Middle schools at center of IPS testing woes

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Harshman Middle School, with six straight years of gains for its students passing ISTEP, has been a signature success story for Indianapolis Public Schools. But with this years scores, it’s an example of something else: the troubled state of the district’s middle schools.

For IPS, the annual release of ISTEP scores coincided with the first day of school, and the results prompted something of a reckoning of the state of the district’s offerings, both good and bad.

On the good end was Sidener Gifted Academy, a magnet school for gifted children that earned perfect scores for its students passing ISTEP. School 84 also had one of the state’s top passing rates, and three others — Cold Spring School, School 51 and School 70 — had gains of 10 percentage points or more.

Still, 48 of 58 IPS schools that took ISTEP ranked in the bottom quarter of all schools in the state. Just three IPS schools were in the top quarter. And the district’s overall passing rate grew by just 0.5 points, much lower than last year’s 2.5-point growth.

“We did show some gains, slightly, however, there is lots of work still to be done,” Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said. “I’m excited about some of our schools that have made tremendous strides.”

Perhaps no group of students performed more dismally than those who attend middle schools at one of seven IPS high schools that serve grades 6 to 12 or 7 to 12.

Four of those saw their passing rates drop by four points or more, prompting Ferebee to say an idea he suggested earlier this year — changing how middle school children are housed in IPS by potentially removing them from combined high schools — should continue to be considered.

“We are concerned about our middle schools just like we are concerned about a number of other grade levels where we did not see the performance we’d like to have,” Ferebee said. “As we look at our entire portfolio of schools, we’ll look at which models are more effective.”

Harshman’s first test score setback in more than half a decade was a big one. It went down nine points to 63.9 percent passing English and math. But the magnet school for science, technology, engineering and math still had by far the highest passing rate of any district middle school despite the big step backward.

The second best scoring middle school, Shortridge High School’s seventh and eighth graders,, also had a major drop, down 5 points to 55.9 percent passing.

In fact, scores also fell 12 points at Broad Ripple High School (44.1 percent), nine points at Crispus Attucks High School (44.5 percent), six points at George Washington High School (18.2 percent), four points at John Marshall High School (14.8 percent passing) two points at Northwest High School (21.3 percent) and 0.3 points at Longfellow Middle School (40.5 percent).

The only secondary school with gains at 7th and 8th grades was Key Learning Community (up 5 points to 35 percent).

The middle school scores at four of those nine IPS schools ranked among the bottom 50 schools in the state out of more than 1,800 that took ISTEP. That’s the bottom 0.2 percent of all Indiana schools.

The district has already made one middle school move. This year it combined the students from Longfellow into Harshman and is renting out the Longfellow building to the KIPP charter school. At the same time, Harshman’s highly regarded principal and assistant principal left for other jobs.

“We’ve got a pretty heavy discussion this school year with our collapse of Longfellow into Harshman,” Ferebee said. “That’s really our first move toward a different middle school model. It will be interesting to see how the school year flows and the different kinds of outcomes there.”

The school will remain a math and science magnet, but will be more traditional in design, he said. Since IPS lost Emma Donnan Middle School to a state takeover in 2012 — state officials handed it over to be run by a charter school company after six years of F grades for low test scores — Harshman is now the district’s only school just for grades 7 and 8.

Ferebee said earlier this year he might prefer to see middle school students served in elementary schools for grades K to 8.

“Over the last couple of years, our middle school students in our K-8 schools are performing better than our middle grades that are associated with our 6-12 secondary model” Ferbee said today. “That’s something that we’re looking at.”

Other stories from the district’s ISTEP results:

IPS had two schools ranked among the top 25 in the state.

Besides Sidener Gifted Academy, which again ranked No. 1 and this time had 100 percent passing, School 84 ranked 22nd best with 96.3 percent passing. School 84 is one of three Center for Inquiry schools in IPS, which follow an internationally-focused, project-based curriculum.
Only four other Indianapolis-area schools ranked in the top 25 in the state: Hasten Hebrew Academy of Indianapolis (98.2 percent), St. Louis De Montfort Catholic School in Fishers (98 percent), Carmel’s Smokey Row Elementary School (96.8 percent) and Zionsville’s Pleasant View Elementary School (96.1 percent).

But it had more schools scoring near the bottom.

Five IPS schools, however, had deeply troubling results, ranking among the 25 worst scoring schools in Indiana.

John Marshall High School saw just 14.8 percent of its seventh and eighth graders pass the test, 10th worst in the state. The school was joined by School 103 (15.3 percent), George Washington High School’s middle school grades (18.2 percent), Northwest High School’s middle school grades (21.3 percent) and School 107 (27.3 percent) at the very bottom.

A few schools made big gains, more saw big declines.

Some IPS schools are gaining ground quickly. Three schools — Cold Spring School, School 51 and School 70 — gained at least 10 points over last year. Seven others gained at least five points.

Others slipped dramatically from last year, including School 107 (down 16 points), School 67 (down 12 points) and one of last year’s success stories, Key Learning Community’s elementary school (down 10 points).

Key, a K-12 school which pioneered project-based learning in the late 1980s, jumped 20 points last year, the biggest gain in the district. But this year it lost about half that gain, falling to 46.7 percent passing.

To find your school’s results, take a look at our interactive search tool.

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.