Future of Schools

Pence calls for plan to strip Ritz of board leadership, kills CECI

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

Glenda Ritz could be removed from a lead role on the Indiana State Board of Education if a sweeping overhaul of the Indiana’s education policy structure proposed by Gov. Mike Pence today is enacted by the state legislature.

Speaking today at the annual legislative conference at the Indiana Convention Center about a month before the 2015 lawmaking session is due to begin, Pence stunned the audience by saying he had signed an executive order to dissolve his controversial Center for Education and Career Innovation, a policy-making rival to the Indiana Department of Education that Ritz has persistently complained about. It will cease to exist early next year, he said.

Ritz has repeatedly argued CECI has sought to undermine her authority and is at the center of the state board’s frequent clashes.

“I am aware of the controversy that has surrounded this center since its creation,” Pence said. “Somebody has to take the first step to restore harmony and trust.”

But even as Pence pitched that move as an olive branch, he paired it with a proposal that would likely remove Ritz from a lead role in state board policymaking. He asked lawmakers to elect a replacement for Ritz as the state board’s chairwoman, potentially allowing the board to more directly manage the education department.

Ritz’s role as head of the department is spelled out in the state constitution, but her place as board chairwoman can be changed by the legislature. If adopted, Pence’s plan would allow the 10 gubernatorial appointees who serve with her to choose one of their own to lead the board.

In a statement, Ritz thanked Pence for dissolving CECI but did not directly address how his proposals might affect her standing.

“While dissolving CECI is certainly welcome news, there are other aspects of the governor’s legislative agenda that are concerning for public education in our state,” she said. “I look forward to working with the legislature and the governor on the Department of Education’s legislative agenda and other critical issues during the upcoming session.”

Democrats and labor leaders, however, were quick to describe Pence’s actions as self-serving.

Democratic House leader Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, called the Republicans paranoid and insecure, unable to work with Ritz — the lone Democrat in the statehouse who holds a statewide office — without changing the rules.

“Let (Ritz) do her job,” he said. “Let her talk. And then the people can decide in the next election. They have plenty of arrows in their quiver to accomplish what it is that they want to accomplish and they then are just going to stomp on voters’ expectations when they sent Glenda Ritz to Indianapolis. At best, it raises eyebrows, and at worst, causes you to charge that they simply don’t want any sort of dissension or alternative points of view.”

That could ultimately harm the state’s efforts to provide the best possible education system, said Rick Muir, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the smaller of Indiana’s two statewide teachers unions.

“It’s detrimental to public education,” he said. “The people elected Glenda Ritz and we have never had a state superintendent, nor a Department of Education, treated in the manner we’re seeing them treated. It’s nothing but foul play. They couldn’t win the election so they’re taking everything away.”

Teresa Meredith, president of the larger statewide union, the Indiana State Teachers Association, said she hopes the dissolving of CECI will make it easier for the State Board of Education and the Department of Education to communicate.

“I think it takes away one of the initial barriers between a clear path between the state board and the superintendent,” she said. “We need to continue to allow the person who was elected to that job to do her job.”

Ritz and Pence both were elected in 2012, but it was Democrat Ritz’s stunning upset win over her predecessor, Tony Bennett, that disrupted what had been a consistent vision for education shared by Bennett and the all-Republican leaders of the state’s executive and legislative branch.

Soon after, Ritz was butting heads with Pence and the 10 Republican appointees who serve with her on the state board. Ritz wanted to push a very different vision for overseeing education in Indiana. As a candidate, she advocated for a reconsideration of some of the testing and accountability-based reforms that had been favored by Republicans.

The increasing tension boiled over late last year when Ritz abruptly adjourned a state board meeting rather than allow a vote on a motion she opposed regarding the process for setting academic standards.

The ongoing disagreements over when Ritz can make unilateral decisions and when she must follow the board’s guidance is revisited at nearly every board meeting, including a long debate on Wednesday that ended with the the board approving a measure to ask the legislature to alter the responsibilities of the board and the state superintendent over her objections.

“Something had to be done,” said state board member Brad Oliver, who attended Pence’s speech. “We could not stay on the course we were on. Nobody’s happy. It’s always been a shared governance system. When any one entity starts saying ‘I am the sole authority’ we’re in trouble.”

