Future of Schools

Dropping schools bolstered Ball State’s ISTEP charter scores

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
A Teacher challenge board with test results at Tindley Renaissance School. The Tindley network in Indianapolis include some of the state's highest scoring charter schools.

Ball State University’s decision to end its sponsorship of 11 low-scoring charter schools over the past two years contributed to the better overall ISTEP performance this year of 24 schools it still oversees.

Of the schools it still sponsors, about 16 percent rated in the top half of more than 1,800 schools that took the test. That’s better than the schools sponsored by Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office. About 10 percent of Ballard’s 24 schools that took ISTEP ranked in the top half. (For more Marion County charter school results go here.)

But it didn’t come easily. Ball State faced criticism in 2012 for sponsoring schools with long records of low performance. Its charter school office overhauled its review process, telling its schools to expect tougher evaluations.

“We’re performing a little better than we were,” said Ball State’s charter school director Bob Marra. “What people have seen is Ball State is serious about authorizing. We’re going to look at the data and take appropriate action steps.”

In 2012-13, seven schools were told their charters would not be renewed. Then four more met the same fate last year. Of those 11, five closed, two converted to private schools and one merged into a sister charter school. Three others remain open after finding new sponsors.

“It’s a lot of hard work,” Marra said. “We’re trying to get ourselves in a better position to make those decisions.”

Most charter schools in the state rank at the low end of the spectrum, and Ball State is no different, with about 54 percent of its schools ranked in the bottom quarter of schools for percent passing math and English. But for Ballard’s office, the percent of schools in the bottom quarter statewide was higher than 70 percent.

That’s still a step ahead of the state’s six other charter school sponsors: none of them saw any of their combined nine schools ranked higher than the bottom quarter. Those sponsors include the Indiana State Charter School Board, private colleges and, in one instance, a school district.

Most of those other sponsors have only gotten into the business of overseeing charter schools since a 2011 law created the state charter board and permitted private universities to charter schools as well as public universities.

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Out of more than 1,800 schools that took the exams in grades 3 to 8

Before that, only the Indianapolis Mayor’s office, beginning under then-Mayor Bart Peterson, and Ball State had taken advantage of state laws that allowed them to approve and supervise charter schools. Sponsors oversee the schools’ managerial, financial and academic performance and shut down those that fail to fulfill their promises.

All three former Ball State charter schools that stayed open by finding new sponsors this year fell in the bottom quarter of schools in the state for percent passing ISTEP.

Marra said the state’s three major charter school sponsors, Ball State, Mayor Ballard’s office and the Indiana State Charter School Board, have improved communication in an effort to set consistently high expectations for how the schools must perform.

Still, exercising accountability is tough, he said. At some of the now-closed schools emotions ran high about Ball State’s decision.

“It wasn’t easy,” he said. “The law talks about accountability. It’s pretty clear what you need to do. These kids only get one one shot at this. It has to be a quality school.”

Statewide, just three charter schools ranked in the top quarter in the state: Indianapolis’ Tindley Collegiate Academy, The Discovery Charter School near Gary in Chesterton and The Bloomington Project School. Ballard sponsors Tindley. The other two are sponsored by Ball State.

For Ball State, Marra said, tougher oversight meant a focus not just on academics, but also on management of the school and of its finances. For example, another Ball State-sponsored charter school, the International School of Columbus, closed last year for financial reasons despite good academic performance, he said.

“What I’ve learned is its a three-legged stool: fiscal, governance and academics,” he said. “You can’t keep your doors open without all three.”

Here’s how Indiana charter schools that took ISTEP last year ranked for percent passing this year and how their scores compared to last year:

 

charter talks

Hopson weighs charters as school turnaround tool for Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson leads Shelby County Schools in Memphis, home to Tennessee's highest concentration of low-performing schools.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson appears to be cracking open the door to charter school partnerships that might help his district avoid losing more schools to Tennessee’s turnaround district.

Hopson emailed his principals this week to clarify his recent comments to the editorial board of The Commercial Appeal about possibly recruiting charter organizations for turnaround work. The report’s original headline read: “Hopson says he’s willing to hand schools over to charters, if they have a plan for improvement.”

The superintendent quickly turned to Twitter to label the headline “misleading and inaccurate” and, as he sought to regain control of dialogue on the thorny matter, dispatched an email to his school principals.

“…It is my top priority to ensure all of our schools have the necessary resources to provide students with the high-quality education they deserve,” he wrote on Tuesday. “If the Tennessee Department of Education offers us the opportunity to select a charter operator that is willing to collaborate closely with District leaders to improve a school instead of losing it to the (Achievement School District), then I believe it is our responsibility to explore the option.”

Hopson’s comments hint at a potentially significant shift for a district that has battled openly with the charter sector over students being absorbed by the state’s 6-year-old turnaround initiative known as the ASD.

They also point to the tough spot that the superintendent is in.

On the one hand, the growth of the city’s charter turnaround sector has been a thorn in the side of local school leaders since 2012 when the state-run district began taking control of low-performing schools and assigning them to charter operators. Now with 29 Memphis schools, the ASD has siphoned off thousands of students and millions of dollars in an already under-enrolled and under-funded school environment — and made mostly anemic academic gains. (The local district also oversees about 50 charter schools that it’s authorized.)

But on the other hand, Shelby County Schools has its hands full trying to improve a substantial number of struggling schools. It’s made some important headway through its Innovation Zone, which adds resources, extends the school day, and pays more to top principals and teachers who are willing to do what’s generally considered among the toughest education work in America. But the iZone is an expensive model, and few of its schools have exited the state’s priority school list.

