Building Better Schools

Board takes control of state takeover from Ritz

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Indiana State Board of Education members Cari Whicker and Brad Oliver with state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, pictured at December's meeting.

The Indiana State Board of Education wrested more control over the process for taking over failing schools from state Superintendent Glenda Ritz today, and board members will ask the state legislature to give it broader powers to take over more troubled schools, and even school districts.

Far-reaching new rules the board approved include calls for a shorter road to possible takeover — four years instead of six — and shift oversight of the takeover process from Ritz and the Indiana Department of Education to the state board and its staff at Gov. Mike Pence’s Center for Education and Career innovation.

Ritz, who has complained that Pence uses CECI to diminish her authority, characterized the move as the board’s most blatant power grab yet.

“We’re really talking about the State Board of Education really taking on being the state education agency in place of the Department of Education,” Ritz said. “And that’s not how this works.”

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said she agreed — but the board’s move wasn’t really a surprise.

“I just think it’s par for the course,” Meredith said. “Unfortunately, it just shows their colors once again. They need to let the superintendent do the job she was elected to do.”

Board member Brad Oliver responded that state takeover needs to be done differently.

“The board is well within its right to say, ‘We can do this better,’” he said.

Board member Dan Elsener said it’s up to the state board, not Ritz, to assure children in low-scoring schools get better opportunities to succeed.

“We want every authority to move to the advantage of these children,” he said.

The board’s moves address some of the most contentious divides that have emerged among the state, school districts with failing schools that become eligible for state takeover and outside organizations the state hires to manage those schools independently.

Indiana today has six schools in state takeover: four in Indianapolis, one in Gary and one in Evansville. In most of those cases, the schools were severed from district control and turned over to be managed by companies or non-profit groups with experience running charter schools.

Since the first takeovers in 2012, the districts and the takeover groups have had intense disagreements in Indianapolis and Gary. For example, the operator of Indianapolis’ Manual and Howe high schools and Donnan Middle School, Charter Schools USA, complained that Indianapolis Public Schools delayed sharing student academic records. In Gary, Roosevelt HIgh School’s operator, Edison Learning, asked the state for help after it said the district wasn’t doing enough to resolve heating problems in the building.

Critics of the state takeover process also argue that it has failed to improve the schools. Several have seen enrollment drop dramatically since they were taken over and all of the schools have remained poor performers on state tests. Only Manual has seen its grade rise above an F, to a D last year.

Lower enrollment meant less state aid than expected for some schools, leading to a budget shortfall that led Tindley Accelerated Schools to withdraw early from its contract to manage Indianapolis’ Arlington High School. The state board today is expected to separately approve IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s plan to take back control of Arlington, merging it with John Marshall High School.

Shocked by Tindley’s decision to pull out, the state board in August named a committee to recommend changes to try to make the intervention process run more smoothly. Public Impact, a North Carolina-based national education consulting firm, was paid $48,000 to help the committee develop the changes.

Among the recommendations the board approved:

Make more schools eligible for takeover sooner. Currently, takeover can only occur under state law when a school has been rated an F by the state for low test scores for six straight years. The state board will ask the legislature to drop that threshold to four years of D or F grades that could trigger state takeover.

Allow takeover of school districts. The state board will ask the legislature to establish a process for the state to take over school districts rated as failing academically or in financial distress. In that case, the state board would manage the district in place of the local school board.

Move oversight of takeover schools to the state board. Currently Ritz and the education department manage the takeover process. Now the state board will create a new “turnaround unit” that reports to community councils in each district with schools in intervention to provide input. The turnaround unit will have access to education department funding and its data. Future contracts for takeover groups will include the state and the school district with clearer dividing lines for the responsibilities of each.

Add more state funding. The state board will ask the legislature for two new funding streams to help the takeover process. One would provide state grants to supplement federal school improvement grants. The state’s grants would last five years and oversight of the federal grant process would be moved from the education department to the state board. A separate proposal calls for the state to create a special loan fund for building repairs for schools in state takeover.

Give the state control over school buildings. The state board will ask the legislature to also take over authority and funding for building maintenance and busing for each school when it takes control. In future takeovers, the state will require school districts to conduct a districtwide evaluation and master plan for their school building use and could use that information to determine if the takeover school should be closed.

Allow takeover schools to be operated like charter schools. The state board will ask the legislature to extend to every district in the state with more than one school in intervention the powers awarded to IPS in a bill passed in March. That new law allows IPS to hire charter schools or other independent teams of educators to run low-rated schools with more autonomy. That law was controversial, as teachers unions raised concerns that teaching jobs could be reassigned to outside organizations, forcing teachers out of the union and out from under the job protections and pay minimums of the district’s union contract.

