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.

Big speeches

Emanuel tries to shore up education legacy in final budget address

PHOTO: Elaine Chen/Chalkbeat
Rahm Emanuel at Cardenas Elementary School in Little Village, moments before he announced this year's $1 billion capital plan.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel choked up twice during his final budget address to Chicago’s City Council Wednesday morning: once when he talked about his wife, Amy Rule, and the other when he read aloud a letter from a John Marshall High School senior who lives on Chicago’s West Side.

The address highlighted millions he wants to spend to expand after-school programming, middle school mentoring, and a summer jobs initiative for Chicago teens. It also signaled loud and clear how Emanuel views his legacy: as the mayor who took the reins when the city faced a $600 million deficit and then righted Chicago’s fiscal ship, while pushing for the expansion of programs that serve public schools and children.

In the speech, he ticked off such accomplishments as expanding kindergarten citywide from a half- to a full-day, extending the city’s school day, increasing the graduation rate to a record 78.2 percent up from 57 percent when he took office in 2011, and paving the path for universal pre-kindergarten, though that initiative is still in the early stages.

“When you step back and look at the arc of what we’ve done in the past seven years, and take a wide lens view, from free pre-K to free community college, from Safe Passage to mentors to more tutors in our neighborhood libraries … at end of day, it is really no different than what Amy and I, or you and your partner, would do for your own children,” he said.

Emanuel, the former congressman and chief of staff for President Barack Obama who announced on the first day of school in September that he won’t be running for re-election, acknowledged that shoring up civic finances isn’t glitzy work — not like, say, plopping a major park in the middle of downtown, as his predecessor Richard M. Daley did by opening Millennium Park.

But, said Emanuel, “one thing I’ve learned in the past 24 years in politics is that they don’t build statues for people who restore fiscal stability.”

Outside of the longer school day and school year, the mayor stressed his work expanding programming for children — particularly teenagers — after school and in summers as an antidote to the city’s troubling violence that did not abate in his term. Amid a $10.7 billion budget plan that includes a chunk of new tax-increment finance dollars that will go toward schools, the new budget lays out $500,000 more funding for his signature Summer Jobs program, bringing projected total spending on that up to $18 million in 2019.

He also set aside $1 million for his wife’s Working on Womanhood mentoring program that currently serves 500 women and girls, $1 million more for the after-school program After School Matters, and more money for free dental services at Chicago Public Schools and trauma-informed therapy programs.

The mayor’s address had barely ended when the Chicago Teachers Union sent an email with the subject line “No victory lap for this failed mayor.” It pointed to blemishes on Emanuel’s education record, from closing 50 schools in 2013 to systemic failings in the city’s special education program — an issue that now has Chicago Public Schools under the watchful eye of a state monitor.

CTU President Jesse Sharkey called on the city’s next mayor to restore money to mental health clinics and social services, fund smaller class sizes, broaden a “sustainable schools” program that partners community agencies with languishing neighborhood schools, and invest in more social workers, psychologists, nurses, librarians, and teachers’ assistants.

In his address, Emanuel did not talk about some of the tough decisions the school district had to make during tough budget years, such as the school closings or widespread teacher layoffs that topped 2,000 that same year. 

He did, however, stress his philosophy that investments in children must extend beyond the typical school day. In the letter from the Marshall High School senior, the teen wrote that, until his freshman year of high school, “I never saw or met any males like me who lead successful lives.” The letter went on to praise the nonprofit Becoming A Man, a male mentoring program that has expanded among Chicago schools during Emanuel’s tenure.

The teen intends to attend Mississippi Valley State University next fall, the mayor said. When Emanuel pointed out the young man and his Becoming A Man program mentor in the City Council chambers, many in attendance gave them a standing ovation.

 

 

Schola Latina

With school board approval, new Detroit Latin School plans to enroll students as soon as next fall

Plans for the new Detroit Latin School involve renovating the former Brady Elementary School building on Detroit's west side.

Detroit students in grades 5 through 7 might start enrolling as soon as next fall in a new school focused on the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome.

The new Detroit Latin School, which hopes to eventually serve students in grades K through 12, won approval from the Detroit school board Tuesday night to enter into a 99-year, $1 lease for an abandoned school on the city’s west side.

The school is one of two new schools opening next year as the district makes a play to recruit some of the 30,000 Detroit children who currently commute to the suburbs for school.

When news of the school first broke last month, some critics grumbled that the district should focus on supporting its existing schools rather than opening new ones. The 106-school district has dozens of buildings that are half-full or in serious disrepair. Others wondered why a district overwhelmingly serving African-American students is backing a school that emphasizes European culture rather than building additional Afrocentric schools.

But Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says he hopes the Latin school’s unusual curriculum will appeal to families who might otherwise shun the district and will keep students — and the state funds that come with them — in the district rather than see them flow to charter or suburban schools.  

Board members, who approved an agreement for the Latin school in a unanimous vote Tuesday night, said they hope the district will hold the new school to high academic standards and will push to make sure that ancient African cultures such as Carthage and Kush are incorporated in the school’s curriculum along with Greece and Rome. They also called on the district to add Afrocentric programs to its schools.

“I’m pleased with this and excited,” said board member Misha Stallworth. “I like the classics but I also hope that as we continue to look at new school opportunities, we can pursue subjects that are a little more reflective of our community.”

According to an agreement approved by the board Tuesday, the new school will be run by the George Washington Scholars Endowment, an organization founded in 1785 that has opened similar schools in Washington, D.C., and New York.

The Detroit version will be a traditional district school, subject to school board oversight and policies. Teaching staff will be district employees and members of district unions, though some administrators will work for the endowment.

The district will pay for routine maintenance and operations, while the endowment plans to raise money — as much as $75 million — to support the school and to renovate the former Brady Elementary School on the city’s west side.

The endowment, which will operate the Latin School in another district building for two years while the Brady campus is being renovated, has ambitious plans involving a four-building campus in a traditional quad configuration. The campus will include a lower school serving grades K through 6, an upper school serving grades 7 through 12, a science and technology building, a “center for rhetoric and performing arts,” and a dormitory.

The agreement authorizes the school to house about 20 international students in the dorm.  

It’s not clear what happens if the endowment falls short of its ambitious fundraising goals. The agreement approved Tuesday calls for the property to revert back to the district if it is no longer being used as a traditional public school.

Also not clear is what happens if the school struggles academically or doesn’t meet the district’s expectations for serving students. The agreement approved Tuesday largely spells out the financial relationship between the district and the school and doesn’t go into detail about the school’s curriculum or academic policies beyond specifying that they will align with Michigan state standards.

The agreement states that if the district terminates the lease, it would have to repay the endowment for its renovation expenses — a provision that one school board member encouraged the district to reconsider as it negotiates the final language for the lease.

“I would push you to think about the terms under which you can cancel the lease,” said board member Sonya Mays. “There’s a requirement in here that we would have to pay back for the first 20 years. I would hope that we can carve out …. If they don’t meet academic standards or something like that. So just making sure that [repayment] is not sort of a blanket requirement on our end.”

Vitti said the district will require the school to meet or exceed the district average for academic performance.

The Latin school will be open to all Detroit residents but admission will be selective, based on grades and a student interview — not on standardized tests. The school will open initially with just fifth, sixth and seventh grades. It plans to add additional grades once it moves to its permanent building in 2021.