Building Better Schools

ISTEP cheating bill dies but idea could be revived, author says

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Flanner House charter school closed in September in the wake of a cheating scandal.

Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, wants Indiana to look more closely for schools with odd state test results that might suggest cheating, but a bill he wrote to create that process is on the shelf — for now.

Behning said he decided not to call down House Bill 1639 for a vote today, the last day for the Indiana House to pass bills for the Senate to consider beginning next month, after hot debates over other education issues took center stage.

This past week, some were surprised to see bills supported by Republican leaders, including Behning, who is chairman of the House Education Committee, defeated. Among them were House Bill 1072 to broaden the Indiana State Board of Education’s oversight of testing. In the Senate, a Republican-authored bill to institute a state civics test requirement was also defeated.

“Timing was probably not the best,” Behning said.

The bill would have asked the Indiana Department of Education to work with the state board to craft procedures to investigate unusual ISTEP results.

Last year, an investigation at Flanner House charter school found that the school had cheated on its 2013 ISTEP test, leading the school to close its doors in September. Behning said the bill was inspired partially by that situation.

In that case, Flanner House’s ISTEP passing rate jumped from one of the worst in the state to among the best in one year. That caught the eye of the charter school’s sponsor, Mayor Greg Ballard’s office, which asked the state to investigate. State investigators found teachers at the school changed student answers on ISTEP.

The bill would also give parents more and easier access to student test results, an issue Behning said the education department has agreed could be improved.

“(The bill would) empower parents, especially of kids in poverty, to give them more tools from the information that we glean from the ISTEP test to be able to help their own children in terms of remediation, in terms of enrichment,” Behning said. “The department of education does provide some of that data, but it’s online, and a lot of it is very technical.”

Behning said he probably will look to add those proposals to other bills as amendments when the legislature resumes its work next month.

The House did pass another education bill Behning authored: House Bill 1638, which would establish “transformation zones.” Under the bill, schools or groups of schools could receive permission to try out innovative plans at schools with students consistently getting low test scores. The bill passed 66-31.

The transformation zone idea, pioneered by Evansville schools, would be less intrusive than state takeover, under which the state hires outside organizations to run failing schools, and Republican lawmakers said it would let districts have more local control of efforts to improve test scores and school culture.

“It tries to do more local control,” Behning said. “The goal of this is to have community leaders, administrators and teachers try to improve the turnaround of a school.”

The bill would also change the timeline for school turnaround. Now, schools receiving D or F grades for four years would be up for state intervention, rather than the current requirement of six straight years of F grades.

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee has already asked the state board of education to let him try a transformation plan in his district. House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said passing this bill would give all districts the ability to create these kinds of school improvement plans. Evansville and IPS needed special permission from the state board to do so, he said.

But opponents said the bill gives too much authority to the state board, not only to designate which schools or districts might be considered “failing,” but also to approve and oversee any plans for transformation zones.

Those plans could let school districts partner with outside organizations to help manage the schools, a move Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, called “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

“It’s not about the children,” Smith said. “It’s about these transformation zone teams making money off our children stuck in poor socioeconomic positions in life.”

The bill will next be considered by the Senate in early March.

smaller cohort

Smaller cohort of charter schools to open in Memphis in 2018

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Daphnè Robinson, director of charter schools for Shelby County Schools, offers recommendations to the school board.

With charter schools comprising a fourth of Shelby County Schools, district leaders say they’re setting a higher bar for opening new ones in Memphis.

The school board approved only three out of 14 applications on Tuesday night, just months after the district overhauled its charter school office to strengthen oversight of the growing sector.

Opening in 2018 will be Believe Memphis Academy, Freedom Preparatory Academy, and Perea Elementary. The approvals mean the district will oversee 55 charter schools, easily the largest number of any district in Tennessee.

But it’s significantly less than last year, when the board green-lighted seven applicants. Since then, Shelby County Schools has doubled the size of its charter oversight office and stepped up scrutiny of applications.

“We want to strengthen the process every school year because, when it comes down to it, the lives of our kids are at stake and millions of dollars in taxpayer money,” said Brad Leon, chief of strategy and performance management.

This year, the district hired a new leader and new staff for its charter office. It’s also using several application reviewers from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, the group that last year recommended a slew of changes for opening, managing and closing charter schools.

But even with all the changes, the school board didn’t follow all of the staff’s recommendations. Perea’s application had been recommended for denial but, after much discussion, the board voted 7-2 to let the group open an elementary school inside the recently closed Klondike Elementary building. Board members pointed to Perea’s long record of success in operating a preschool at Klondike.

The other two approvals were in line with staff recommendations. Believe Memphis Academy will be a literacy-focused college preparatory school serving students in grades 4-8 in the city’s medical district. Memphis-based Freedom Prep will open its fifth school, which eventually will serve grades 6-12 in the Whitehaven and Nonconnah communities.

