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.”

recipe for success

Eva Moskowitz looks back at her turn away from district schools, as she plans for 100 schools of her own

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Eva Moskowitz speaks to students at the 2016 "Slam the Exam" rally.

Eva Moskowitz didn’t always aspire to be a champion of alternatives to the city’s public schools.

During an interview at a Chalkbeat breakfast event on Thursday, the high-profile — and often controversial — CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools explained her evolution from what she described as an “FDR Democrat” who believed the traditional school system was flawed but could be improved to an outspoken critic trying to lead an educational revolution from the outside.

Her transformation didn’t come from “reading Milton Friedman,” the free-market economist, she said. Instead, she described a gradual disillusionment with the traditional school system that began when she was a student at a Harlem elementary school, which she said was effectively “warehousing children,” and continued when she was a city councilwoman scrutinizing the city’s contract with the teachers union. (She claimed the union’s pushback against her contract probe made her feel like she was in one of the “Godfather” films.)

Success Academy is New York City’s largest charter school network, with 46 schools and 15,500 students. The network which mostly serves black and Hispanic children  has extremely high test scores, which critics argue are largely the result of intense test preparation and strict discipline policies that push out the hardest-to-serve students.

Moskowitz and her schools have been the target of criticism from Mayor Bill de Blasio, who made challenges to charter schools a tenet of his first campaign, and Moskowitz a particular target (he said she should not be “tolerated, enabled, supported”). She has fought back fiercely, staging rallies and protests and demanding that de Blasio provide the charter sector with space for its classrooms.

Her clash with City Hall is in marked contrast with that of Michael Mulgrew, president of the city teachers union, who two years ago explained to the audience at a similar Chalkbeat breakfast what it is like to work with an ally in City Hall.

Moskowitz laid out for her breakfast audience her aggressive expansion plans  which she said she intends to pursue despite de Blasio’s resistance. She estimates the charter sector will serve about 200,000 students in four years (out of the total 1.1 million public school students in New York City) and wants to expand Success Academy to reach 100 schools.

Moskowitz recently released a memoir, which is full of personal details about her history and explains the backstory of Success Academy. She remains a pugnacious advocate for her cause, continuing to take on the unions and the mayor, while arguing that parent choice is central to making schools more equitable.

Here are some takeaways from the event, which was held at the Roosevelt House in Manhattan.  

She decided early on that many district schools are failures.

Moskowitz attended a public elementary school in Harlem, where she said she and her brother were the only white students in the school. She described what she calls the “warehousing of children” and dubbed it “expensive babysitting.” When she attended Stuyvesant High School, she said, she had a French teacher who didn’t speak French and a physics teacher who was sometimes intoxicated.

As a teenager, she started helping Cambodian refugees find schools. In the neighborhoods they could afford, the schools were “God awful,” she said, while nicer schools were in neighborhoods out of their price range.

“It did stick with me that you were totally screwed if you didn’t live on the right side of the street,” Moskowitz said.  

She believes unions and their contracts are a big part of the problem.

Ninety percent of schools “are not working at the most basic level,” Moskowitz said, a dysfunction that she argued is partly due to the rules in teacher and principal contracts.

After becoming chairwoman of the City Council’s education committee in 2002, Moskowitz held hearings on every aspect of the school system including toilet paper. But her biggest showdown came when she decided to tackle the teachers union contract, she said.

“It is not a genteel sport when you take on the teachers union,” she said. “I had never felt like I was living a ‘Godfather’ movie before I took on the unions. It was a very scary undertaking.”

She envisions continued growth for the charter sector, but would not be pinned down on how large it would grow.

Though she has aggressive goals to expand Success, Moskowitz wouldn’t say what percentage of the city’s public schools should be charter schools. She called it a “hypothetical debate” and wouldn’t make a prediction for the future, saying she doesn’t have a “crystal ball.”

Parent choice is at the heart of her philosophy.

Moskowitz said parent choice is “fundamental” and the best bet for ensuring school qualify. Parents also are a bulwark, Moskowitz argued, to ensure  that charter schools — which are run by private boards — will be responsive to the public will.  

She also thinks charter schools should be held accountable for results.

