Future of Schools

School 93 a step closer to possible takeover despite new law's timeline changes

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

A change in state law that could see failing schools taken over by the state two years quicker won’t affect schools that have already earned four or five F grades in a row.

It will still take six years of F grades to face possible takeover, not four, for those schools. They will be the last schools in the state to get that long to try to raise their grades to at least a D. But that doesn’t mean the schools don’t still have serious problems.

Case in point: Indianapolis Public School 93.

A dismal report on School 93 from the Indiana Department of Education to the Indiana State Board of Education raised alarms for some board members who wanted assurances that state and district officials would help the school get back on track.

“I hope there are outreach and other support folks parachuting into these schools to help them,” board member Gordon Hendry said. “The situation is extremely dire.”

When House Bill 1638, signed into law by Gov. Mike Pence last month, changed the timeline for the failing schools, those that already had consecutive F grades got to remain on the six-year timeline. Any school that drops to an F grade after July 1, 2016, could face takeover in just four years if it can’t raise its test scores enough to at least reach a D.

Although the state and district are planning to take steps to improve School 93, takeover is off the table until at least 2017, even if the school is rated an F again in 2015 and 2016.

The overhauled Indiana State Board of Education, with five newly appointed board members taking their seats today, heard the reports on School 93 and five other failing schools. The board, which has struggled through two years of long meetings fueled by tense debates and disagreements with state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, held a smooth, cordial meeting at Purdue University and discussed a series of routine matters.

The School 93 report raised questions about how state takeover and other actions to improve failing schools will be handled in the two years before the new law kicks in.

School 93, education department officials said, needs better leadership, academic programs and communication. The school just this year began implementing Project Restore, a homegrown school turnaround program started by two IPS teachers six years ago.

Project Restore has helped two failing IPS schools quickly earn A grades, but the effort appears stalled at School 93.

The school ranked in the bottom 15 percent of schools in one of the lowest-scoring school districts in the state. Only five of 49 IPS elementary schools that took ISTEP had a lower passing rate than School 93’s 35.7 percent in 2014.

The program’s goal is to improve discipline through consistent enforcement of rules and promote better student learning by doing more testing and review of what’s been taught.

Tammy Laughner, one of the program’s founding teachers, said one challenge was working with the school’s former principal, Amanda Pickrell, who she said didn’t completely embrace the program’s mission. The report says staff members didn’t understand who was in charge —  the principal or Project Restore. Department officials also said there were tense relationships between Pickrell and the program’s leaders.

“We’ve gone for six or seven months not doing it the Project Restore way, which has been really frustrating for us,” Laughner said.

Pickrell, a first-year principal, recently resigned. Teresa Brown, the department’s assistant superintendent of school improvement, said the position was filled just last week.

Brown said she wasn’t sure the program’s approach to discipline was having the intended effect — from her team’s observations, it led to more dysfunction, not less.

“That’s resulted in thousands of discipline referrals, and a lot of out-of-class time for kids,” Brown said. “I’m not sure exactly what they are doing when they are out of class.”

The report explored in-depth eight different areas of improvement for the school, including leadership, curriculum, effective teaching and use of time. On five of the eight turnaround areas, the school was rated “ineffective.” The other three areas garnered “needs improvement” ratings.

Brown said education department staff talked about the concerns with Superintendent Lewis Ferebee and other district officials, who said they were aware of the problems and were working to address them. Calls seeking comment from IPS were not returned today.

“There are very significant and serious concerns in that school, as well as from our teams,” Brown said. “And we have shared them very frankly.”

Laughner said, however, that with a new principal and a re-focus on getting student behavior under control, she’s ready to make progress next year.

“We need quiet halls, we need order and we need for teachers to be able to teach all day,” she said. “I just want to look forward, and I could spend a lot of time looking back on what didn’t work, but it’s not going to get me anywhere.”

hear me out

When these New York City schools want creative solutions to their challenges, they turn to the experts: students

Lisandro Mayancela, a student at Brooklyn Law Tech and member of the Student Voice Collaborative, hosts visitors at his school.

