm.

Parents, students, and teachers are dealing with the fallout of Thursday’s snowstorm, which stranded yellow buses for hours, created brutal commutes, and forced teachers to stay late for parent conferences.

Just before 9 a.m. Friday, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza announced all after-school programs would be cancelled, sending families scrambling to make arrangements. And perhaps anticipating yet another wave of yellow-bus related problems, all field trips involving buses were also cancelled.

Some parents and educators took to social media to vent about the city’s response.

Emergency responders were dispatched to free five children with special needs who had been trapped on a school bus for 10 hours, according to City Councilman Ben Kallos. Traveling from Manhattan to the Bronx, students didn’t make it home until “well after midnight,” Kallos said in a statement. The councilman has sponsored legislation to require GPS tracking on yellow buses after the school year began with horror stories about long, circuitous routes. Many riders are children with special needs who travel to programs outside their neighborhoods.

The education department did not immediately respond to questions about the timing of their decision to cancel after-school programs.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city would conduct a”full operational review of what happened,” referring to the city’s response to the storm. “We have to figure out how to make adjustments when we have only a few hours but this was—I hate to use this hackneyed phrase—but this was kind of a perfect storm: late information, right up on rush hour, and then a particularly fast, heavy kind of snow.”

The politics of snow-related closures are challenging, forcing city leaders to balance concerns about safety with the needs of working families, who may struggle to make arrangements for emergency childcare.

Snow-day related cancellations have bedeviled previous chancellors; in one famous incident, former Chancellor Carmen Fariña and de Blasio kept schools open despite a forecast of 10 inches of snow. The next day, Fariña proclaimed it was “a beautiful day.”

Still, the de Blasio administration is much more likely to cancel school in response to snow than his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg.

Christina Veiga contributed.