Future of Schools

Closed charter schools have a ripple effect

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Students stand outside of Flanner House Elementary charter school in August as their parents learn about the schools impending closure in a private meeting. The school, which closed Sept. 11, was accused of cheating on the state ISTEP exam by the mayor's office and the state.

Lee Rhys felt he was out of options when the charter school his two sons attended was shut down by Mayor Greg Ballard’s office in 2012.

Ballard said The Indianapolis Project School was poorly managed, financially troubled and academically failing. But to Rhys, it was the first school where his boys seemed happy. When it closed, Rhys tried teaching Devon and Noah at home and he soon saw how badly their feelings were hurt by watching their school close.

“It hit them when we started that they weren’t going back,” Rhys said.

Emotions flooded out as they grappled with the loss.

“My older son said, ‘This isn’t a real school. You’re just a fake teacher with some fake stuff in a fake dining room classroom.’”

Charter schools in Indianapolis have closed for all sorts of reasons: financial, managerial and academic and now, in the wake of last week’s closing of Flanner House Elementary School, even for allegations of cheating on the state ISTEP exam.

But that’s the basic bargain of opening a charter school: perform or close. In exchange for increased autonomy to run their schools as they see fit, charter operators face the real threat of being closed down if they don’t fulfill their promises.

So why don’t more low-scoring charter schools close down? It’s simple: the process is so arduous and painful that nobody wants to do it.

Perhaps that makes sense. Charter school proponents often note that traditional public schools rarely close except for financial reasons.

The majority of the state’s charter schools rank in the bottom quarter in the state for the percent of students who pass state tests. But the fact that only about 15 have been closed down in a decade that has seen nearly 100 charter schools open raises a basic question about whether the accountability bargain is working.

“It is a painful, really agonizing process to close a school,” Harris said. “The people who are there are choosing to be there. No one wants to see it happen.”

A ‘significant disruption’

Just days after Flanner House announced its plan to close, Tia Hayes was rushing to find another school for her kindergartner and fifth grader. The school year was already two weeks old.

So Hayes, running late and with only 15 minutes to spare, came by an enrollment fair held at a community center for parents to explore other schools. She had checked out Indianapolis Public Schools, but wanted to look at charter schools, too.

She had a game plan: She wanted a school close to home, a high academic performer and some assurance her child wouldn’t ever have to go through this again.

Hayes couldn’t shake the disappointment that after Sept. 11 her kids would no longer attend the school she also went to as a child — even if it had been embroiled in a shocking cheating scandal.

“It’s heartbreaking,” she said.

Investigations by Mayor Greg Ballard’s office and the Indiana Department of Education found Flanner House students were coached on ISTEP by adults at the school who had improperly reviewed the state test in advance. In some cases, they even erased and changed student answers, the investigators found.

Cheating was alleged last year and this year. The school had low test scores before that. There was low enrollment and financial troubles. So closing the school became the course of action, even though the academic year had just begun.

In an effort to ease the sting, Ballard’s office waived enrollment fees, textbook costs and uniform expenses for the Flanner House kids at their new schools. But it still created upheaval for families.

“It’s a significant disruption of their life,” Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth said.

When problems turn to crisis

Most of the charter schools that have been closed over the past few years have been given a full school year to transition, said Brandon Brown, the mayor’s director of charter schools.

Take Andrew Academy and Padua Academy, Catholic schools-turned-charter schools that are no longer religious schools but still are affiliated with the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. The mayor’s office recently announced it is looking for new management for Andrew Academy for 2015-16, and Padua Academy will return next year to being a Catholic school.

“The academic performance there was unacceptable, but we worked to create a long term transition plan,” Brown said. “When we’re presented with something like the situation at Flanner House, that raises the urgency and can speed up the timeline for making hard decisions.”

But it’s not unusual for a charter school’s problems to turn to a crisis quickly.

In 2012, the Project School was being closely watched by the mayor’s office because its ISTEP passing rate was one of the lowest in the state. Then teachers called in to say they hadn’t been paid on time, prompting Ballard’s team to order the school closed a month before school was supposed to start.

Rhys, the Project School parent, said more notice should be required to close a school.

“There’s got to be a better way than waiting until school is already in session,” Rhys said. “Part of the compact that the mayor’s office makes with parents should include a reasonable notice of a school shutting down. Maybe it’s about asking the state to notify them of ISTEP scores earlier. This just-in-time reporting is really interfering with families.”

