Future of Schools

Citing formula flaws, state board steps in to raise Christel House to a B (updated)

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Christel House Academy saw its grade raised to a B from a D.

For the second time in three years, Indianapolis’s Christel House Academy South charter school received a higher grade than the state’s scoring formula initially said it should.

Two years ago, the school was embroiled in scandal when critics accused former state Superintendent Tony Bennett changing the grading process to benefit Christel House. This time, it was the State Board of Education that made the change, in a public meeting that focused on shortcomings of the school grading formula.

Siding with officials from Christel House who argued that the formula unfairly penalizes schools with unusual grade configurations, the board voted to give the school a B instead of the D that State Superintendent Glenda Ritz recommended. Only Ritz voted no. The new grade will be official when the board votes to approve all the school grades on Nov. 5. The board delayed release of A to F grades today to allow for corrections to grades for about five schools.

I think above all else we want the the system to have integrity,” state board member Sarah O’Brien said. “When we release all these grades across the state, I want them to mean something … and have the letter grade match what we are seeing in that building.”

Advocates for traditional public schools said the school was getting special treatment.

“They’re changing the rules as they go to play favorites,” Indiana Teachers Association President Teresa Meredith said. “That’s not right.”

But Christel House CEO Carey Dahncke argued the school’s circumstances were unique, making a D unfair. Changing the grade was the right thing to do because the school simply did not fit the mold expected by the model that calculated it deserved a D, he said.

“The incomplete model has a very high likelihood of penalizing schools,” he said.

Christel House South, renamed after its sister school Christel House West opened earlier this year, had a run of seven consecutive A grades until the school’s 2012 grade was at the center of a debate over whether Bennett manipulated the A to F formula.

Emails from the fall of 2012 showed Bennett and his staff fretted that Christel House South might not receive an A. Research by Bennett’s team led to a proposal to tweak the grading formula in a way that raised grades for Christel House South, serving students in grades K to 10, and 11 other schools with unusual grade configurations. That brought charges from Bennett’s critics that the A was undeserved.

An outside review of Bennett’s formula changes from a pair of consultants hired by Republican legislative leaders later ruled called them “plausible” but declined to explore the motivations of Bennett and his lieutenants. Bennett eventually paid a fine for campaign violations but faced no penalty for the grade change.

Last year, Christel House South’s grade plummeted to an F and critics said it was proof the 2012 grade was inflated. But school officials said they had evidence that glitches in the state’s online testing system adversely affected its students’ scores.

This year, its the school’s passing rate rebounded. It recovered nearly all of its lost ground from 2013 by gaining 9 points to 71 percent passing. Its passing rate had been more than 70 percent the prior three years.

But that wasn’t enough to raise the school above a D. The reason: high school test performance and, the school argued, the state’s method for combining grades K to 12 into one letter grade.

While Christel House South has done well on ISTEP in grades 3 to 8, it has struggled to get 10th graders to pass end-of-course exams, especially the state algebra test. This year, 37.8 percent passed, well below the state’s 72.8 percent average but the school’s highest rate in three years.

When those scores were calculated in, it dragged down the grade for Christel House, which appealed for the board to reconsider the way it was calculated. The school expanded last year to 12th grade, with its first graduates last May. But it takes the state a year to calculate graduation rates, so that figure won’t be included in its grade until next year.

Dancke, however, argued there is other evidence the school’s graduating class did well: 85 percent of the class earned college credit in high school, 45 percent received honors diplomas and 100 percent were accepted into four year colleges.

But none of that counts this year, he said. Just the test scores.

“It just doesn’t paint an accurate picture,” Dancke said.

State board members agreed.

“The rule did not envision evolving schools or startups,” board member Brad Oliver said. “And for that reason it is atypical. The grade should communicate something that’s more reflective of what’s going on.”

The calculation method for schools with odd configurations — such as a blend of elementary, middle and high school grades — has been in place for two years. But this summer, the state board created a special appeal process for Christel House and six other schools like it. The state board heard appeals from three charter schools. One other school, Indiana Math and Science Academy North, was changed from a C to a B because of a data error, not for the same reasons as Christel House South.

