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.”

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”