IPS defends spending on Phalen innovation school against criticism

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Indianapolis Public School candidates got low marks on evaluations from some local groups.

Is Indianapolis Public Schools handing over its lowest-performing school to a charter operator on a “silver platter?”

That’s how one IPS school board member decried a pending contract between IPS and Phalen Leadership Academy, which next year will independently manage School 103 on the East side.

Though Phalen will run the school and hire its own staff, IPS will pay to Phalen a hefty management fee, a lump sum to help set up the school and money for the building’s upkeep. It will also foot the bill for the cost of busing students to school and supporting the school’s special education students and English language learners, among a host of other items negotiated the group’s lawyers.

The board is set to vote on the contract Thursday.

“We talk about trying to achieve some balance in terms of (spending) across the district and we are presenting ourselves with this huge outlier,” said board member Gayle Cosby. “I don’t think we could offer anything else.”

But Superintendent Lewis Ferebee and other board members defended the spending. They said it costs a lot of money to reopen or redesign a school, citing the district’s recent plan to spend more than $1 million to reopen Arlington High School as an IPS school after three years run by a charter school network after it was taken over by the state.

“Like any other transition we would have in the district, we would allocate resources to ensure the transition is smooth,” Ferebee said.

Lawyers are still working out a few final details of the plan, district officials said Tuesday. But some details were shared Tuesday.

When it comes to basic operating money, IPS will pay Phalen $7,620 per student. Ferebee said that number reflects the district’s $7,058 per student state aid amount along with some grant money from federal poverty aid and a few other sources.

IPS will pay Phalen a management fee equivalent to 10 percent of the per student state aid amount for each monthly payment. If the school’s enrollment stays at about 340 next year, that management fee would be more than $250,000 by year’s end. The disrict also will pay Phalen $175,000 in start up funds and about $250,000 to pay for Phalen’s computer software at the school.

“There’s nothing more important than improving the quality of education (at the school),” Cosby said. “I just want to make sure we don’t overextend ourselves in this partnership.”

The school will be allowed to have its own governing board, which will occasionally report to the IPS school board.

Ferebee said providing services for special education students and English language learners was a “sticking point” for the district.

“We have legal obligations for second language learners,” Ferebee said. “We want to ensure those needs were being met. We agreed IPS was best positioned to fulfill those obligations.”

Board member Sam Odle argued spending more on the school made sense because the students ultimately belong to IPS. The partnership with Phalen isn’t a takeover, he said. The district counts the students in its enrollment and oversees its performance just like other IPS schools.

“The money’s being invested in our students,” Odle said. “It’s not being invested in somebody else.”

Board member Kelly Bentley cheered the plan, but said the district needs a plan to expand its own successful school models, including magnet programs and high-performing neighborhood schools.

“Are we working on a process that will help the district to expand and replicate those programs?” Bentley said. “We’ve got these great opportunities with innovation schools coming up, but I think it would be great if we could also focus internally.”

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.