Future of Schools

IPS chooses struggling School 103 as Phalen 'innovation' school

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
F-rated School 103 became a Phalen Leadership Academy-managed school this year, launching a new "innovation school network" in IPS.

A long-struggling Indianapolis Public Schools elementary on the city’s Far Eastside will next year be transformed into a Phalen Leadership Academy under a deal between the district and the charter school group.

IPS announced Tuesday that School 103, also called Francis Scott Key, was selected for the district’s first compact with an outside group to independently manage a school inside its boundaries. The school has been graded an F by the state for four straight years and just 15 percent of students passed the ISTEP last year. The district’s average pass rate is more than three times that.

IPS in January approved a request from Phalen Leadership Academy‘s Earl Martin Phalen and Marlon Llewellyn — winners of The Mind Trust’s innovation school fellowship — to turn around the chronically failing school using a model that’s worked in their Indianapolis charter school. But the school wasn’t chosen until now.

“We’re humbled by the size of the responsibility,” Phalen said. “It’s in one of our tougher communities. We’re really excited … to give children an education and a pathway to improve their lives and their future.”

IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee did not immediately respond to a request for comment about why he chose the school for the partnership.

The school has received extra supports over the past year since Ferebee labeled it as one of the district’s priority buildings because of students’ declining grades on state tests. And the school board voted last week against renewing the contract for school’s former principal, Shelia Burlock, along with a host of other administrators.

Parent Trisha Gunn, who has four children that attend School 103, described the school as “rowdy” and said she believes it’s in need of a complete overhaul. She said she hasn’t been impressed with the school leadership or teachers.

“They can call us when our kids are hitting another student, but they can’t call us and let us know what their grades are,” Gunn said. “I was devastated when I found out they had a 15 percent passing rate.”

Gunn, who said she was considering pulling her kids out of IPS before she heard about the Phalen partnership, said she hopes new leadership improves the learning environment. Gunn last year graduated from advocacy group Stand for Children’s parent engagement course.

“Those teachers need guidance,” Gunn said. “I think they need someone to come in and say, ‘You’re not doing this on your own and we’re here to help.’ All those teachers fall back on that one principal who’s in charge of that school.”

Phalen said from state test scores alone it is clear that the school, which has 324 students from preschool to sixth grade, is in need of a massive intervention. The school’s passing rate on the ISTEP has fallen 15 percent in two years.

“I know that well more than 15 percent of the children there have the capacity to master both sides of the ISTEP exam,” Phalen said. “We feel confident that we’ll be able to create a culture … that is nurturing, loving, warm and fun but also has high standards and high expectations.”

The group also hopes to forge partnerships with other community social services groups.

“It will be a great thing for that neighborhood,” said The Mind Trust President David Harris. “We all know what a high-quality school can do for a community, for attracting families and businesses. This will have reverberations for this community beyond just the students.”

Llewellyn will take over the school next year as its principal. He formerly worked in IPS, followed by stints at Fountain Square Academy charter school and working for Tindley Schools, a charter school group, as a dean at Arlington High School, a former IPS school it manages in state takeover.

Teachers at the school were told on Tuesday that the school would be reconstituted. Phalen said teachers can either request a transfer to teach at other IPS schools or apply to Phalen Leadership Academy. Teachers at the school next year will not be part of the union since Phalen is a charter school network.

The Phalen school model relies on a longer school day and “blended learning,” a process by which students do some lessons by computer on their own and some teacher-led lessons.” Phalen Leadership Academy’s Indianapolis charter school, which opened in 2013, has not yet earned an A to F grade under the state’s accountability system.

That model costs money. Last year some board members scoffed at the group’s proposal to spend about $14,000 per child. Board member Sam Odle questioned whether the model would require extra support from philanthropy on top of what IPS receives from state and federal sources. IPS received $7,058 per student from the state this year.

Phalen said he is in the process of negotiating a contract with IPS to finalize how to pay for the school model.

“We have not finalized the funding piece, but we’re in conversations and are optimistic and positive that we’ll find a way to put together the right agreement,” Phalen said.

The partnership between IPS and Phalen is the result of a state law signed last year called Public Law 1321 which allows compacts between the district and charter schools or other groups to operate schools inside the district. The schools are run independently but are accountable to IPS.

Stand for Children, an advocacy group that pushes for change at IPS and the state level, praised the partnership. Executive director Justin Ohlemiller said he hopes it’s a signal of more change to come at IPS.