Although charter schools are freed from some bureaucracy, they are highly regulated and do not operate in “some libertarian universe,” she said. She said she holds her own schools to account, believing that she should not increase the number of Success Academy schools unless all are high-quality.

She “urged caution” about trying to engineer diversity at charter schools.

Moskowitz thinks districts can “get the social engineering wrong” when they try to integrate schools by methods such as forced admission or busing. Instead, she argued, parents should be the engine that drives integration in charter schools through their ability to choose which schools their children attend.

The city should concentrate on integrating district schools, where admission to most elementary schools is based on the zones families live in, she said.

“I’m not sure we should put our energy into fixing charters on this front when they are already a much more open, accessible system than the zoned system,” Moskowitz said.

WRONG SCORES

Scoring glitch means thousands of Tennessee students got wrong TNReady score

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Photo Illustration

Just when it seemed that this year’s state testing had gone off with minimal hitches, news has emerged that thousands of exams were incorrectly scored.

About 9,400 students in 33 districts across Tennessee received incorrect scores after the testing vendor, Questar, used a scanning program that included an error. That includes Shelby County Schools in Memphis, where the problem affected just over a thousand students at 11 high schools, school board members confirmed on Friday.

An official with the state’s Achievement School District said he wasn’t aware of the issue, but the ASD is one of 33 districts affected, according to the state.

The errors were isolated to English I and II and Integrated Math II tests for high school students, according to an email to school board members.

Shante Avant, chairwoman for Shelby County’s board, said the errors are concerning, especially after the tumultuous rollout of TNReady in 2016.

“Our kids do have to be assessed so we know how best to support them. And there’s a heightened scrutiny with test scores. But when we’re not able to provide accurate information, it breeds mistrust,” she said.

Here are the Shelby County Schools affected:

The state said tests for students in grades three through eight were re-checked and no errors were detected. “All student score results for grade 3-8 are correct and final,” according to a state email to superintendents.

It’s unclear how much the scoring errors might have distorted district averages, which the state reported in late August. About 1,700 of the changed scores statewide affected whether or not a student passed the test. 

“I don’t know if 1,000 out of 10,000 students is going to significantly impact the district,” said Shelby County board member Chris Caldwell. “But we certainly want to make sure they come out as accurate. It’s especially important for the students.”

Several districts, including Shelby County Schools, chose not to include raw TN Ready scores in student report cards, meaning student grades wouldn’t have been affected by incorrect scores. But confusion remains for board members on how exactly this will impact students as well as teachers, who are evaluated based on their students’ exam scores, Caldwell said.

What is clear is that the scores could have implications for historically low-performing schools. This year’s scores were the second year of the state’s new test for high school students — and the state will use them to decide what happens to struggling schools under its new accountability plan to comply with federal law.  

While TNReady results for individual schools haven’t been released yet, district-level scores for high schoolers showed that few were on grade-level in Memphis school districts.

Questar was new to Tennessee test-making this year and was responsible for distributing and scoring the exams. Questar took over following a string of TNReady challenges in the test’s inaugural year. After the online platform failed and numerous delivery delays of printed testing materials, McQueen canceled testing in grades 3-8 and fired its previous test maker, Measurement Inc.

 “Questar takes responsibility for and apologizes for this scoring error,” Chieff Operating Officer Brad Baumgartner said in an email to the state. “We are putting in additional steps in our processes to prevent any future occurrence. We are in the process of producing revised reports and committed to doing so as quickly as possible.”

Here is the full list of district’s affected:

  • Achievement School District
  • Anderson County
  • Benton County
  • Bradley County
  • Bristol City
  • Carter County
  • Cocke County
  • Collierville City
  • Crockett County
  • Davidson County
  • Elizabethton City
  • Giles County
  • Hamilton County
  • Hardin County
  • Henry County
  • Huntingdon Special School District
  • Jackson-Madison County
  • Knox County
  • Lewis County
  • Lincoln County
  • Marshall County
  • Maryville City
  • Monroe County
  • Montgomery County
  • Obion County
  • Putnam County
  • Roane County
  • Rutherford County
  • Shelby County
  • Smith County
  • Sumner County
  • Union City
  • Weakley County

This story has been updated with comments from Shelby County Schools board chair Shante Avant and Questar. We have updated the story with a full list of districts affected.