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.”

Big money

Chunk of $55 million AbbVie gift will go toward more counselors in schools

PHOTO: Courtesy of Communities in Schools
Counselors in Schools site coordinator Artesha Williams and student Nasje Adams at the King Academy of Social Justice in Chicago

Sixteen more Chicago schools will add full-time counselors charged with reducing dropouts and helping students with critical mental health issues, thanks to a chunk of a $55 million donation gift from a North Chicago pharmaceutical giant.

The AbbVie donation, announced Friday, will be split among three nonprofit groups with a Chicago presence, though not all the money will be spent here. Communities in Schools will receive $30 million for its national efforts to broker relationships between community organizations and schools; the University of Chicago’s Education Lab, which focuses on dropout prevention and college persistence, will receive $15 million; and City Year, which places AmeriCorps tutors and mentors in schools, will receive $10 million.

Communities in Schools, which received the largest gift, will spend $6 million of its $30 million on its Chicago chapter, while the City Year money will be split among Chicago and a project in San Jose, California.

Jane Mentzinger, the executive director of Communities in Schools Chicago, said the $6 million is “transformational” and will be spent on a program that assigns full-time, master’s-level counselors to public schools on the South and West sides.

The AbbVie gift will grow a program that currently places full-time counselors in 15 Chicago schools, adding five schools this year and another 11 next fall.

“In each school, they case manage the 50 highest-need students who are at risk of falling behind and dropping out,” said Mentzinger. “They really work with students is to help resolve conflict, regulate emotions, and provide exposure opportunities, from support and mentoring to counseling.”  

The counselor piece helps fill a dire need within Chicago’s schools: mental health and trauma services. Students, educators, parents, and union leaders regularly lament that the district does not staff enough counselors and mental health practitioners, and that recent efforts have been too focused on college and career-readiness — including helping students draft a post-secondary plan. Starting with the Class of 2020, seniors must produce such a plan to graduate, a controversial idea championed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

In July, Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson announced that the district would hire some 250 new social workers and special education case managers for schools.

Mentzinger said the value of sending in counselors who are employed by an outside agency, and not by the district, is that they have fewer administrative duties and so can cast a “wider net” among master’s degree candidates who might have non-traditional degrees such as art therapy or dance. “The level of need of our kids — we need to have more layers, more layers of work.”

A recent Steinmetz High School graduate, Emily Jade Aguilar, told Chalkbeat on Election Day that she was knocking on doors to get out the vote. Aguilar, who identifies as a trans woman, said the biggest issue driving her activism was mental health for students. “We need more mental health resources in our schools,” said Aguilar, whose school had four counselors for 1,200 students last year.

According to federal data from the 2015-16 school year, Chicago had 2.8 guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists for every 1,000 students — fewer than in many other large cities. National guidance counselors and social workers groups recommend having one counselor and one social worker each for every 250 students. In schools with “intensive” needs, that ratio falls to one social worker for every 50 students.

In addition to providing counselors, Communities in Schools brokers relationships between nonprofit organizations and 160 schools to provide art and enrichment, mental health services, health care and college and career readiness programming.

snow fallout

From stalled buses to canceled programs, New York City schools are bearing brunt of snow storm

PHOTO: Guillermo Murcia / Getty Images
A school bus on Dekalb avenue in Fort Greene Brooklyn during a snow storm.

Parents, students, and teachers are dealing with the fallout of Thursday’s snowstorm, which stranded yellow buses for hours, created brutal commutes, and forced teachers to stay late for parent conferences.

Just before 9 a.m. Friday, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza announced all after-school programs would be cancelled, sending families scrambling to make arrangements. And perhaps anticipating yet another wave of yellow-bus related problems, all field trips involving buses were also cancelled.

Some parents and educators took to social media to vent about the city’s response.

Emergency responders were dispatched to free five children with special needs who had been trapped on a school bus for 10 hours, according to City Councilman Ben Kallos. Traveling from Manhattan to the Bronx, students didn’t make it home until “well after midnight,” Kallos said in a statement. The councilman has sponsored legislation to require GPS tracking on yellow buses after the school year began with horror stories about long, circuitous routes. Many riders are children with special needs who travel to programs outside their neighborhoods.

The education department did not immediately respond to questions about the timing of their decision to cancel after-school programs.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city would conduct a”full operational review of what happened,” referring to the city’s response to the storm. “We have to figure out how to make adjustments when we have only a few hours but this was—I hate to use this hackneyed phrase—but this was kind of a perfect storm: late information, right up on rush hour, and then a particularly fast, heavy kind of snow.”

The politics of snow-related closures are challenging, forcing city leaders to balance concerns about safety with the needs of working families, who may struggle to make arrangements for emergency childcare.

Snow-day related cancellations have bedeviled previous chancellors; in one famous incident, former Chancellor Carmen Fariña and de Blasio kept schools open despite a forecast of 10 inches of snow. The next day, Fariña proclaimed it was “a beautiful day.”

Still, the de Blasio administration is much more likely to cancel school in response to snow than his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg.

Christina Veiga contributed.