Early Education

IPS ended 2014 with a $4.1 million surplus despite less state aid

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
IPS will give bonuses to many support staffers and administrators. But AFSCME Local 661 has not ratified the contract.

Indianapolis Public Schools weathered a deep $10 million dip in state aid last year compared to 2013 but still finished 2014 with a small $4.1 million surplus it put toward savings.

The district had planned for some of that drop in aid, but Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said it still took $5 million in new budget cuts last year to produce a savings. IPS spent $232.5 million last year from its general fund, which pays for day-to-day operating costs like salaries, benefits, learning materials and utilities.

“We’re doing better due diligence in terms of projecting and monitoring our revenue and expenditures,” Ferebee said. “Since this administration came on board last school year, there have been efforts to restructure. We’ve received less funding but we’re also being better stewards of the funding that we receive.”

Part of the reason IPS saw so much less state aid come in last year was because of some extra dollars the district received in 2013, notably a $6 million payback from the state after a court ruled it overcharged the district for the cost of operating four failing schools it took over and turned over to outside operators. But at the same time, the state has been reducing the basic per student state aid amount for high poverty districts for several years, which has meant less money for IPS.

So Ferebee looked internally for cost savings.

He trimmed $1.5 million from the administrative payroll of the central office. Critics have long complained that IPS was overly bureaucratic. Ferebee agreed, saying he saved money but cutting jobs and spreading those duties to other administrators.

After Ferebee presented his year-end financial report to the Indianapolis Public School Board on Tuesday, board members said they want to push even harder to save money, especially because school funding has become a key issue for lawmakers this year and Ferebee has said he is concerned that IPS could see even deeper cuts in state aid going forward.

Since taking over as superintendent in late 2013, Ferebee has pushed IPS to be more open about its financial situation, beginning with his shocking revelation last March that a $30 million budget deficit claimed by prior administrations did not exist. Ferebee said IPS in the past had systematically overestimated its budget. He has since invited independent audits that largely confirmed his findings, fired the district’s prior financial chief and began giving the board more frequent and specific updates on the district’s financial state.

Board member Kelly Bentley, a longtime critic of the district’s financial reporting in a prior stint on the board, said lawmakers setting the state’s next budget should understand that even small reductions in per-student funding make a big difference for districts like IPS. For each student, IPS received $7,058 in tuition support last month, according to IPS. Compare that with $7,209 back in January 2013.

Losing that $150 per student costs IPS about $4.6 million — or nearly equivalent to the district’s entire 2015 budget for school security.

“It’s important to let them know what we’re spending our money on,” Bentley said. “Sometimes it’s difficult for legislators to grasp that $150 (less) per pupil is a significant amount of money.”

IPS Treasurer Paul Carpenter-Wilson said the district is losing money partly because of a change in the way Indiana counts students. Enrollment is counted twice a year now, in September and February, and adjustments are made to raise or lower funding if enrollment grows or falls. In the past, enrollment was only counted once in September. The district’s estimates for how much aid it will receive based on September’s count did not anticipate lost enrollment that was evident in the February count.

Fewer students in February meant a cut in state aid in the following months.

“As the state continues with two (count days) and financial adjustments made for each, we will continue to refine our projections using these new data methods in order to be as accurate as possible,” Carpenter-Wilson said.

More cost savings for IPS are expected this year. IPS administrators said their plans in 2015 include:

    • Selling off vacant former school buildings. IPS plans to lease or sell three former school buildings — School 21, School 78 and School 92 — that all have been vacant for at least six years.  Scott Martin, IPS’s operations director, said the district is losing money by maintaining and securing buildings that aren’t being used. Private groups have expressed interest in buying the former schools and turning them into everything from senior citizen housing to preschool centers, Ferebee said, but charter school groups have so far not shown interest as the buildings need significant repairs.
    • Replacing older buses with new, efficient models. About 40 percent of the district’s fleet of 305 buses are at least 12 years old. IPS transports about a third of its students on those buses and pays Durham School Services nearly $25 million annually to bus the rest. IPS will seek to sell the older buses and buy new ones that use less fuel and have lower maintenance costs.
    • Refinancing bonds. IPS estimates it could save up to $1 million each year — and more than $13 million over the life of the bonds — by refinancing two bonds at lower interest rates.

Early readers

Tennessee wants to boost third-grade literacy. Here’s why it’s looking to early childhood education as the answer.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks at the University of Memphis about reading and early childhood education.

Calling reading the “equity issue of our time,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday that Tennessee will increase its literacy rates when it improves the quality of its early education programs.

The state has been waging war on illiteracy for years but is zeroing in on pre-K and other early education programs as the best vehicles to get 75 percent its third-graders reading on grade level by 2025. Currently less than half of its students are there.

Beginning this year, the state attached more strings for local districts to receive pre-K funding, tying the amount received to the quality of programming instead of the volume of students.

But McQueen said the state still has a lot to learn about developing young readers, and data is key.

“Before kids get to third grade, we have very little information statewide with whether or not those students are on track,” McQueen said. “We have very little data statewide to know where we should be putting investments.”

The state is seeking to fill that void by working with local leaders to better track its youngest students to determine what’s working best. In Memphis, Porter-Leath is taking the lead in that effort. The nonprofit organization opened a major pre-K center this year to serve as a teacher training hub to bolster the quality of all of the city’s pre-K classrooms.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
From left: Sandra Allen of LeBonheur Center for Children and Parents, Rafel Hart of Porter-Leath, Sharon Griffin of Shelby County Schools, and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

McQueen was part of an early reading panel discussion hosted in Memphis by Tennesseans for Quality Early Education and the PeopleFirst Partnership. The event featured Shelby County Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin, state Rep. Mark White, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and Tennessee first lady Crissy Haslam, who has championed literacy during her husband’s administration.