“This is a huge first step that IPS deserves a lot of credit for,” Ohlemiller said. “Our membership is interested in seeing that one school becomes several in the next couple of years.”

Overhaul Efforts

The entire staffs at two troubled New York City high schools must reapply for their jobs

Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke in 2015 with Automotive High School Principal Caterina Lafergola, who later left the school. Automotive is one of eight schools where teachers have had to reapply for their jobs in recent years.Now, teachers at two more schools will have to do the same. (Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

In a bid to jumpstart stalled turnaround efforts, the entire staffs at two troubled high schools will have to reapply for their jobs — an aggressive intervention that in the past has resulted in major staff shake-ups.

The teachers, guidance counselors, social workers and paraprofessionals at Flushing High School in Queens and DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx will have to re-interview for their positions beginning next spring, education department officials said Thursday, the same day that staffers learned of the plan. Meanwhile, Flushing Principal Tyee Chin, who has clashed bitterly with teachers there, has been ousted; his replacement will take over Friday, officials said. (DeWitt Clinton’s principal will stay on.)

Both schools are part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature “Renewal” program for low-performing schools, but have struggled to hit their improvement targets. They are also under state pressure to make significant gains or face consequences, leading to speculation that the rehiring is meant partly to buy the city more time before the state intervenes. (Last year, Flushing was the only school out of two-dozen on a state list of low-achieving city schools not to meet its turnaround goals.)

“Having a strong leader and the right team of teachers is essential to a successful school,” Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement, “and this re-staffing process is the necessary next step in the work to turnaround these schools.”

The staffing change stems from an agreement between the de Blasio administration and the city teachers union, who have agreed to the same process for eight other schools since 2014. Among the six schools that went through the process last year, nearly half of the staff members left — either because they were not rehired or they chose not to reapply.

As part of the deal, hiring decisions will be made by committees at each school comprised of the principals and an equal number of union and city appointees. Unlike when former Mayor Michael Bloomberg attempted to overhaul bottom-ranked schools by replacing their principals and at least half of their teachers, these committees can choose to hire as many or as few of the current teachers as they choose.

In the past, the city has placed teachers who were not retained through the rehiring process in other schools — a move that drew criticism for overriding principals’ authority to choose their own staffs. City officials would not provide details about the arrangement for Flushing or Clinton other than to say that the education department would help teachers who left the schools find new placements.

The education department “will work with each teacher to ensure they have a year-long position at a school next year,” spokesman Michael Aciman said in an email.

Both high schools have already endured a destabilizing amount of turnover: Since 2013, more than half the teachers at both schools have left, according to the teachers union. And Flushing’s incoming principal, Ignazio Accardi, an official in the department’s Renewal office, is the sixth in six years.

The school’s outgoing principal, Tyee Chin, had a brief and troubled tenure.

Last year — his first on the job — he wrote a letter to his staff describing a toxic environment that he called “the Hunger Games for principals,” where he said some teachers keep up a “war cry” for a new leader. Meanwhile, the teachers union lodged a discrimination complaint against Chin with a state board, alleging that he threatened to press “racism and harassment” charges against the school’s union representative simply for carrying out her duties, said United Federation of Teachers Vice President of High Schools Janella Hinds.

“Principal Chin came in with an attitude that wasn’t collaborative or supportive,” Hinds said. “We’re dealing with a school community that has had a long list of principals who were not collaborative.”

Chin’s departure comes after DeWitt Clinton’s previous principal, Santiago Taveras, who also sparred with teachers, was removed last year after city investigators found he had changed student grades. He was replaced by Pierre Orbe, who will remain in his position.

The education department will host recruitment events during the spring and summer to bring in teacher applicants, who will be screened by the schools’ staffing committees, officials said.

However, it may be difficult to find seasoned teachers willing to take on such tough assignments.

When the teachers at Brooklyn’s long-struggling Automotive High School were forced to reapply for their jobs in 2015, the majority left. Many of their replacements were rookies, said then-principal Caterina Lafergola.

“Many of the schools that are going through the rehiring have a stigma attached to them,” she said last year. “It’s very hard to recruit strong candidates.”

Not long after, Lafergola left the school, too.

Future of Schools

For Indianapolis principals hoping to improve, one program says practice makes perfect

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A kindergarten student reaches for crayons during a lesson at Global Prep Academy.

Mariama Carson has spent 20 years as an educator, first as a teacher and now as principal of Global Prep Academy. But in all that time, she never found training that prepared her as well as what she learned over two weeks last summer.

