Future of Schools

CFI School 27, Herron High School cited as models to follow

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Freshmen physics students in Rachelle Klinger's class at Herron High School experiment with forces on pieces of paper.

School 27 is a Center for Inquiry magnet school, part of a well-regarded Indianapolis Public Schools network of three schools that adapt the inquiry method of teaching science — asking students to consider a problem and experiment to try to solve it — to all subjects.

Herron High School, is a charter school that follows a “classical” education method, which aims to base learning on critical thinking skills.

The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based education reform group, today bused about 15 community leaders and others to visit both as part of an effort to promote unique Indianapolis schools that its leaders think are working.

“We need to engage the community about what’s happening in the public education system more,” said David Harris, CEO of The Mind Trust. “We think we need to have a more constructive dialogue, and one way is to actually see what is happening in our best schools.”

Creating two unconventional schools

When Jamilyn Bertsch first became principal of School 27 five years ago, she remembers it as one of the lowest-performing schools in IPS. The school struggled to maintain discipline and fewer students enrolled every year. Bertsch came from School 2, an A-rated school that piloted the Center For Inquiry curriculum when it relaunched with the new design in 2000. CFI is a district-created school model credited with raising test scores at School 84 and School 2.

Bertsch’s job was to make School 27 a high-scoring CFI school, too. But it hasn’t been easy or a fast turnaround.

The biggest challenge has been building a team of teachers who believed in the CFI approach.

“CFI works because we all share the same philosophies and beliefs about how kids learn and what kinds of teachers and educators we want to be,” Bertsch said.  “So you feel that passion and that belief and that shared vision.”

The 273 students who go to School 27 face some tough obstacles. About 60 percent come from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and 23 percent receive special education services, the highest percentage in the district.

So far, the test scores have been mixed. On ISTEP, just more than half of students passed both reading and math last year at 52.7 percent, the same percentage as when CFI debuted there in 2011. That’s slightly above district average, but far below the state average of 74.7 percent. But students are making gains. The state rated School 27 a C last year, up from a D the year before.

While School 27 remains a work in progress, Herron High School is an established test score success story.

Herron was just one of 14 charter schools rated an “A” grade in 2013 of more than 50 that were rated. It is also one of  four charter schools to earn an “A” for the past four years. The school also had a graduation rate of more than 94 percent for 114 seniors in 2013.

But the school, located just few minutes away from School 27 on Indianapolis’ north side, has some advantages. Of almost 700 students attended the high school last year, only about 40 percent qualified for free or reduced-price lunches — a low number compared to most IPS high schools.

The school’s classical liberal arts curriculum might be part of the reason why it attracts somewhat more affluent families. The building once housed an art college and still retain the airy openness of art studios. Principal Janet McNeal has led the school since it opened in 2006, and watched it grow from just 98 students the first year.

“We had a chance to build a school around a classical model where ideas transcend throughout the ages,” she said. “And we have a chance to get school right.”

Can the models be replicated?

For reform groups like The Mind Trust, which are pushing for the city to embrace and grow its high-scoring schools, the question is: can schools that succeed be copied elsewhere?

That was Harris’ question for Bertsch.

But in her view, the advantage of applying CFI curriculum to new schools isn’t the only key to good results. Even schools that follow traditional methods can score like magnet schools. When it happens, often those schools have not just good curriculum, but strong support within the school and outside of it.

“Teachers need time to plan, teachers need time to work together,” Bertsch said. “And it would be wonderful if we could find a way in our country … to be able to say to teachers, ‘You’re professionals, and we want to give you more resources and time to do this really important work.’”

For charter schools, money is sometimes a barrier to serving more students.

As a charter school, McNeal said Herron’s biggest worry is funding. Charter schools receive less state aid per student than traditional public schools, missing out on extra funds for buildings and busing, for instance. Herron spends about $75,000 per year on public bus passes just to get its students to school, and some of them take as many as three buses each morning.

To overcome their barriers, Herron and CFI schools both depend on good leadership, supportive families and a staff that believes in their approach. Each also has a strong neighborhood connection.

For example, Herron partners with the nearby Harrison Center for the Arts to use its gym for sports and physical education. More than 20 city organizations have Herron students completing internships. In return, having a high-rated school nearby helps the neighborhood feel more stable and attract families.

“We have a give-and-take relationship, and we love that,” McNeal said. “We love what we have been able to do for our neighborhood, but for us to be a quality school, we need our neighborhood to pitch in, and they do.”

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.

First Person

From ‘abandoned’ to ‘blessed,’ Newark teacher sees herself in her students

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Jennifer Palumbo

As I sit down to write about my journey to the USA, all I can think of is the word “blessed.”

You see my story to become Ms. Palumbo started as a whole other person with a different name in a different country. I was born in Bogota, Colombia, but my parents either could not keep me or did not want me. I was, according to my adoption papers, “abandoned.” Abandoned is defined as “having been deserted or cast off.” Not a great start to my story, I know.

Well I was then put in an orphanage for children who had no family. Yes at this point I had no family, no home, not even a name.
I spent the first 10 months of my life in this orphanage. Most children at 10 months are crawling, trying to talk, holding their bottles, and some are even walking. Since I spent 10 months laying in a crib, I did none of those things.

Despite that my day to be chosen arrived. I was adopted by an Italian American couple who, after walking up and down rows of babies and children, chose to adopt me. My title just changed from abandoned to chosen.

But that wasn’t the only thing about to change. My first baby passport to leave Colombia is with the name given by the orphanage to an abandoned baby girl with no one. When I arrived in America my parents changed that name to Jennifer Marie Palumbo and began my citizenship and naturalization paperwork so I could become an U.S. citizen.

They tried to make a little Colombian girl an Italian American, so I was raised speaking only English. Eating lots of pasta and living a typical American lifestyle. But as I grew up I knew there was something more — I was something more.

By fourth grade, I gravitated to the Spanish girls that moved into town and spent many after-schools and sleepovers looking to understand who I was. I began to learn how to dance to Spanish music and eat Spanish foods.

I would try to speak and understand the language the best I could even though I could not use it at home. In middle school, high school, and three semesters at Kean University, I studied Spanish. I traveled to Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Honduras to explore Spanish culture and language. I finally felt like the missing piece of my puzzle was filled.

And then the opportunity to come to Hawkins Street School came and as what — a bilingual second-grade teacher. I understood these students in a way that is hard to explain.

They are like me but in a way backwards.

They are fluent in Spanish and hungry to obtain fluency in English to succeed in the world. I was fluent in English with a hunger to obtain it in Spanish to succeed in the world. I feel as a child I lost out.

My road until now has by far not been an easy one, but I am a blessed educated Hispanic American. I know that my road is not over. There are so many places to see, so many food to taste, and so many songs to dance too.

I thank my students over the past four years for being such a big part of this little “abandoned” baby who became a “chosen” child grown into a “blessed teacher.” They fill my heart and I will always be here to help them have a blessed story because the stars are in their reach no matter what language barrier is there.

We can break through!

Palumbo is a second-grade bilingual teacher Hawkins Street School. This essay is from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.