Hayes tried to have an open mind about where her children would go after Flanner House.

At the enrollment fair, nearly 30 public, private and charter schools pitched themselves as options for the 170 Flanner House kids who needed new schools.

“It’s very stressful,” Hayes said, “But I guess sometimes change is good.”

Most of the Flanner House students transferred to other charter schools while some went to Indianapolis Public Schools or used the state’s voucher program to pay tuition for private schools.

While there may be options for families, the mayor’s office isn’t taking students’ transitions lightly.

City officials will be following up on Flanner House kids for years, and Brown said. What comes next will be the hardest part of the process, in part because their test scores for the past two years can’t be trusted.

For those children, catching up academically will be as difficult as grappling with the loss of their school and adapting to a new environment.

“We have third graders that have been promoted to fourth grade that we’re unsure of what their actual proficiency level there was,” Brown said. “Almost every Flanner House family has been told their students are proficient when in reality that’s likely not the case. A large number of students haven’t been getting the services they need to improve academically.”

The ultimate accountability

Charter school advocates often celebrate them as innovative free-market solutions to low-scoring public schools. As with a stock that doesn’t provide enough return, investors can sell and invest elsewhere. A closed charter school is like a stock that everyone has given up on.

But there’s a major difference. Unlike stocks, schools are built on the one-to-one relationships of students, teachers, parents and others that can’t be so easily severed. No matter why they shut down, a closed school breaks apart a group of people who have come together to try to help children they care about.

The accompanying emotions are comparable to other painful losses in life.

Julie Shannon helped build the playground when her children attended The Project School. When it closed, she said it felt like a divorce.

“We had to say goodbye to this family, and we knew what was going to be left was not what we had all invested in,” Shannon said.

For those who have led the closings, the bad memories are enough to discourage going that road again, no matter how dire the situation.

David Harris, CEO of the The Mind Trust, was then-Mayor Bart Peterson’s charter school director in 2005 when he led the process to close Flanner House Higher Learning Center. That school, managed separately from Flanner House Elementary School, closed amid serious charges of falsified enrollment records intended to capture state aid fraudulently.

Even with strong evidence of wrongdoing, closing the school wasn’t any easier. Harris said he lost 10 pounds in just a few weeks while leading the closure for Peterson.

Even so, Harris insisted it’s important for charter school sponsors, like the mayor’s office, to take the difficult step to close troubled schools in the interest of the students. Besides Ballard, sponsors include the state and public and private universities. The biggest sponsors, also called authorizers, in Indiana are Ballard, Ball State University and the state Charter School Board.

“The bigger story of charters is that authorizers haven’t done as good a job of closing down schools,” Harris said. “The biggest problem is we have too many authorizers who aren’t directly accountable to the families the school serves. They don’t have the right incentives.”

Ballard’s office expects to face pushback from parents any time it has to announce a tough decision. Even when the evidence for Flanner House cheating seemed to be clear and well-documented, students and parents still made signs in protest of closing the school — and still held out hope that the school would be saved.

But Kloth said he’s willing to face pushback if it means that low-performing schools close.

“We have an obligation to see through accountability as the authorizer,” Kloth said. “When we fail to do that, we aren’t meeting the promise of school choice.”

The struggle to move on

The 2012 Project School closing was especially acrimonious. Shannon and her kids witnessed their principal and teachers surrounded by news crews with tough questions about the school’s poor test scores and financial troubles. They watched a series of efforts to try to save the school fail, and their friends emptied out to new schools.

“It all happened so fast, and we felt really powerless as parents,” Shannon said. “It felt very numb for awhile.”

Then the dust settled, and the Shannons enrolled their daughters at Crooked Creek Elementary in Washington Township.

They missed their friends, but the girls’ transition was mostly smooth until a bitter, wintry day less than six months later.

Once again, her daughters saw news trucks surrounding their school as she picked them up. There had been a shooting that afternoon at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut and reporters were seeking to interview local families for their reaction.

But the scene felt familiar to Leah and Stella for a different reason: their first instinct was to ask if their new school was closing, too.

Two years later, Shannon thinks the girls learned some lessons from an otherwise bad experience.

