IPS school board race heats up as challengers emerge

This fall’s race to govern one of Indiana’s most challenging school districts is already heating up.

Three challengers advocating for more changes for schools have declared this month that they will run against incumbent Indianapolis Public School Board members. That means the Nov. 4 election for three school board seats could tilt the board even further toward reform ideas like greater autonomy for schools, more openness toward working with charter schools and new approaches to evaluating and paying teachers and principals.

Mary Ann Sullivan, a former Democratic state representative who routinely defied her party to support education reforms like charter schools and test-based teacher evaluation, officially announced her school board candidacy last week.

Mary Ann Sullivan
Mary Ann Sullivan

Meanwhile, former IPS board member Kelly Bentley — a Sullivan ally who also helped start the group Democrats for Education Reform — has filed paperwork to make her school board run official. A third, like-minded candidate is LaNier Echols, the dean of students at Indianapolis’ Carpe Diem charter school who formerly taught in IPS. She put up a website and said she also will run for the board.

Terms are up for three board members: Michael Brown, Samantha Adair-White and Annie Roof.

Brown is the longest serving board member and the last of a pre-2012 majority that once strongly backed former Superintendent Eugene White. That faction disintegrated in the 2012 election, which put reform-minded Sam Odle and Caitlin Hannon on the board along with Gayle Cosby. White was forced out soon after.

Adair-White and Roof, who is now the board president, were first elected in 2010 and were seen at the time as voices for change. They soon formed a voting block with Diane Arnold that sought to challenge White’s leadership. But the group has become less cohesive with White gone. Arnold is now strongly aligned with Hannon and Odle, supporting most of the changes they have championed. Roof is usually also a part of the majority on those votes.

But Adair-White has joined Brown at times in criticizing the majority. Cosby has also been more skeptical of some change proposals than some of her fellow board members expected, raising questions, for instance, about whether the district should partner with charter schools as Superintendent Lewis Ferebee has advocated for and voting against hiring an outside group to help design a new teacher pay system.

In November, Sullivan will face Roof for an at-large seat that will be voted on citywide. Roof announced her intention to run for re-election months ago. Bentley is running for Adair-White’s seat. Adair-White has not yet announced whether she plans to seek re-election.

Kelly Bentley
Kelly Bentley

Sullivan said she was inspired to run by what looks to her like momentum growing to make beneficial changes in IPS. She said in March she was considering a run for the board.

“There’s a lot of positive energy and involvement citywide around education as we recognize just how critical it is to everything we do as a city,” Sullivan said. “Maybe the moon and stars are finally aligned where we can get to the place where every kid has an opportunity to go to a great school.”

During her time in Indiana’s General Assembly from 2009 to 2012, Sullivan — a founding member of Democrats for Education Reform’s Indiana chapter — made a name for herself by supporting education bills that most Democrats opposed, such as those that overhauled teacher evaluation, limited collective bargaining, and expanded charter schools.

But Sullivan opposed expanding the state’s school voucher program, a key Republican education initiative. In 2012, she was defeated in a run for the state Senate by Republican incumbent Brent Waltz.

Sullivan’s priorities for IPS include empowering school leaders and teachers, holding them accountable, and fixing funding inequities within the district.

Roof, the board president, has three children in the district. She said she is proud of what the board has accomplished since she was elected, including hiring Ferebee and working to overhaul a bloated central office.

“I’m not a politician,” Roof said. “I’m a parent. A parent really knows what goes on day to day inside our schools. IPS really stood still for many years, and change started happening while I was on the board. I would like to finish what I believe I was a part of starting.”

LaNier Echols
LaNier Echols

Like Roof, Brown also has announced he is running for re-election. The longest serving board member said his goals are improving student academic performance, school safety and teacher compensation.

“I know where we’ve been and I know things we’ve tried,” Brown said. “I’m looking forward to trying new things and not repeating things we’ve erred on in the past. I have an intense love of children and want them to be successful.”

Brown, who has five children that graduated from Northwest High School, said he is criticized by pro-school reformers as being anti-choice.

“As a parent, I exercised choice,” Brown said. “I chose IPS.”

Echols, who works at a charter school but started teaching at IPS as a member of Teach for America, said Brown’s district needs to be represented by somebody new.

“I respect anyone who has served in that capacity,” Echols said of Brown. “I feel like at this stage we need to be innovative. I appreciate what he has done, but it’s time to pass the baton.”

Echols taught reading and social studies at John Marshall High School and Harshman Middle School. She said she understands that her experience in a charter school world might make her a divisive candidate for public school board.

“A lot of people are going to try to paint it as I’m pro-charter schools,” Echols said. “I am pro-student and whatever works for that student. Each child learns differently. I’ve seen the best and the worst of both worlds.”

Echols said the desire to help more students prompted her to run for office. Her priorities include supporting more school autonomy and expanding access to preschool.

“It meant so much to see my students walk across the graduation stage, but not all of them did,” Echols said. “I feel like I could have done something differently. Our children deserve a quality education. I feel like the school board is where it’s going to happen.”

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.