Pence’s speech was billed as a preview of his entire legislative agenda, but he pivoted quickly to education as a focus of nearly all the proposals he announced today.

“I think the coming legislative session should be (an) education session and we should focus on our kids and teachers and what’s happening in our classrooms in Indiana,” he said.

Among other major proposals he said would be coming would be an overhaul of the state school funding system to emphasize “performance,” expanding on a smaller effort by the legislature to provide extra aid for districts with good academic results. He will also ask to expand a program that provides bonuses to highly rated teachers, he said.

For a program he called “freedom to teach,” Pence said he would ask the legislature to give the state board authority to grant waivers from some state regulations to school districts that want to try innovative ways to “focus resources on student learning.” More information on that proposal would come later, he said.

Pence also called for a further expansion of choice by allowing more money to flow to private schools that accept vouchers and bringing public charter schools to more cities.

Although Republicans hold huge majorities in both houses of the state legislature, the Democratic leader in the Senate, Sen. Tim Lanane of Anderson, was hopeful there would be room for compromise on Pence’s proposals.

“The governor doesn’t always get what he has asks for with the supermajority Republican legislature,” he said. “Maybe there will be some thought that we have to study that a little bit more before we actually enact it this coming session.”

'indigenized' curriculum

Denver doesn’t graduate half of its Native American students. This charter school wants to change that.

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Tanski Chrisjohn gets help adjusting the microphone at a school board meeting from Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

The Denver school district is not serving Native American students well. Fewer than one in four Native American sixth-graders were reading and writing on grade-level last year, according to state tests, and the high school graduation rate was just 48 percent.

Even though that percentage is lower than for black or Latino students, educator Terri Bissonette said it often feels as if no one is paying attention.

“Nobody says anything out loud,” said Bissonette, a member of the Gnoozhekaaning Anishinaabe tribe who graduated from Denver Public Schools and has worked in education for 20 years as a teacher and consultant. “We’re always listed as ‘others.’”

Bissonette aims to change that by opening a charter school called the American Indian Academy of Denver. The plan is to start in fall 2019 with 120 students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades and then expand into high school one grade at a time. Any interested student will be able to enroll, no matter their racial or ethnic background.

The Denver school board unanimously and enthusiastically approved the charter last week – which is notable given enrollment growth is slowing districtwide and some board members have expressed concerns about approving too many new schools.

But the American Indian Academy of Denver would be unlike any other school in the city. The curriculum would focus on science, technology, engineering, art, and math – or STEAM, as it’s known – and lessons would be taught through an indigenous lens.

Bissonette gives a poignant example. In sixth grade, state academic standards dictate students learn how European explorers came to North America.

“When you’re learning that unit, you’re on the boat,” Bissonette said. “I’d take that unit and I’d flip it. You’d be on the beach, and those boats would be coming.”

Antonio Garcia loves that example. The 17-year-old cites it when talking about why the school would be transformational for Native American youth, a population that has historically been forced – sometimes violently – to assimilate into white culture. For decades, Native American children were sent to boarding schools where their hair was cut and their languages forbidden.

Garcia is a member of the Jicarilla Apache, Diné, Mexikah, and Maya tribes. A senior at Denver’s East High School, he recalls elementary school classmates asking if he lived in a teepee and teachers singling him out to share the indigenous perspective on that day’s lesson.

“Indigenous students don’t have a place in Denver Public Schools,” Garcia said. “We’re underrepresented. And when we are represented, it’s through tokenism.”

According to the official student count, 592 of Denver’s nearly 93,000 students this year are Native American. That’s less than 1 percent, although Bissonette suspects the number is actually higher because some families don’t tick the box for fear of being stigmatized or because they identify as both Native American and another race.

The district does provide extra support for Native American students. Four full-time and three part-time staff members coordinate mentorships, cultural events, college campus visits, and other services, according to district officials. In addition, five Denver schools are designated as Native American “focus schools.” The focus schools are meant to centralize the enrollment of Native American students, in part so they feel less isolated, officials said.

But it isn’t working that way. While the number of students at some of the schools is slightly higher than average, there isn’t a large concentration at any one of them. Supporters of the American Indian Academy of Denver hope the charter will serve that role.