“It opened their eyes to things I wasn’t quite ready for them to be open to,” she said. “It’s made them more resilient. I just don’t want it to squish their optimism or the hope that they can make a difference.”

choice and competition

It’s not just Detroit. Across Michigan, ‘active and aggressive’ competition imperils schools

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Eric Lupher of the Citizen Research Council of Michigan, Benjamin Edmondson of Ypsilanti Community Schools, Randall Davis of Albion-Marshall School District and Scott Menzel of Washtenaw County Intermediate School District testify before the Michigan Civil Rights Commission

Detroit is not the only district struggling with lower enrollment and other challenges related to competition from charter schools and surrounding districts. On the other side of the state, similar forces led to the Albion school district’s demise.

After years of declining enrollment, falling revenue, poor student performance and school closures in the district, the Albion district in western Michigan faced a difficult problem: How to keep the district from dying. The city of Albion had a large number of students, but many of them travelled outside the city to attend school, forcing the Albion Community Schools district to merge with nearby Marshall Public Schools in July 2016.

Albion’s story was one of many shared Monday with state’s Civil Rights Commission, which held its first in a series of public hearings Monday in Ypsilanti to hear firsthand about issues confronting school districts. Representatives from public policy organizations, school districts, as well as parents, educators and advocates from Detroit and around the state shared stories of hardships and difficult decisions they face.

The commission is charged by the state’s constitution with investigating alleged discrimination. It launched the hearings this week after learning from education experts that state schools are in crisis. The goal of the hearings is to determine if minority students and those with special needs have faced discrimination in the state’s schools.

Albion’s story came from Randall Davis, superintendent of the Albion-Marshall School District, who told commissioners he blamed what happened to Albion schools — a district that had primarily served low-income, African-American students — on a law passed more than two decades ago that allowed students in Michigan to attend any school in any district that would take them.

“Schools of choice decimated the schools,” Davis said. “They had three or four of our contiguous districts that were driving into their district picking kids up. It was active and aggressive….I believe that is not the intention of schools of choice, but that’s what happened.”

The hearing was not intended to focus on competition from charter schools and between neighboring districts, but many of the people who testified came from traditional district schools or from policy organizations, so much of the testimony centered on the consequences of choice in Michigan.

Individuals also came forward to raise various concerns about equity in schools. The commission did not hear from charter school advocates but the commission plans to hold at least two other hearings.

“We also open it up to anyone to offer their opinions,” said Vicki Levengood, communications director for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. “We encourage people on all sides to bring their messages to the hearings.”

The next hearing will be July 23 but a location has not yet been set, she said.

At the first hearing Monday, Benjamin Edmondson, Superintendent of Ypsilanti Community School District, painted the grim, poignant picture confronting him when he became the district’s school chief in 2015.

The Ypsilanti district lacked money to pay for services students needed such as social workers, homeless services, school safety officers, and washers and dryers. The district only managed to provide those services by partnering with the University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan University and community colleges.

“Those partnerships are critical,” he said. “I don’t know how we would survive without those entities buying into the district.”

Edmondson said his district had lost 300 students before he arrived, costing the district nearly $2.4 million. That forced him to scrap advanced placement classes and meant he couldn’t pay teachers enough to fully staff his classrooms. Graduation rates were low and the district was swimming in debt. The district’s challenges were compounded by the fact it competes with the nearby Plymouth-Canton Community Schools district, which enrolls more than 17,000 students. “We were David and Goliath,” he said.

The district also faces a “strong charter school presence,” he said, recalling a charter school representative who came vying to purchase a vacant district building. He said he felt threatened by the potential buyer’s ability to automatically take 300 students from the district.

“Here I am a new superintendent with a new school board and I just want to paint the story,” he said. “In 2015, we had declining enrollment, white flight, poverty, low expectations, low wages, high debts and priority schools, neighboring charter schools, and a state takeover threat for our schools.”

This year, Edmondson said the district is improving but still facing daunting challenges.

With population declines and fewer students in districts, even with consolidated districts, Michigan’s districts are too small, Eric Lupher of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan told commissioners. He said it means school districts from around the state are struggling because they are losing so many students to surrounding districts.

For example, he said Ypsilanti Community School District is continuing to bleed students to Ann Arbor, Plymouth-Canton and other districts. Ferndale schools are gaining almost 800 students from Oak Park and Detroit schools, but is losing about 350 students to districts further from city line such as Royal Oak and Berkley schools.

The issue isn’t limited just to southeastern Michigan, he said, pointing to Wyoming Public school district, about five miles from Grand Rapids, which has lost students to nearby Jenison and Grand Rapids.