In addition, some education reform advocates are lobbying to shift Memphis to a “portfolio model,” in which districts actively turn over schools to charter operators and manage them more like stocks in a portfolio. In other words, successful ones are expanded and failing ones are closed. Indianapolis has a robust portfolio model and, last fall, the philanthropic group known as the Memphis Education Fund took several Memphis school board members there for a tour. (The Memphis Education Fund receives support from several local philanthropies, including The Pyramid Peak Foundation and the Hyde Foundation. Chalkbeat also receives support from Hyde; read about our funding here.)

In his email to principals, Hopson said that the school board ultimately would decide whether to authorize charter schools for turnaround work, and that he expects to discuss the matter with members in the coming weeks.

“All that said, I want to be very clear that my preference would always be to keep schools under the governance of (Shelby County Schools),” the superintendent added.

Hopson has been in discussions with the state Department of Education about several school improvement avenues available in Tennessee’s education plan under a new federal law. Among them is an option for Shelby County Schools to voluntarily convert priority schools to a charter, according to department spokeswoman Sara Gast.

One school board member told Chalkbeat he needs more information from the district and state before he would support any move forward. Chris Caldwell added that he thinks the board isn’t up to speed on options under the state’s new education plan.

“At this point, there’s so little information that I’ve been given,” Caldwell said. “I don’t want to conjecture what (a charter conversion) would actually will be like, but I have reservations with any kind of collaboration with the state.”

What would it take for such a shift to be successful?

One Memphis charter advocate says the ground rules are already in place because of a charter compact developed in recent years to address turf issues such as facilities, funding, and accountability.

“In order for a charter to manage a district school that’s underperforming and for it to be successful, that charter needs to have supports from the district to be successful,” said Luther Mercer, the Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center.

The next school board work session is scheduled for Jan. 23.

School and church partnership

Detroit district aims for faith-based partnerships for every school to support student needs

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti surrounded by religious and district leaders wearing new "Got Faith?" shirts.

Each Detroit public school might soon have its own church, synagogue, mosque, temple, chapel, or parish as a partner.

The district on Thursday announced an initiative to connect every district school with a faith-based community partner to help with academic support, student basic needs, and personal and career development, among other services.

The district is now trying to determine which schools have a defined partnership with a religious institution, but estimates that 25 to 30 percent of schools already do. Sharlonda Buckman, senior executive director of family and community engagement, said that the district hopes that, by the end of the year, every one of its 110 schools “has a religious partner working with them in tandem toward the goal of helping our children achieve.”

The program was announced at a press conference at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Midtown, attended by educators, school board members, and invited guests.

“It doesn’t surprise me when I look around the room and see our religious leaders, because you guys, for a long time, have been investing in our children and our people, and it’s been an informal effort,” Buckman said. “You’ve worked with a number of our schools across the district, so today we recognize that we don’t need to do it informally anymore — we need to make this a formal part of how we move this district forward.”

The district is not unique in its approach: church-school partnerships are common across the country and in the state. The national partnering organization Kids Hope USA is based near Holland, Michigan. Supporters believe that stronger faith-school ties will not only improve local support for schools, but also help provide vital services for children and a more stable personal and family foundation upon which learning could take place.

District leaders “cannot lift our children up to their full potential by themselves,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said at the press conference. “We need help in that work.”

The district is looking to the faith-based partners to provide services such as tutoring, coaching, chaperoning; deliver before and after school support; donate uniforms and other goods; and highlight teachers at their institutions through announcements and bulletins.

R. Khari Brown, a professor of sociology at Wayne State, said the faith community is already deeply ingrained in Detroit in a variety of ways.

“There are a lot of community centers that closed down over the years in the city, and most churches in the city provide some sort of programming,” he said. “They provide backpacks and school supplies, so [the partnership] makes sense.”

Religion is also a large part of the culture of many African Americans, he said, and a significant force in a city where 81 percent of the students were black in 2016-2017.

“Most African Americans want their churches to be involved on the ills that disproportionately affect black people.” he said.

While other communities might balk at such intermingling of church and state, Brown said he believes that it is a “non issue” in this case because the religious institutions are not receiving money from the district.

The ACLU of Michigan said it had no comment at this time but that the organization hopes to “continue to learn more” about the district’s initiative.

Vitti said a more explicit district-faith community partnership could provide both protection and support for Detroit’s children.

“What I’m talking about is developing a stronger safety net to ensure that what students are not receiving in homes, what students are not receiving in school, can be addressed through the faith-based community,” Vitti said. “When we go back to when the city was at its peak, we worked together as a team to lift children up. When children fell through the cracks, there was a safety net to catch them and lift them back up. That happened through the school system, through the churches, the synagogues.”

Vitti said the initiative is part of his larger effort to align schools and the community more closely. Since starting in his position as superintendent in May of last year, he has been pressing programs like the parent academy.

The academy will provide parents with lessons on subjects like what to ask during parent-teacher conferences, how to create stronger readers, how to fill out FAFSA paperwork, and even how to print a resume. Vitti said most of all, it would empower parents to pursue educational goals for their children, even if they weren’t the best students themselves.

“Every parent knows education is important, but parents don’t know how to navigate the system often, and they feel hypocritical when they push their children when they know they didn’t do well in school,” he said.  

Vitti said he envisions a time when faith-based institutions could house some of the parent services.

He said he also sees the faith community working side by side with the district’s 5,000 role models initiative. The program is recruiting volunteers to work with middle and high school African American and Hispanic students, and plans to have sponsors in each school to work with students daily, taking them on field trips and providing an open line of communication.