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.


Memphis candidate says no longer in running to lead Achievement School District

The only Memphis applicant to lead Tennessee’s turnaround district is no longer under consideration, the state Department of Education confirmed Thursday.

Keith Sanders told Chalkbeat on Thursday that Education Commissioner Candice McQueen called him and said that he would not advance in the application process to become superintendent of the Achievement School District. Sanders is a Memphis-based education consultant and former Memphis school principal who most recently was chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education.

The state later confirmed that Sanders will not advance, citing concerns from the search firm hired to find the next leader of the turnaround district.

In a March 21 letter to McQueen, the search firm highlighted Sanders’ time as a charter school leader in New Orleans as a reason he should not advance. Sanders co-founded Miller-McCoy Academy, an all-boys public school that closed in 2014. The school was academically low-performing, and Sanders and his co-founder left the school before it shuttered amidst allegations of financial mismanagement and cheating, according to the letter.

The announcement comes a day after Stephen Osborn, a finalist for the position, visited Memphis for a second interview with McQueen. Osborn is currently the chief of innovation for Rhode Island’s Department of Education.

Sanders said he was shocked at the news, as just weeks earlier he was told that he would advance as one of two finalists for the position.

“I was given an itinerary for two days next week for my final interview process,” Sanders said. “I’m shocked that I’ve been suddenly and abruptly removed from this process. I want to be clear in this community I reside in — I did not withdraw.”

In addition to Sanders and Osborn, other candidates under consideration were: Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education, and Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

McQueen emphasized during her Memphis visit on Wednesday that the superintendent search is still in progress.

“We certainly have an expectation that we’ll bring in others,” she told reporters. “At this point, we wanted to move one forward while we’re continuing to solicit additional information from the search firm on current candidates as well as other candidates who have presented themselves over last couple of weeks.”

The new superintendent will succeed Malika Anderson, who stepped down last fall after almost two years at the helm. Kathleen Airhart, a longtime deputy at the State Department of Education, has served as interim leader.

The job will require overseeing 30 low-performing schools — the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis.

Editor’s note: We have updated this story with comment from the Tennessee Department of Education. 

Play nice

How can Michigan schools stop skinned knees and conflict? Use playtime to teach students kindness

PHOTO: Amanda Rahn
Macomb Montessori kindergartner London Comer plays with a ball during a Playworks session at her school.

Kindergartners play four square, jump rope and line up in two rows with outstretched arms to bump a ball during recess. What’s unusual is that the four- and five-year-olds don’t fight over balls or toys, and when one child gets upset and crosses her arms, a fifth-grade helper comes over to talk to her.

This is a different picture from last spring, when the students at the Macomb Montessori school in Warren played during recess on a parking lot outside. The skinned knees and broken equipment were piling up, and school administrators knew something needed to change.

“Recess was pretty chaotic, and it wasn’t very safe,” Principal Ashley Ogonowski said.

The school brought in Playworks, a national nonprofit that uses playtime to teach students how to peacefully and respectfully work together to settle disagreements — also known as social emotional learning, said Angela Rogensues the executive director of the Michigan Playworks branch.

Ogonowski said the change she has seen in her students has been huge. Kids are getting hurt less, and teachers have said they have fewer classroom behavior problems.

The program teaches better behavior through physical activity. Games focus on cooperation, not winners and losers. When tensions rise on the playground, kids are encouraged to “rock, paper, scissors” over conflicts.

Playworks is adamant that their coaches are not physical education teachers, nor are their 30-45 minute structured play periods considered gym class. But the reality is that in schools without them, Playworks is the closest many kids come to receiving physical education.

Macomb Montessori does not have a regular gym teacher, a problem shared by schools across the state and nearly half of the schools in the main Detroit district, and a symptom of a disinvestment in physical education statewide. In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified.

But with Playworks, the 210 elementary-aged children at the school have a daily recess and a weekly class game time lasting about 30 to 45 minutes.

Another benefit of the program is the chance to build leadership skills with upper elementary students chosen to be junior coaches. Shy kids are picked, as are natural leaders who might be using their talents to stir up trouble.

“I made it because I’m really good with kids. I’m nice and kind and I really like the kids,” Samerah Gentry, a fifth-grader and junior coach said. “I’m gaining energy and I’m having fun.”

Research shows that students are benefitting from both the conflict resolution tools and the junior coach program.

“The program model is really solid and there’s so much structure in place, I can’t really think of any drawbacks,” Principal Ogonowski said.

The program, however, is not free.  

Part of the cost is handled on the Playworks side through grants, but schools are expected to “have some skin in the game,” Rogenesus said. The program at Macomb Montessori costs between $60,000 and $65,000, but poor schools can receive a 50 percent subsidy.

The cost hasn’t prevented eight Detroit district schools from paying for the program. Rogenesus said she is talking with Superintendent Nikolai Vitti about putting the program in even more schools next year. He also identified Playworks as one organization that could be brought in to run after-school programs at a time when he’s rethinking district partnerships.

Part of Playworks’ mission is to work together with schools, even if they already have gym and recess in place or plan to hire a physical education teacher.

“PE is a necessary part of their education in the same way social-emotional learning is a necessary part of that education,” she said.