“It’s a bigger issue, and it’s a lot bigger than just consolidation,” he said. “It’s the choice we’ve offered. I’m not here to speak ill of choice, but it’s creating issues we’re not dealing with.”

The eight commissioners listened intently through the six-hour hearing at the Eagle Crest Conference Center, Ann Arbor Marriott in Ypsilanti, occasionally asking questions.

Commissioner Jeffrey Sakwa at one point expressed sympathy for the superintendents. “You guys are in a tough place,” he said.

While Michigan once had nearly 600 school districts, Sakwa said, that number is shrinking.  

Sakwa blamed competing school districts as a primary reason for the changes.

“It’s like Burger King, McDonald’s, and Kentucky Fried Chicken all on the corner trying to steal everybody’s lunch every single day,” he said.

PHOTO: By Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Helen Moore

About 20 people from Detroit, Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor spoke during the public comments portion of the hearing. Among them was longtime Detroit education advocate Helen Moore. “Don’t play games with us,” she told commissioners over applause that sometimes drowned her words.

“You know the discrimination we have received as black people and our children. You know that during slavery it was against the law to read. This is what’s happening to our children now.”


Prize money

A million dollars, 570 hopefuls, and 15 winners: How a new competition aims to boost babies and toddlers

PHOTO: JGI/Jamie Grill | Getty Images
Boy displaying drawing.

A Colorado team is one of 15 winners to share in $1 million awarded by a Denver-based organization as part of a new contest recognizing innovative efforts benefitting children from birth to 3 years old.

The Boulder-based team will receive $80,000 for a project that helps little kids acquire language, thinking, and social-emotional skills using a cell phone app inside a stuffed animal.

Gary Community Investments, which gives grants and makes for-profit investments to benefit low-income children and families, announced the winners of the Early Childhood Innovation Prize on Tuesday afternoon. (Gary Community Investments, through the Piton Foundation, is a Chalkbeat funder.)

The Colorado team that won prize money developed a tool called MindScribe. It works like this. An adult slips a cell phone with a special application into the belly of a stuffed zebra. The app prompts the child to explain what they are doing or making and asks follow-up questions, such as “What happened next?” and “Why?”

MindScribe founder Layne Hubbard, a Ph.D. student in computer science at the University of Colorado Boulder, said her work as a teacher at Boulder’s Children’s House Preschool inspired the project.

“I thought back to storytelling and how powerfully the children’s original stories catalyzed growth, development, and connectedness,” she wrote via email. “I realized that I wanted to scale this opportunity to reach young children across diverse early childhood communities, especially those which are multilingual, low-income, or affected by trauma or disability.”

One little girl who stars in a MindScribe’s demonstration video describes her crayon drawing of a garden — and her fictional protagonist’s desire to change “boring weather” — to the MindScribe zebra for seven minutes.

But the girl, Mia, isn’t oblivious to the cell phone inside the paunchy stuffed animal. Instead, she’s delighted.

She explain how it works to her father, saying, “This is like the teacher but with a radio inside the teacher.”

Mindscribe, which is still in the pilot stage, began with three languages and is now available in 11.

The Early Childhood Innovation Prize, unveiled by Gary last fall, is distinctive because there are few contests that focus on very young children — despite a large body of evidence showing that high-quality care and education for this group yield significant financial and societal dividends.

Leaders at Gary invited prize submissions from teams with advanced ideas, early-stage ideas, and nascent concepts. Five advanced winners received $100,000 each, five early-stage winners received $80,000 each, and five beginning-concept winners receiving varying shares of $100,000. Gary also recognized seven teams, including one from a Colorado Springs-based network of child care centers, that didn’t win money but offered promising ideas.

The contest used an online platform that made each submission publicly viewable and allowed teams to get feedback from fellow candidates, and in some cases, mentoring from experts.

“We really wanted the prize to be an engaging opportunity for people in the early childhood field,” said Steffanie Clothier, Gary’s child development investment director.

Gary received 570 submissions, with winning ideas coming from nonprofit and for-profit groups, universities, city governments, and the National Head Start Association.

One winning team aims to eradicate book deserts by putting children’s reading materials in public spaces like barber shops and beauty salons. Another proposes classes on mindfulness to reduce child care providers’ stress levels. Several feature technology solutions — to improve child care business operations or promote early developmental screenings.

Clothier said although most of the prize winners are testing projects outside Colorado, their ideas could eventually be replicated here. She said the organization has not decided whether to hold the innovation competition again.