On a recent January morning, students Galeel Cora and Jenitza Jack sat in a conference room at Brooklyn High School for Law and Technology — a school that’s a 30 minute bus ride from the one they attend.

They came seeking advice for a problem they see at their school, Brooklyn Community Arts & Media: Despite its name, they said, it offers few classes related to the arts or media. They had the seed of a solution — a proposed event called “Fresh Fridays,” which would showcase students’ talents in painting, rap, dance, and other creative endeavors — but they weren’t sure how to get it off the ground.

The administrator they met with, Law and Tech Assistant Principal Melanie Werner, had plenty of ideas.

Maybe the event should be styled after a “gallery walk,” with each different classrooms featuring a different art medium, she suggested. The students nodded in agreement. Go after grants to fund it, she added. Galeel jotted that down. Reach across social cliques to recruit students to both contribute art and show up to the event, Werner offered.

“Get some kids together and come up with a game plan,” she said. “But it has to be fun, or it’s going to lose steam.”

The students were gathering this advice through a program called the Student Voice Collaborative, which trains students to analyze issues at their schools and come up with solutions. One important way they do that is by visiting partner schools — an approach to school improvement that Chancellor Carmen Fariña has also championed through similar programs that promote cross-campus collaboration among adults.

Launched in 2010 and run out of the Brooklyn North Field Support Center, the collaborative aims to add student voices to the mix. Equal parts research project, internship, and civics lesson, the program now spans seven districts and includes about 10 schools each year.

“A lot of times students aren’t involved in these types of conversations,” said Lisandro Mayancela, a senior at Law Tech. “You’re coming up with decisions that will affect the kids the most, so why not give those students a chance to sit down [and] actually voice their opinions?”

Students at each participating school are paired with groups from a different school through surveys and a speed-dating-style event at the start of the year. Then the teams meet every other week to discuss issues at their respective schools and brainstorm solutions. Students are also matched with an “action team” of adults at their own school, who help the students zero in on challenges and then follow through on their school-improvement ideas.

“We try to develop structures that promote youth-adult partnership, so the action team is like the heart” of the program, said Ari Sussman, an official at the support center who launched the collaborative. “Students and adults put their priorities side by side.”

One of the program’s highlights comes about halfway through the year when students take turns visiting and hosting partner schools. For Galeel and Jenitza, that meant taking an early morning bus ride to Law Tech to look for lessons to bring back to their own school.

During their visit, they dropped in on an art class and had a long discussion over pizza with Law Tech’s Student Government representatives, who shared how how they’ve managed to make their school events a success — tips for Galeel and Jenitza to keep in mind as they try to build Fresh Fridays. One Law Tech student suggested recruiting freshman, who would be too green to remember past school events that may have been boring. Another said good music would draw people in — and so would a little positive peer pressure, like a direct invite for popular students who hold sway with the rest of the school.

“I know for a fact that if a popular student is going to a party, I’m going, too,” he said.

They also met with art teacher Maria Pascual, who noted the funding challenges that Brooklyn Community Arts & Media is likely to face if it tries to adhere more closely to its theme. To illustrate her point, she mentioned that students have a hard time drawing on her school’s outdated iPads. Some funding riddles, she said, require creative solutions.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Students Jenitza Jack and Galeel Cora visit Maria Pascual’s art class at Brooklyn Law Tech.

“Everybody in your school has a phone,” she told the visiting students as she whipped out her own cell phone and dragged her finger across the screen. “Get your teacher to download a sketchbook, and they can draw on their phones… Start thinking about, ‘What can I do right now.’”

While the program can help students come up with policy ideas, it’s up to their school leaders to give their ideas due consideration and carry them out.

One school that has done that is the Academy for Young Writers in Brooklyn, which was part of the Student Voice Collaborative last year.

After students in the program noticed that 9th-graders’ attendance and grades had taken a nosedive midyear, the principal hosted regular strategy meetings in his office where he and the students could brainstorm solutions. Once they decided to try pairing the freshmen with 11th-grade mentors, the team’s faculty advisor, English teacher Michelle Eisenberg, agreed to train the older students.