The new rule allows the state board to make case-by-case decisions for those schools’ grades. It can even choose a different grade calculation method.

For Christel House, board members decided to leave high school measures out of its grade calculation altogether.

Clarification: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect the state board’s reasons for changing Christel House Academy South’s grade.

Future of Schools

IPS students have made their high school choices. Here’s where they want to go.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

High schoolers across Indianapolis Public Schools have made their choices for next year, and some schools are proving far more popular than others.

With all but four high schools set to close, the district is already in the midst of an upheaval. Students’ choices this year could have far-reaching implications for the configuration of the district for years to come.

Shortridge High School had the greatest increase in demand, with more than triple the 400 students enrolled there now listing it as their first choice for next year. George Washington High School, which also enrolls more than 400 students now, is not likely to grow too much. And while Arsenal Technical and Crispus Attucks high schools are both likely to grow by hundreds of students, neither saw interest grow as exponentially as Shortridge.

The final enrollment at each school will determine such critical issues as how many teachers are hired, what courses are available to students, and how much it costs to operate the buildings. Ultimately, students’ choices are likely to shape course offerings over the next several years, district officials said.

The enrollment figures are the result of a district mandate requiring students from across the district to select high schools and magnet programs this fall. More than 90 percent of 8th to 11th grade students have made selections so far. All students will be placed in their top choice program, according to the IPS spokeswoman Carrie Cline Black.

Fewer than 500 IPS students have chosen programs at George Washington so far, according to district data obtained exclusively by Chalkbeat. In contrast, more than 1,300 students have selected Shortridge, which will house the arts magnet program currently at Broad Ripple and the International Baccalaureate Programme. More than 2,300 students have chosen programs at Arsenal Tech (currently the district’s largest high school with 1,826 students) and 1,050 have selected Crispus Attucks (which currently enrolls 695).

The uneven distribution of students did not take  Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration by complete surprise.

At an Indiana State Board of Education meeting on Oct. 4, state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick asked, “What happens if you don’t have a nice, somewhat-even distribution? … What if it’s very out of whack?”

Ferebee said that the district will have room to accommodate students if a school proves especially popular. In the long term, he added, IPS may have to adjust, by replicating  popular programs and discontinuing unpopular ones.

But Ferebee also said the district was hoping to persuade students to take another look at some of the programs that might not be popular at first.

For instance, he said, “We do know it’s going to take some time to educate families on construction and engineering. So we knew out of the gate, not many students may be interested, so it will take some time to build a program.”

Here is a full breakdown of the schools and programs that students chose:

In total 5,142 IPS students chose their preferred programs as part of a broad reconfiguration plan that includes closing nearly half of the seven high school campuses because of low enrollment. The district has not provided projections of how many students would enroll in each high school. But if enrollment doesn’t shift in the coming months, some campuses will be far closer to capacity then others. While the initial deadline for choosing schools and programs has passed, enrollment remains open to any students who have not yet made their selection.

If no other students enrolled in IPS high schools, Shortridge would be nearly 89 percent full. Arsenal Tech and Crispus Attucks would each be over 76 percent full. And George Washington would be about 25 percent full.

At the four remaining high school campuses, the district is aiming to “reinvent” high school by vastly expanding specialized programs in subjects such as business, engineering, and the arts, which students will study alongside their core classwork.

Next year, every student will be enrolled in specialized programs within high schools. District leaders hope that students will choose schools based on their interests, rather than their neighborhood.

Principal Stan Law will take over George Washington next year. In an interview about the school last week, before IPS released student selections numbers, Law said that it was important for students and families to get accurate information so they would select schools based on student career interests rather than neighborhood.

“Everyone has their ideas about things, but only certain people have the accurate information,” he said.