Since launching its Read to be Ready initiative last year, Tennessee has invested $30 million in summer reading camps and another $4.2 million in a coaching network to support teachers with literacy instruction.

The stakes are high because reading is foundational to lifelong learning — and is critical to closing the achievement gap.

“When kids are not reading on grade level by third grade, they are four times less likely graduate high school,” McQueen said. “Kids scoring in the lowest proficiency level on literacy almost never catch up. Guess who is in that bottom level? Students who are African American. Students who are Latino. Students with disabilities. Students who are English language learners.”

(Very) early education

Bank Street heads to East New York to help child care providers play to their strengths

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Sherease Alston sings along with children at her child care center, Little Minds at Work.

One little girl would simply repeat anything that was said to her, rather than answer basic questions like, “How are you?” Another toddler seemed more active than the other children — maybe too active. But Sherease Alston, who has run a child care center from her living room for the past six years, was often met with skepticism when she would share her observations with parents.

The hard part isn’t noticing when a child may have a developmental issue, she explained. It’s getting the child’s parents to recognize it, too.

“It’s hard for parents to see sometimes because they’re in denial,” she said.

A cold call from a leading education school helped change that. With the help of the new Guttman Center for Early Care and Education at the Bank Street College of Education, Alston came up with a strategy to help parents see what she sees. Now, she asks them to log their children’s behavior at home, so those logs can be compared against ones kept by the daycare, Little Minds at Work.

“It was easy to see once it was all documented,” Alston said. “It was an easy tool to use to open that door for our parents.”

New York City is in the midst of a massive push to expand access to early childhood education — and to make sure quality keeps up. Site evaluations and teacher training have been a centerpiece of the city’s free pre-K program, which now serves 70,000 4-year-olds and is expanding to enroll 3-year-olds, too.

The city is slated to bring its pre-K model to children as young as six weeks old, with plans to transfer responsibility for publicly funded childcare programs from the Administration for Children’s Services to the education department. Making that shift will require the city to turn its attention to a vast network of providers like Alston — those who are already working with infants and toddlers in their communities.

That’s where the Guttman Center is focusing its attention. Working with providers on the ground in low-income neighborhoods, the Center wants to help them solve problems and improve their care.

“We really wanted … to have the input of the community, acknowledge the exceptional range of abilities that already exists, and partner with them,” said Director Robin Hancock. “The beauty of having all these perspectives in the classroom is people are constantly hearing from other corners in the field.”

Across the country, early childhood advocates have taken a similar approach, working to meet providers where they are — and build on their strengths. In Colorado, for example, community organizations have trained the aunts, neighbors and other caregivers who form an often invisible network of care. The state has also paid special attention to helping Spanish-speaking providers earn early childhood credentials.

In New York City, the scale of the challenge is huge. ACS currently oversees programs that serve about 20,000 children ages 3 or younger. A recent report by the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs found that home-based providers especially struggle with a labyrinth of safety and compliance requirements, understanding what is developmentally appropriate for very young children, and enduring long hours for low pay.

Guttman’s work represents one step in helping child care workers navigate those issues. The first cohort of providers was drawn from East New York — one of two neighborhoods (along with the South Bronx) where the city is launching its pilot for free pre-K for 3-year-olds this fall. The Guttman program was created for even younger children, from infants to 2-year-olds.

Providers meet on Saturdays every other week for a semester, and coursework centers on topics like building partnerships with families and caring relationships with students. Group discussions are paired with on-site coaching.

“The goal really is for them to be able to look at their own practice and to understand what’s working and what is not,” said Margie Brickley, a program director for the Bank Street Graduate School of Education, who helped develop the Guttman curriculum.

Ultimately, the program hopes to create a community of support for providers who often find themselves working in isolation. Already, some have opened up their sites to visits from other providers to observe good practices in action and share ideas.

“The first 36 months of life are critical for cognitive development and we’re building the foundation for learning,” said Johannah Chase, then an associate dean at Bank Street. “It’s part of the reason why we’re putting so much of our energy into child caregivers.”

Kiara Dash, an assistant at Little Minds at Work, reads to Thravis Ealey. (Photo: Christina Veiga)

On a recent morning at Little Minds at Work, five squirmy toddlers and an infant gathered on a rug made of giant foam puzzle pieces. Sunlight streamed in through two windows facing a quiet residential street. The group sang about their feelings and assistant Vanesha Mayers playfully wiggled one boy’s fingers and toes as they counted to 20.

Before joining the Guttman program, Alston said she took a more academic approach to working with the very young children in her care — which often led to frustration for both her and the kids. Guttman helped her refocus her curriculum around play and building relationships.

“That was an eye-opener,” she said. “They helped me understand their needs.”

Brickley said Alston’s struggle is common. Often, providers simply “water down” programs meant for older children even though infants and toddlers have very different needs.

On the other hand, Alston said she is adept at juggling the business and regulatory aspects of her business — something she can help other providers learn.

Hancock, the center’s director, said the program was built to recognize providers’ different abilities and fill gaps as needed. That tailored approach respects the knowledge providers already bring to the table, she said, and helps create a culture of trust.

“We really want to make sure to help providers build confidence that they are experts,” she said. “They know their environments and they know their children best.”

Correction: This post has been updated with the correct spelling of Johannah Chase’s name.