Dump lead partners. The state board no longer plans to use a milder form of intervention it calls “lead partners.” A small number of schools were not taken over but were assigned outside organizations to assist with specific needs while the district retained control over them. In its place, districts can adopt a model used in Evansville. That district created a “transformation zone,” or a special division, to oversee one of its failing schools and four schools that feed into it to try to improve test scores. IPS has also created a special oversight process for 11 of its most troubled schools and has proposed serving as its own lead partner in a similar way.

Big gains

No. 1: This Denver turnaround school had the highest math growth in Colorado

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
University Prep Steele Street students at a celebration of their test scores Friday.

Denver’s University Prep faced a gargantuan task last year: Turn around a school where the previous year just 7 percent of third- through fifth-graders were on grade level in math and 6 percent were on grade level in English.

On Friday morning, dozens of those students — dressed in khaki pants and button-up sweaters — clustered on the lawn to listen to officials celebrate their charter school, University Prep Steele Street, for showing the most academic growth in Colorado on last spring’s state standardized math tests.

The high-poverty school also had the eighth-highest growth on state English tests. Another Denver charter, KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy high school, had the first-highest.

“I want to say clearly to all of you that no one is ever going to tell you what you can and can’t do — ever,” University Prep founder and executive director David Singer told his students. “You’re going to remind them what you did in a single year.”

By the end of last year, 43 percent of University Prep Steele Street third- through fifth-graders were at grade level in math and 37 percent were at grade level in English, according to state tests results released Thursday.

University Prep Steele Street students scored better, on average, than 91 percent of Colorado students who had similar tests scores the year before in math and better than 84 percent of students who had similar scores in English.

As Singer noted Friday, that type of skyrocketing improvement is rare among turnaround schools in Denver and nationwide.

“This might be one of the biggest wins we’ve ever seen in our city, our state and our country of what it truly means to transform a school,” he said.

Many of the kids were previously students at Pioneer Charter School, one of the city’s first-ever charters. Founded in 1997 in northeast Denver, Pioneer had struggled academically in recent years, posting some of the lowest test scores in all of Denver Public Schools.

In 2015, Pioneer’s board of directors decided to close the school, which served students in preschool through eighth grade. University Prep, an elementary charter school a couple miles away, applied to take it over. But unlike many school turnarounds, it wouldn’t be a gradual, one-grade-at-a-time, phase-in, phase-out transition. Instead, University Prep would be responsible for teaching students in kindergarten through fifth grade on day one.

“When Pioneer Charter School became an option and we looked at our results up to that point of time and what we believed to be our capacity … we saw an opportunity,” Singer said

A former math teacher at nearby Manual High School, which has itself been subject to several turnaround efforts, Singer started University Prep after becoming frustrated with the reality faced by many of his teenage students, who often showed up with gaps in their knowledge.

“When you walk into school at 14 or 15 and have a huge gap, the likelihood you get to be whatever you want to be is diminished,” he said.

The key to changing that, Singer realized, would be to start students on a path to success earlier. That’s why University Prep’s tagline is, “College starts in kindergarten.”

“It’s a significantly better pathway than the one of intense catch-up on the backend,” Singer said.

University Prep Arapahoe Street opened as a standalone charter school in 2010. Last year, its fourth- and fifth-graders outperformed district averages on both the English and math tests.

Several teachers and staff members from the original campus helped open Steele Street in 2016. The school started with 226 students, 89 percent of whom qualified for subsidized lunches. Ninety-seven percent were students of color and 71 percent were English language learners, more than twice the percentage in the district as a whole.

The biggest difference from the year before, Singer said, were the expectations. The work was more rigorous and there was more of it: three hours of literacy and more than 100 minutes of math each day as part of a schedule that stretched from 7:15 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Lauren Argue was one of the teachers that moved from the original campus to Steele Street. She and Singer said the other big difference was the honest feedback students received from their teachers. That included sharing with students the fact that they were several grade levels behind, and starting the year by re-teaching second-grade math to fourth-graders.

“We had conversations of, ‘Here is where you’re at,’ but also expressing our unwavering belief that, ‘By the end of the year, you will grow a tremendous amount,’” Argue said.

While those hard conversations may have been uncomfortable at first for students and their families, Argue said they embraced them once they saw the progress students were making — progress that teachers made sure to celebrate at every opportunity.

“Kids learned the joy of what it means to do hard academic work and get through to the other side,” Singer said. “That became a source of pride.”

Ten-year-old Abril Sierra attended Pioneer since preschool. This year, she’s a fifth-grader at University Prep. On Friday, she said that while at times she thought her brain might explode, it felt good to tackle harder work. She credited her teachers with helping her achieve.

“The things that changed were definitely the perspective of how the teachers see you and believe in you,” Sierra said. “…They make you feel at home. You can trust them.”

