outlook unclear

Advocates of all stripes wonder: How would Hogsett approach education?

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Tindley Accelerated School was one of the first 10 mayor-sponsored charter schools to open in Indianapolis. Now the mayor's office oversees 35 charter schools.

To Robert Vane, a Republican strategist who used to work for Mayor Greg Ballard, there is only one sensible posture for an Indianapolis mayor to have on education.

“I believe the mayor has to be an activist,” he said.

That’s a common sentiment among both Republicans and Democrats who have been involved in pushing for changes in the way the city’s schools are run.

Advocates on both sides of the political fence say they are optimistic about Joe Hogsett, who has emerged in the last month as a leading contender for mayor in 2016. But they also admit that they really don’t know much about what he thinks about charter schools, the structure of the Indianapolis Public School Board and other issues that the next mayor is likely to confront.

“I don’t know where he is on education issues,” said Gordon Hendry, a member of the Indiana State Board of Education and a former deputy mayor under Ballard’s Democratic predecessor, Bart Peterson. “But I think, should Joe Hoggsett be elected mayor, he would be an activist. That’s the kind of guy he is. He would want to roll up his sleeves and consider the best policies possible.”

The fast-changing mayor’s race has raised questions about the possibility of a change in direction for the city’s approach to education.

Just months ago, at the summer’s end, there was every reason to believe Ballard would be a formidable candidate seeking a third term in 2016. A third term likely would have meant a continued push for charter schools. Over his six years in office, Ballard has aggressively backed the opening of new charter schools and other changes.

But Ballard announced last month that he would not run, followed by Hogsett’s announcement that he would. Since then, the other Democrat in the race, state Rep. Ed Delaney, ended his campaign, and the Indianapolis Star reported the Republicans have so far struggled to recruit a replacement for Ballard.

That means the chances that the city’s mayoral leadership could switch political parties, as it did in 2008 when Ballard defeated Peterson, are considerably greater.

Just how much a party switch would matter when it comes to education is unclear. Peterson and Ballard shared the view that Indianapolis needed more good schools, and both supported expanding the city’s charter sector: Peterson was the first mayor in the nation to sponsor charter schools, and Ballard nearly doubled the number of mayor-sponsored charter schools to 35 this year.

Their bipartisan support for charter schools means the publicly funded but privately managed schools are here to stay, said David Harris, a former Peterson aide who helped him co-found The Mind Trust, a nonprofit that advocates for educational change, including charter schools, in Indianapolis.

“I don’t see how anyone could be a candidate for mayor and do anything but embrace the success of the charter sector that we have in Indianapolis,” he said. “My expectation would be whoever wins, we will have someone who is supportive of the charter sector.”

Joe Hogsett
Joe Hogsett

Indeed, in an interview last week with Chalkbeat, Hogsett said he supports charter schools. But how strong that support would be, and where he would stand on other issues, remains to be seen, and in some ways Hogsett sounded very different from Ballard and Peterson.

He cited his early legal work on behalf the Indiana State Teachers Association — the state’s largest teachers union — and called teacher pay his top education issue. Ballard and charter school advocates have been at odds with the ISTA, which argues charter schools, which are almost always non-union, often mean less pay and fewer job protections for teachers.

Rather than describe himself as a force for change focused heavily on inner-city schools in the mold of Peterson and Ballard on education, Hogsett pitched himself in a more centrist role. He said he hoped to be a “convener” of conversations about education and a “cheerleader” for public education, promising that his focus would extend beyond charter schools and Indianapolis Public Schools.

“I think how I might be different than previous mayors is I intend to be fully engaged and immersed in how education is being delivered in all four corners of this county,” Hogsett said. “We do tend to focus on IPS, with good reason admittedly. But the mayor must not lose sight of the fact that there are 11 school corporations in this city. Each of them are worthy of the mayor’s time and attention.”

Hendry cautioned that there is no reason to believe Hogsett would act differently than his predecessor when it comes to advocating for charter schools or creating urgency to improve schools in the center city.

“He’s always been a visionary so I think I would place him more in the Mayor Bart Peterson camp,” he said. “I think he will listen to the best minds within our party and formulate the best policies.”

That’s what Vane expects, too, citing the fact that both Hogsett and Peterson are strongly connected politically, having both worked for former Indiana governor and U.S. senator Evan Bayh.

“I would be absolutely shocked, and really dismayed, if he walked us back,” Vane said.

While the prospect of a Hogsett mayoralty is drawing bipartisan optimism, there are also people on both sides of the aisle who are wary about his education outlook.

Some Republicans worry that Hogsett will be too heavily influenced by unions and Democratic lawmakers who have raised concerns about charter schools and the education policy shifts of the last decade.

“There is a certain faction of the Democratic Party that has never embraced the sort of reforms that we have done in Indiana,” Vane said. “If they took over in the city of Indianapolis and held too much sway it would impact the kids who need it most.”

And Democrats who are wary about recent education policy changes hope that Hogsett would be more cautious than Ballard about school choice and accountability.

“He needs to be very cognizant of what the majority of people within the Democratic Party believe,” said Rep. Greg Porter, a Democrat from Indianapolis. “The party is not as fractured as people say.”

Despite Hogsett’s ISTA connection, the union’s president, Teresa Meredith, said she is looking forward to meeting with him to learn more about his views. Hogsett, she said, should rely on teachers to inform his policy choices.

“There are some great teacher leaders around the city,” she said. “It would be smart of him to talk with them before he came down strongly committed on any policy in education. He needs to hear what teachers think. He need to hear what it’s like to deal with student poverty issues every single day, so he has a true understanding of the whole picture of what it’s like in Indianapolis.”

Porter also is among the high profile Democratic leaders lining up to meet with Hogsett to discuss education and other issues with him. In the meantime, he said he hopes that Hogsett sees education as part of the puzzle for improving the city, along with neighborhood revitalization and other efforts, rather than as a silver bullet.

“He needs to understand all the complexities going on: mobility, neighborhood stabilization and education,” Porter said. “All of that is important.”

For true believers in charter schools, including those who are Democrats, the myriad issues facing the city is exactly why they hope Hogsett would continue Ballard’s and Peterson’s support.

“To me the most important thing for the future of the city is we continue to advance school reform,” Harris said. “If we are unable to do that it would make all other goals for the city impossible to achieve.”

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.