By the end of the school year, the 9th-graders’ academics and attendance had stabilized, Eisenberg said. The students’ mentoring idea seemed to have made a difference — but only because the administration took it seriously.

“It’s one thing to invite a group of students to sit down one time and hear what they have to say,” she said. “I think it’s another thing to have students sit down in the principal’s office once a week, being critical and being proactive.”

Future of Schools

One system to apply for IPS and charter schools? Nearly 4,000 students gave it a shot

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Princess Glenn hopes to enroll her son at Super School 19.

A new website designed to help families across Indianapolis apply for schools drew applications from 3,862 students in the first round.

The applications to OneMatch slightly exceeded the goal of 3,500, marking the successful launch of a project that has been in planning for more than two years. The deadline was Tuesday for the first application window using the new system.

The OneMatch application, which is run by the nonprofit Enroll Indy, aims to make it easier for families to choose and apply for schools in a city where there is a growing selection of options for students. It allows families to apply for more than 50 charter and Indianapolis Public School district schools through the same website or enrollment office.

Applicants rank their top choice schools, and an algorithm then matches students with schools. This round, families applied to an average of just under three schools per child for a total of 10,518 applications.

“Our phones were ringing off the hook yesterday, and we had parents in our office all day,” Enroll Indy founder Caitlin Hannon wrote in an email the day after applications were due.

In the nine weeks leading up to the first application deadline, staff from Enroll Indy fanned out across the city to tell parents about the process. Since the application opened Nov. 15, they reached about 8,500 families through canvassing and phone banks, and held about 29 intake sessions in partnership with schools and community groups, according to Hannon.

It was during one of those intake sessions that Princess Glenn met staff from Enroll Indy. A parent with two children in IPS, Glenn was a panelist at a meeting about choosing schools on Wednesday organized by UNCF and the Mind Trust, a nonprofit that supports charter schools and helped fund Enroll Indy.

When Enroll Indy visited her school, Glenn applied for new schools for two of her children. For her daughter, who is in 3rd grade, she chose a charter school. And for her son, who is in 6th grade, she chose a district magnet with a focus on physical activity.

“My son is one of those kids that, he likes to stay busy,” she said. “For something like that to be available for our kids nowadays, I just think that it’s great.”

Families who applied through OneMatch will receive a single school offer on Feb. 15. Enroll Indy will run two additional application windows in the coming months for families who did not meet the first deadline or would like to reapply.

Common enrollment systems, which allow students to apply for district and charter schools in a single location, have been embraced in several cities in recent years, including New Orleans, Denver and Washington, D.C. But their success hinges on collaboration between district and charter school leaders. Efforts to create similar systems have stalled in cities such as Detroit and Boston.

Enroll Indy staff members say the aim is to help students who are about to start elementary, middle or high school find the right fit. But one fear among critics of common enrollment systems is that they will make it easier for charter schools to woo parents like Glenn away from traditional public schools. On the other hand, charter schools also fear losing control over the admissions process.

Although OneMatch has gotten some pushback from Indianapolis parents and community members, the effort encountered relatively little public opposition from leaders. Most Indianapolis charter schools are participating, and the IPS school board not only voted to join OneMatch, but also allowed Enroll Indy to lease space in the central office for an enrollment center.

Parents in Indianapolis now face a panoply of school choices. Nearly 13,000 students who live in IPS boundaries attend charter schools, including innovation schools that are overseen by the district. At the same time, the city’s largest district has also expanded choices by creating new magnet schools, and next year, all high school students will choose specialized programs with focus areas such as the arts or information technology.

At the community event Wednesday, Patrick Herrel, who heads enrollment for the district, said that Enroll Indy is the latest effort to make applying for schools easier for Indianapolis families. As recently as four years ago, families who wanted to apply for magnet schools had to turn in paper applications at the district office.

“As those number of choices have grown, we have had to become more sophisticated in our way of helping parents access those choices,” he said. “I think Enroll Indy really represents the next step.”