By the numbers

NYC announces it will subsidize hiring from Absent Teacher Reserve — and sheds light on who is in the pool

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman

Ever since the city announced a new policy for placing teachers without permanent positions into schools, Chalkbeat and others have been asking questions about just who is in the pool, known as the Absent Teacher Reserve.

Now we have some answers.

The education department released figures on Friday that show a quarter of teachers currently in the the pool were also there five years ago, and a third ended up in the ATR because of disciplinary or legal issues. The average salary for teachers this past year was $94,000, according to the data.

The city also said it would extend budget incentives for schools that hire educators from the ATR, a change to its initial announcement. Principals have raised concerns about the cost of hiring from the ATR, since its members tend to be more senior, and therefore more expensive, than new teachers.

The ATR is comprised of teachers who don’t have regular positions, either because their jobs were eliminated or because of disciplinary issues. It cost almost $152 million in the last school year — far more than previously estimated — and currently stands at 822 teachers.

In July, the city announced a plan to cut the pool in half by placing teachers into vacancies still open after the new school year begins — even potentially over principals’ objection.

Critics have argued that the city’s new placement policy could place ineffective teachers in the neediest classrooms. StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis called the move “shockingly irresponsible” in a statement.

“There are reasons why no principal has chosen to hire them and this policy is bad for kids, plain and simple,” she said.

But Randy Asher, the former principal of Brooklyn Technical High School who is now responsible for helping to shrink the pool, called the new policy “a common sense approach to treating ATR teachers like all other teachers,” since they now have the opportunity to be evaluated by a school principal.

Here’s what the latest numbers tell us about who is in the pool.

How did educators end up in the Absent Teacher Reserve?

Most of the educators in the ATR were placed there because their schools had closed (38 percent) or due to budget cuts (30 percent.)

Another 32 percent entered the pool because of a legal or disciplinary case.

How effective are they?

A majority — 74 percent — received an evaluation rating of “highly effective,” “effective” or “satisfactory” in 2015-16, the most current year available. Current ratings for teachers citywide were not immediately available, but in 2014-15, 93 percent of teachers overall were rated effective or highly effective, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Twelve percent of teachers in the pool received an “ineffective” or “unsatisfactory” rating in 2015-16, and about 7 percent received a “developing” rating, one step up from ineffective.

Some teachers in the ATR say evaluations can be unfair since teachers are often placed in classrooms outside of the subjects they are equipped to teach and because they are bounced between classrooms.

Asked whether teachers with poor ratings would be placed in classrooms, Asher said “all” teachers in the ATR have traditionally been placed in school assignments.

“They’re in schools, no matter what. It’s a question of what is their role in the school, and how are they supported and evaluated,” he said. “Obviously we will look at each individual teacher and each individual assignment on a case-by-case basis.”

How experienced are they?

Teachers in the ATR have an average of 18 years of experience with the education department, and earn an average salary of $94,000. By comparison, the base salary for a New York City teacher as of May 2017 was $54,000.

How long have they been in the pool?

Almost half the educators who are currently in the pool were also there two years ago. A quarter were in the ATR five years ago. That doesn’t mean that teachers have remained in the ATR for that entire time. They could have been hired for a time, and returned to the pool.

Still, the figures could be fuel for those who argue educators in the ATR either aren’t seriously looking for permanent jobs — or that the educators in the pool are simply undesirable hires.

How will schools pay for them?

Teachers in the ATR have argued that their higher salaries are one reason principals avoid hiring them — a concern that principals voiced in a recent Chalkbeat report.

“This is part of the injustice of the ATR placement,” said Scott Conti, principal of New Design High School in Manhattan. “Schools might not want them and they will cost schools more in the future, taking away from other budget priorities.”

Under the policy announced Friday, the education department will subsidize the cost of ATRs who are permanently hired, paying 50 percent of their salaries next school year and 25 percent the following school year.

Where have they worked previously?

This question is important because the answer gives a sense of where educators in the ATR are likely to be placed this fall. The education department’s original policy called for an educator to be placed within the same district they left, but the change announced in July allowed for placement anywhere within the same borough.

Almost half of ATR members, as of June 2016-17, came from high schools. That isn’t surprising: Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein targeted large high schools for closure, breaking them up into smaller schools as part of a turnaround strategy.

Of the school districts serving K- 8 students, District 19 in Brooklyn’s East New York and District 24 in Queens had among the most educators in the ATR. Each had 26.

What subjects do they teach?

The largest share of teachers in the ATR — 27 percent — are licensed to teach in early childhood or elementary school grades. Another 11 percent are licensed social studies teachers, 9 percent are math teachers and 8 percent are English teachers.

Questions have been raised in the past about whether the teachers in the pool had skills that were too narrow or out of date. A 2010 Chalkbeat story found that a quarter of teachers then in the pool were licensed to teach relatively obscure classes like swimming, jewelry-making and accounting.