Future of 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.

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

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Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.