Carson, along with 23 other Indianapolis school leaders, was chosen to be a fellow in a principal training program through the Relay Graduate School of Education. Almost immediately, she noticed a big difference from previous coaching she’d had: They practiced everything.

How do you teach kids the right way to walk in the hallway? They practiced it. How do you let a teacher know she’s struggling? They practiced it. What are the precise words to use in an evaluation? More practice.

“The commitment to practice is what has been so different,” Carson said. “Whatever we learn in Relay … it’s not just something someone has told you about. You’ve practiced it. You’ve lived it.”

Relay, a six-year-old New York-based organization, was founded by a cadre of leaders from high-performing charter school networks. Practice, role-playing and applied learning are at the center of their work with educators, which for five years has included a year-long principal fellowship.

In the 2016-17 school year, Relay trained about 400 school leaders in the United States. Fellows from Indianapolis were chosen and sponsored by The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit. Joe White, who directs The Mind Trust’s school support initiatives, said he was happy with the response during the last round of applications. The next cohort, whose members will be announced this month, will be larger and contain more Indianapolis Public School educators, as well as charter school principals, he said.

The Mind Trust wants to make the training “available to as many new operators as possible to continue expanding this work across the city,” White said. “We think that this is the way that we create sustainable schools that will provide high-quality results and outcomes for kids for a very long time.”

Two principals in the midst of the program told Chalkbeat that the fellowship is already changing the culture and efficiency of their schools. The principals spent the fellowship’s two-week summer training session in Denver learning how to best collect and analyze student data, give feedback to teachers and create a school building that runs smoothly.

“The practice and critical feedback we got was unlike anything I’d ever experienced,” said Mariama Carson, a principal at Global Prep Academy, which is housed in the IPS Riverside 44 building. “Usually as a principal, you don’t get that kind of feedback.”

But Relay, which also has teacher training programs, has its share of critics. Kenneth Zeichner, a researcher and professor at the University of Washington, analyzed non-university-affiliated teacher training programs, including Relay’s. Although he hasn’t looked into the principal program specifically, he said he is troubled that the teacher training curriculum emphasizes using test scores to gauge results at the expense of a more well-rounded assessment of students, who many times are coming from families living in poverty.

He also worries Relay as a whole is too focused on fast growth, rather than on proving its methods work. There have been no independent studies done on whether Relay produces better teachers than other alternative or university programs, Zeichner said, although one is underway.

“My concern about Relay is not that they exist,” Zeichner said. “If you’re going to measure the quality of a teacher education program — of any program — the independent vetting, or review, of claims about evidence (is) a baseline minimum condition.”

Chalkbeat spoke with Carson and Bakari Posey, principal at IPS School 43. The two just completed their second of several training sessions, which will continue through the rest of the school year.

Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What made you want to be part of the fellowship?

Carson: The job of a principal is so lonely. To have the opportunity to work with high-quality, hard-working principals across the country is always inviting.

Posey: I wanted to make sure that I was able to appropriately and efficiently and effectively develop the people on our team. That’s what really drew me in. It’s shaped my thinking and sharpened my lens as a leader and what I’m looking for in classrooms.

What have you learned so far that you’re implementing in your school?

Carson: It’s been transformative in how our building is run just on the cultural side. Relay has really helped us understand that especially with adult learners, you have to start with the “why.” And then we model, and the teachers (in my school) play the position as students. We go into full acting mode, and then the teachers execute that practice. For two weeks before the kids even showed up, that’s what our teachers were doing. Normally, I’d hand my teachers a packet of procedures and expectations, but we never practiced.

Posey: We’ve started to implement already … around coaching teachers — how we give that feedback and give teachers bite-sized action steps to work on instead of making a list of 12 things to do at once. If you do one thing better every single day, then you get better overall. Something else that’s big for me is student work exemplars — actually having an example of excellence for student work that the teacher creates and uses to guide feedback. Overall it’s just kind of helped to organize my thinking as a school leader and really kind of give you a little bit of a road map towards student growth and overall school success. It’s the best professional development I’ve ever been a part of.

How have teachers back in your schools responded to the changes you have introduced, including suggestions on improving instruction, evaluations, etc.?

Carson: Teachers have been responding well, and they’re getting used to this culture, a culture of practice. Even in our feedback sessions where we’re coaching teachers, it’s “OK, execute the lesson — I’ll be the student, you be the teacher.”

Posey: They’ve been receptive. It’s not coming from a place of “gotcha” or I’m trying to make you look really bad. It’s really coming from a place of really getting better for our students to really give them the best, which is what they deserve.