The most popular programs are the health sciences academy at Crispus Attucks and the Career Technology Center at Arsenal Tech, where students can study subjects such as culinary arts, welding and fire rescue. Each attracted more than 900 students. The least popular are the teaching program at Crispus Attucks, chosen by  104 students, and the information technology program at George Washington, chosen by 80.

Despite its apparent unpopularity with IPS students, the information technology program fits in with a state push to prepare students for careers in computer science and related fields. Gov. Eric Holcomb’s legislative agenda calls for requiring high schools to offer computer sciences classes, and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce wants computer science to be a high school graduation requirement.


Breaking: Indiana didn’t set aside enough money for schools. Senate leader says a fix is ‘top priority.’

PHOTO: Photo by Shaina Cavazos/Chalkbeat
Students at Global Prep Academy, a charter school, learn about comparing shapes. All schools could see less funding if lawmakers do not fix the funding shortfall.

State education officials are expecting a shortfall in school funding this year that could be as high as $9 million because state and local officials underestimated Indiana’s student enrollment.

If the legislature does not act to increase funding, districts, charter schools and private schools that receive state vouchers could all get less money than they were promised this year.

Senate President David Long said new legislation to appropriate more money to schools would be proposed, though other lawmakers involved in budget-making were less certain on what a solution would look like this early.

“It’s our top priority, education is, so it’ll have our full focus when we come back in January,” Long said.

But on the upside, he said, public school enrollment increased since last year.

“It’s not a bad problem,” Long said. “We have more kids going into public schools than we did last year, but it’s a challenge for us only in a sense that we need to adjust our numbers.”

A memo from the Indiana Department of Education said the legislature’s budget appropriation was short by less than one-half of 1 percent. When the amount the legislature allocated for school funding does not line up with its funding formula, “the law requires the Department to proportionately reduce the total amount to be distributed to recipients,” the memo said.

It’s not clear how the miscalculation in enrollment numbers occurred, said Rep Tim Brown, a key budget-writer and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. The budget dollars are estimated based on projected school enrollment counts from districts themselves, the education department and the legislative services agency, which helps provide information and data to lawmakers.

Brown urged people to keep the number in perspective, especially since the budget is crafted based on estimates. Brown said this was the first year since he became involved with budget writing in 2013 that projected budget allocations ended up being less than school enrollment, which was calculated based on counts from September Count Day.

“We’re looking at what our options are, but let us keep in mind it is $1.50 out of every $10,000 a school gets,” Brown said, adding that he wasn’t sure this early on how lawmakers would act to make up the shortfall.

But J.T. Coopman, executive director for the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, said even small amounts of money make a difference for cash-strapped schools. Districts have already started making contracts and have obligations to pay for teacher salaries and services at this point. It’s pretty late in the game for this kind of news, he said.

“I did see that it’s less than a half a percent, but for schools that’s a lot of money,” Coopman said. “Can we get this fixed before it becomes a real problem for school districts?”

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, who leads a district that is already in deficit, was optimistic. In a statement, he said, “we’re encouraged by the commitment and urgency demonstrated by our legislative leaders.”

Neither Brown nor Long knew how much public school enrollment had increased. The $32 billion two-year budget passed in April increased total dollars for schools by about 3.3 percent from 2017 to 2019, for a total of about $14 billion. Included within that was a 2.5 percent average increase for per-student funding to $6,709 in 2019, up from $6,540 last year.

The news of a funding shortfall comes as the state continues to see declining revenue. The Northwest Indiana Times reports that state revenue is down $136.5 million (2.8 percent) from what lawmakers estimated this past spring for the next two-year budget.

During the annual ceremonial start to the 2018 legislative session today, leaders discussed a need to provide more resources to schools and the state board of education. So far, many of the priorities involving education this year look to address workforce needs and encourage schools to offer more computer science courses.

But House Speaker Brian Bosma also shouted out “innovative” steps made by Indianapolis Public Schools and Fort Wayne Public Schools.

“People are trying something different and they are having great results with it,” Bosma said. “We need to give them more tools, we need to give them more opportunities.”