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.

election 2019

Chicago mayoral hopefuls agree on much, vow to invest in schools

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel / Chalkbeat
Five mayoral candidates invited to a labor forum on Nov. 19, 2018, discussed the exodus of black families from Chicago.

The five candidates for Chicago mayor who appeared at a labor union forum Monday night all pledged to invest more in neighborhood schools, despite an enrollment crisis that has left some with fewer than 100 students.

All five all also said the city should invest more in mental health services, especially for youth and in schools.

While the union-backed forum focused on the exodus of black residents from Chicago, education found its way into the conversation. After all, the troubling trend of fleeing families has caused school enrollments to plunge, budgets to shrink and schools to close.

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Gates said at the top of the event that, besides no booing, there’d be little tolerance for continuing “to talk about how to close schools in the city.”

The five mayoral contenders whom the union invited Monday night — out of 18 declared mayoral candidates — included former schools chief Paul Vallas, ex-prosecutor Lori Lightfoot, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza and policy analyst Amara Enyia, director of the Austin Chamber of Commerce.

Each promised in one way or another that they’d unify a city they painted as unequal and segregated, starting with stemming the daily toll of violence and improving public education.

Preckwinkle touted her bonafides as a former high school teacher who understands the challenges educators face, and said she’d focus on supporting local schools as she did in her 20 years as alderman.

“I want all of our children to have good public schools in their neighborhoods,” she said, adding that too many schools are underfunded or have been closed in many areas.

Mendoza, the latest candidate to enter the race, said she supports a two-year moratorium on school closings and boasted of her efforts in the state capitol pushing Gov. Bruce Rauner on “evidence based school funding,” which determines the cost of educating students based on certain factors, considers school districts’ resources, and tries filling the gap with state dollars.

Lightfoot emphasized preventing violence and looking at its impact on children in Chicago. She cast Emanuel as “a mayor who has learned on the job in dealing with public safety,” and touted her experience cracking down on police misconduct, an issue that has galvanized black youth.

Vallas characterized himself as someone who has devoted his life to public service, from his time in Chicago to stints running school districts in Philadelphia and in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina. He bashed the current mayor for the city’s financial state, escalating violence that Valles tied to shortages in police, especially detectives, and lack of investment in communities.

Amara Enyia emphasized her work fighting school closings, including the National Teachers’ Academy, a top-rated elementary school that is slated to close at the end of the year to make way for a high school, and her support of the No Cop Academy movement led by youth activists like Good Kids Madd City.

The candidates cited everything from crime and lack of jobs to uneven economic development and a lack of affordable housing as reasons why Chicago is losing population. They agreed on a lot, generally speaking, including the need to get the city’s fiscal house in order, create more jobs and reduce violence, deploring a shooting at a South Side hospital several hours earlier that left four dead.

On education, the candidates offered different paths for improving Chicago Public Schools’ financial stability. Preckwinkle said she supports a progressive state income tax, which she said could help produce more revenue that could help public schools. Vallas said reforming the teachers retirement system could free up more funds.

Enyia, who said black Chicagoans have been encouraged to leave the city because of a lack of affordable housing and economic investment, said she would press the philanthropic community to invest more in black and brown communities, and push initiatives to train people in the jobs of tomorrow.

“In our public schools we have to invest in those school career technical education and training programs,” she said, a point also made by Lightfoot.

Enyia charged that the school district doesn’t consider equity in its capital projects and program investments, and said “without an equity lens we cannot ensure every child has access to a high-quality education.” She said she would review how practices such as test-in high schools and school boundary lines entrench segregation and racial inequity.

Vallas tried to portray himself as the most fiscally astute candidate when it comes to schools, saying he left the district in a better financial state after his 1995 to 2001 stints. He suggested that the city do a better job of recruiting police who attended Chicago public schools, especially ROTC alumni, so that more police come from communities they serve. He advocated for universal prenatal and early childhood programs.

Preckwinkle was the only candidate to explicitly support an elected school board. She also said she would freeze charters and school closings, and seek more funds to support professionals in schools.

The mayor’s office wields broad powers over city departments and agencies, especially schools. The mayor appoints the schools chief and members of the Chicago Board of Education, which begs the question of whether or not schools CEO Janice Jackson, board President Frank Clark, and other district leaders will keep their jobs once city government gets a new boss.

That didn’t come up at the forum.

civil rights commission

Detroit education leaders open to collaboration on accountability, student records

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Dan Quisenberry, second from left, testifies before the Michigan Civil Rights Commission on Monday as Wayne State University finance professor Michael Addonizio and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti look on.

When students change schools — as they do all too often in Detroit  — their data should travel with them.

That idea has found support from more than one education leader in recent days, raising the prospect of additional cooperation between Detroit’s charter schools and its main district.

Speaking in Detroit before the Michigan Civil Rights Commission on Monday, Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, said information sharing could help alleviate the effects of the large number of students who switch schools in Detroit.

“It would be important to look at citywide records and data systems so that a child has information about themselves when they show up at a school, what they’ve experienced,” he said.

His remarks followed on the heels of similar recommendations made last week by a different charter school official at a forum about school switching in Detroit.

And they came as district leaders have shown an increased willingness to collaborate with charter schools. Earlier this year, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti joined the Community Education Commission, a mayor-led group that has begun operating a bus line in northwest Detroit that carries students to charter and traditional schools.

Vitti has been vocal in his approval for the group’s latest project, a citywide, A-F school grading system that emphasizes student growth over academic proficiency, a system he dubbed “fair and consistent.”

“It’s hard to think about collaboration when you’re in a competitive environment, but we have collaborated on an accountability system,” Vitti said on Monday.

When he took control of Michigan’s largest district last year, Vitti promised to go toe-to-toe with charter schools to recruit students and teachers.

It remains to be seen whether either side would agree to a proposal that, at its most ambitious, could be the most significant district-charter collaboration since an effort to create a common enrollment system succumbed last year to practical hurdles and poisonous politics.

After a failed effort to put the common enrollment system under mayoral control, Quisenberry said there was a “question of trust” between the district and charter schools on the issue.

But he said on Monday that there’s no reason the two can’t work together.

“Everybody thinks, many times falsely, because we were against… putting the mayor in charge, that we’re not interested in cooperating,” he said. “We just don’t think that was necessary.”

After the common enrollment initiative collapsed, some of its supporters regrouped and published a report arguing that a joint data system could help improve teacher hiring and reduce absenteeism.

Now that idea appears to be picking up steam.

Last week, during the forum on students frequently changing schools, education leaders pointed out that when students move — as roughly one in three Detroit elementary schoolers do every year — academic data helps teachers orient them to a new classroom, while enrollment information helps their former school know where they’ve gone and that they’re safe.

Maria Montoya, who is with the charter school office at Grand Valley State University, advocated for a common data system, saying “a child should not disappear with nobody accountable for them, whether it is a traditional school or a charter.”