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.”

calendar quandary

Detroit district and union hammer out last-second agreement on school calendar before vote at tonight’s board meeting

A screenshot of the proposed academic calendar that has caused concern among union officials.

Detroit’s main school district and its largest teachers union settled a contract disagreement Tuesday afternoon after tensions arose over the seemingly routine approval of this year’s academic calendar.

The proposed calendar includes some changes to the one spelled out in the teachers’ contract. It was approved last week by a school board subcommittee without comment from the union, and the same calendar was on the agenda for tonight’s meeting of the full school board.

With just three weeks until the first day of school, parents and teachers are relying on the calendar to make travel plans and childcare arrangements.

No details were available about the agreement.

Ken Coleman, a spokesman for the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said the agreement was resolved before the meeting started, but couldn’t provide further details. District spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson said she expected the calendar to go to a vote without opposition from the union.

Coleman said earlier on Tuesday that a vote to approve the calendar could violate the teachers’ contract.

Union leaders were surprised last week when Chalkbeat reported that the board was considering a calendar that was different from the one approved in their contract.

The proposed calendar would eliminate one-hour-early releases on Wednesday and move the teacher training that occurred during that time mostly to the beginning of the school year. It also would move spring break to April 1-5, 2019 — a few weeks earlier than the April 19-26 break specified in the contract.

The earlier spring break is designed to avoid the testing window for the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, a college entrance exam commonly known as the PSAT, according to school board documents.

Union officials have said that they had no major objections to the contents of the calendar, only to the way in which it was approved.

Correction: Aug. 14, 2018 This story has been corrected to show that the union and district have reached an agreement about the academic calendar.  A previous version of the story, under the headline “An 11th-hour disagreement over an academic calendar could be settled at tonight’s school board meeting,” referenced a pending agreement when an agreement had in fact been reached.

NEW DATA

New data show how few black and Hispanic students benefit from New York City’s specialized high school diversity program

Students take an AP exam at Bronx Science, one of the city's specialized high schools.

A program intended to diversify the city’s elite specialized high schools continues to help far more white and Asian students than black and Hispanic ones, according to new data released Tuesday.

The initiative, known as the Discovery program, aims to promote diversity at the eight elite high schools by offering admission to students from high-need families who score just below the entrance exam cutoff if they successfully complete summer coursework.

This year, Asian students represented 64 percent of students admitted through Discovery, (despite being 16 percent of the city’s students), while black and Hispanic students combined make up just 22 percent (a group that represents nearly 70 percent of the city’s students). Last year, 67 percent of students admitted through Discovery were Asian and 18-20 percent were black or Hispanic.

And while black and Hispanic students get more offers through Discovery than they do in the typical admissions process — where just 10.4 percent of offers went to black and Hispanic students this year — the program does not make a big difference because such a small share students actually get admitted through Discovery. This year, 6 percent of ninth graders were admitted through the program.

Discovery has expanded under Mayor Bill de Blasio, from 58 students in 2014 to an expected 250 this coming school year. But despite the program’s growth, it has had little effect on making the city’s elite high schools more racially representative of the city’s overall student population.

The preliminary numbers released Tuesday help show why the city is changing the program.

After years of these meager results, the city is expanding the program even further and tweaking its rules to include more black and Hispanic students — a key pillar of de Blasio’s controversial plan to make the schools more racially representative of the city’s students.

Read more: Fair and objective or useless and biased? A Chalkbeat guide to the case for and against New York City’s specialized high school test

By 2020, each of the specialized schools that determine admission based solely on a single exam will be required to reserve 20 percent of their seats for students in the Discovery program. (Stuyvesant High School, which is participating in the program for the first time this year, admitted 23 students through Discovery. Under the mayor’s plan, the school will have to increase that number sevenfold.)

To ensure it helps more black and Hispanic students than it does right now, the program will be restricted to students at high-poverty schools, which tend to enroll more black and Hispanic students. (Currently, the program is only restricted to high-need students from any middle school in the city.)

By itself, that change is expected to have only a modest effect, increasing black and Hispanic student enrollment to 16 percent, up from about 9 percent today. But unlike the mayor’s plan to get rid of the entrance exam entirely, which would have a more dramatic effect on diversifying the schools, expanding the Discovery program is something de Blasio can do without approval from the state legislature.

“By changing the Discovery eligibility criteria starting next year, we’ll support greater geographic, racial, and socioeconomic diversity at our specialized high schools,” education department spokesman Will Mantell wrote in an email.