“It’s very hard being the only Native person that my friends know,” second-grader Vivian Sheely told the school board last week. “It would be nice to see other families that look like my own.”

That sense of belonging is what Shannon Subryan wants for her children, too. Subryan and her daughters are members of the Navajo and Lakota tribes. Her 7-year-old, Cheyenne, has struggled to find a school that works for her. Because Cheyenne is quiet in class, Subryan said teachers have repeatedly suggested she be tested for learning disabilities.

“Our children are taught that listening before speaking is more valued than speaking right away,” Subryan said. “She understands everything. It’s just a cultural thing.”

After switching schools three times, Cheyenne ended up at a Denver elementary with a teacher who shares her Native American and Latina heritage. She’s thrived there, but Subryan worries what will happen when Cheyenne gets a new teacher next year. As soon as Cheyenne is old enough, Subryan plans to enroll her at the American Indian Academy of Denver.

In addition to the school’s “indigenized” curriculum, Bissonette envisions inviting elders into the classrooms to share stories and act as academic tutors, exposing students to traditional sports and games, and teaching them Native American languages. Above all, she said the school will work to hire high-quality teachers, whether they’re Native American or not.

The school is partly modeled on a successful charter school in New Mexico called the Native American Community Academy. Opened in 2006, it has a dual focus on academic rigor and student wellness. Last year, 71 percent of its graduates immediately enrolled in college, school officials said. In Denver, only 38 percent of Native American graduates immediately enrolled.

Several years ago, the New Mexico school launched a fellowship program for educators who want to open their own schools focused on better serving Native American students. Bissonette will be the first Colorado educator to be a fellow when she starts this year.

She and her founding board of directors are hoping to open the American Indian Academy of Denver in a private facility somewhere in southwest Denver. That region is home to the Denver Indian Center and has historically had a larger population of Native American families.

However, she said she and her board members realize the Native American population isn’t big enough to support a school alone. More than half of all Denver students are Latino, and they expect the school’s demographics to reflect that. Many Latino students also identify as indigenous, and Bissonette is confident they’ll be attracted to the model.

“This really is a school from us, about us,” she said.

COUNTING TNREADY

School boards across Tennessee scrap TNReady scores from students’ grades

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki

As the school year comes to a close following the standardized testing debacle that concluded in Tennessee this month, many school districts have decided the scores won’t count toward students’ final grades.

Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest district, will take up the issue Tuesday when the school board meets in a work session.

Earlier this year, the district was one of about half of the state’s school systems that reported to the state it likely would not use the scores because the results were not expected to be received at least five school days before the end of the year. But that early tally was unofficial.

“The survey was just to let us know what they were planning for so we could have a sense of what districts were planning on doing, but it was not binding in any way,” said Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

Now, one by one, a growing number of districts are opting not to count the scores against students whenever the results are released.

This year’s online testing was plagued with a series of testing snafus, including login troubles, an apparent cyberattack, a dump truck cutting a fiber optic line and the wrong test being issued to some students. It’s the third year in a row that TNReady testing has gone wrong.

Bartlett City Schools decided during a special school board session last week not to use the scores on high school report cards after previously saying it would. So did the Franklin Special School District. The week before, Williamson County, Blount County, and Collierville school board members voted the same.

Millington Municipal Schools also will not be using the scores in that district’s final grades. But the district decided in December not to include the scores, said Stacy Ross, a spokesperson for the district.

“The decision was made because the scores from testing would not be back in time for final report cards,” Ross said in a statement to Chalkbeat.

It’s unclear of the 71 school districts that had initially said they planned to count the scores, how many have changed their minds.

Greene County is one of a few districts that has decided to count the scores as 15 percent of students’ final grades.

Before this year’s testing challenges, state law had required that the high school end-of-course exams count for 15 percent of a high school student’s final grade unless the scores came in too late for report cards.

But after the testing snafus, legislators left it in the hands of school boards to decide how much to count TNReady scores — if at all — toward students’ grades.

High school raw scores are expected to be delivered electronically to districts by May 22 and grades 3-8 scores are expected to be available by June 15, according to the state.