Board member Teresa Jones expressed concern about deviating from staff recommendations on Perea.

“We have a process. And by all accounts, it’s not a perfect process, but it’s been applied to everyone,” she said.

But Billy Orgel, another board member, said the charter office should have taken into account the long-standing preschool’s performance, even though it’s never operated an elementary school.

“There is a track record with the funders. There is a track record with the school,” he said, adding that “no process is perfect.”

Groups vying for approval this year wanted to open schools that range from an all-girls program to a sports academy to several focused on science, technology, engineering and math.

Feeling flexible

How five Aurora schools in an “innovation zone” are making budget decisions to meet their own needs

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Crawford Elementary School Principal Jenny Passchier observed a writing lesson in October 2015.

When Aurora Public Schools went looking for ways to save money earlier this year, one casualty was a district-wide contract for a service that provides a translator on the phone when one is not available in person.

The decision could have hurt Crawford Elementary School, where students speak about 35 languages and the service is used at least weekly— more at the start of the school year.

But Principal Jenny Passchier was not without options. As one of five schools that comprise Aurora Public Schools’ year-old innovation zone, Crawford has greater autonomy from district rules and budgeting decisions.

So when school resumed a couple of weeks ago, families at the five innovation zone schools got phone calls they could understand because leaders of the schools chose to keep paying for the translation and drop other district services to make up the difference.

“It’s very critical that we have some way to get ahold of our families,” Passchier said. “Especially in maybe more informal situations. We don’t always have translators that are readily available in person, so that was a critical piece that we needed to keep.”

That decision provides a window into what autonomy looks like in Aurora’s innovation zone, Superintendent Rico Munn’s biggest reform bet to date to lift achievement in a district with a challenging student population and poor academic track record.

With the innovation zone, Aurora officials are turning to a school model that other districts across the state and country have tried, with mixed results. Innovation status provides schools charter school-like autonomy, but the schools are operated by the district instead of independently.

The five schools in northwest Aurora started rolling out their innovation plans last school year.

Taking advantage of the state’s innovation law, APS officials created the zone to give schools greater flexibility from some state laws, union or district policies so principals could govern things like curriculum, hiring practices, school calendars and budgets in ways that might improve achievement at their schools.

Last year, in the first year of innovation status, district officials worked with principals of the five schools in the zone to figure out what district services they could do without, and what extra services they wanted to pay for with the money they might have instead.

Principals started by looking at what their school needed help with and then district officials worked with them to analyze how well the existing services worked.

In the case of the TeleLanguage service, district officials calculated that the average district school used the translation service for about 909 minutes, or about 15 hours, per school year. But each of the five schools in the innovation zone used the service for about 2,978 minutes per school year — about three times as often as the average district school.

After the analysis, the five schools decided to drop several services, including cutting the district’s human resources department, and in exchange the schools were given about $500,000 extra in the 2017-18 budget.

How the money is being spent

  • Translation services, $14,000
  • Health Sciences Academy at Aurora Central, $30,000
  • College and career services, $30,000
  • Parent support budget for Student Engagement Advocate, $5,000
  • Talent acquisition and marketing budget, $40,000
  • Three full-time positions, $305,189
  • Individual school supports: Crawford, $20,000; Paris, $20,000; Boston K-8, $20,000; Aurora West, $30,000; Aurora Central, $36,000

“I led all five principals through the process of evaluating the needs of their schools,” said Lamont Browne, executive director of autonomous schools, including the innovation zone. “My approach was very much facilitating what ideas they had for who they were.”

As a zone, the five schools created three new positions with the extra $500,000. The schools hired a student engagement advocate to help communicate with families and improve student attendance (a position that would no longer exist at the district level); a director of instruction and leadership development; and a director of talent and acquisition to pick up some of the district HR department’s traditional duties.

The woman hired for that last role already has helped the five schools fill positions that still were open as school started.

Passchier described the budget redesign process as collaborative and said she spent a lot of time reflecting on her school’s needs.

“We were able to identify what are the zone-wide themes that we can support, but also what are unique things we need at the school level,” Browne said.

Each school made ia case for its own funding needs. For instance, Aurora Central High School hired an additional student engagement advocate that would be dedicated just to the 2,000-student high school. One of the staff person’s primary responsibilities: helping improve poor attendance.

Passchier said Crawford staff wanted to continue some reading work they’d done with a grant that was ending. The school is now using about $5,000 to continue work with a consultant the school found helpful in teaching students to read.

Officials say it’s too early to know how well the redesigned budget is working for the schools, but Passchier said she’s already seeing benefits two weeks into the school year.

The director of student engagement, who will work with the five schools to help them engage families and students with a goal of increasing attendance, already has been at Crawford several times, Passchier said.

Browne said that if principals find other district services they want to reconsider or analyze as the school year unfolds, the budget for the five schools may change.