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.”

Future of Schools

What it could mean for Indianapolis Public Schools if Ferebee takes a new job

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Lews Ferebee

The revelation that Superintendent Lewis Ferebee was a finalist for the top job in the Los Angeles school district will have broad implications at a critical moment for Indianapolis Public Schools — even though he decided not to pursue the job.

Although Ferebee has withdrawn his name from contention in Los Angeles, he still could be an option for other districts. As U.S. News and World Report’s Lauren Camera reported earlier this month, about a dozen cities are on the hunt for new leaders, including large districts such as Houston and smaller districts such as Washington, D.C.

Five years into his tenure as superintendent of Indiana’s largest district, Ferebee’s agenda has been ambitious, potentially making him a desirable candidate for other school districts. He has spearheaded a radical new approach that is transforming the city’s schools by creating innovation schools, which are considered part of the district but managed by charter or nonprofit operators.

In Indianapolis, Ferebee has faced many of the same issues that urban districts across the country are grappling with, such as declining enrollment, pressure to improve academic results, and severe budget crunches.

But while he may have an itch to move on from Indianapolis, his administration is in the midst of closing nearly half of the district’s high schools, and the district is pursuing plans to ask voters for a dramatic boost in school funding.

Here’s how all those changes could be altered by the news that Ferebee is at least weighing other job opportunities.

It’s not a surprise that he was considering a new job.

Urban superintendents don’t often stay for long — the average tenure is just over three years, according to the Council of Great City Schools — so it’s not surprising that a relatively young superintendent who is drawing national attention might be interested in other jobs.

For superintendents to move up in their careers, hopping to new cities is fairly typical.

A native of South Carolina, Ferebee, 43, spent most of his career in North Carolina before moving in 2013 to take the helm in Indianapolis. He has few ties to the city, and critics and supporters alike have long recognized that Indianapolis is likely just one rung on his career ladder.

For school districts where leaders are interested in offering a portfolio of school options, Ferebee’s track record in Indianapolis — and his increasing national prominence — could be particularly appealing.

In 2016, Ferebee was profiled in Education Week as a leader to learn from, and last year, he was chosen as a fellow by The Broad Academy, a leadership development program supported charter advocate and philanthropist Eli Broad.

But his tenure in Indianapolis hasn’t gone perfectly.

Ferebee’s administration has also had some significant stumbles that cast doubt on whether he would be ready for a larger district. Last year, he announced plans to appeal to voters to increase local taxes and school funding. In the face of pushback, however, the district first reduced its request and then suspended the campaign. Now, leaders are hoping that the Indy Chamber will be able to help them craft a plan that will win voter support.

If he left, it might put Indy in a bind — temporarily.

If Ferebee took another job, it would put Indianapolis leaders in a tough position. The school board would need to find his replacement at the same time the district is facing a host of pressing issues, including high school closings, a school board election, and a campaign to convince taxpayers to increase local school funding.

And he could take some of his top deputies with him, as he did when he came to Indianapolis, leaving the district short-handed at a particularly challenging time.

The current board has largely been on the same page with Ferebee when it comes to the most controversial initiatives in the district, such as creating innovation schools and closing high schools. Board members would likely choose a candidate who would sustain those policies.

But a lot of his most controversial changes could stay in place.

A new superintendent would have huge sway over the district’s future direction. But many of the changes Ferebee has led would be difficult to unwind. Innovation schools, for example, have contracts that last several years, and many of them are also authorized as charter schools, so the district would not immediately be able to back away from the innovation strategy.

Plus, innovation schools have strong support from other players in Indianapolis, such as lawmakers and The Mind Trust, a nonprofit that led the push for the hybrid model.

It is also unlikely that the district would change course on its plan to close high schools because the new superintendent would almost certainly take the helm after the painful process of closing schools was already complete.

It would make the November election of the school board more important.

Three of the seven school board seats are up for election in November, and it is likely that the newly elected board would choose Ferebee’s replacement. It’s not yet clear who is running and how strong the competition might be, but the outcome would be especially important if Ferebee leaves.

If he does take another job, it could be an opportunity for critics of his administration. In recent elections, supporters of Ferebee have dominated. But there is a nascent opposition movement that could be influential in the fall election.

Even though he is staying, the honeymoon is over.

Even with Ferebee withdrawing his name from consideration, the revelation that he was interested in the job in Los Angeles could have a ripple effect. It raises questions about how long he plans to stay in Indianapolis and whether he is applying for other positions.

The new uncertainty about Ferebee’s commitment to Indianapolis comes at a particularly tough moment. In the face of a budget deficit of about $26 million, the administration could soon impose cuts across the district. Earlier this month, the district offered $20,000 buyouts to teachers who retire, and Ferebee has said they are considering other cuts, such as hiring freezes and furloughs for administrators. Those cutbacks will be extra painful if school staff and parents lose faith in the administration.

It also could have broad implications for the campaign to raise more money for schools. After district leaders initially fumbled plans to ask voters for additional money, they are planning to put a referendum on the ballot in November. For that measure to succeed, they must convince community members to vote in favor of raising their own taxes, a difficult sell that will also be made harder if the superintendent loses trust from the community.

contract details

Antwan Wilson being paid $60,000 to consult for Denver Public Schools

Antwan Wilson visits a fifth grade math class at the Brightwood Education Campus in Washington on his first day as D.C. schools chancellor. (Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Denver school district is paying former administrator Antwan Wilson $60,000 to be a part-time consultant for 12 weeks to help to build a strategic plan for a career and technical education program, according to Wilson’s contract.

The contract shows the district determined that Wilson, who was recently forced to resign as Washington, D.C. schools chancellor, was the only person qualified for the consultant job.

“We considered other local or national consulting organizations that could provide these services, but determined they would not be able to meet our needs,” Denver Public Schools Chief Operating Officer David Suppes wrote as justification for why the contract was not put out for competitive bid. Chalkbeat obtained the contract in an open records request.

Suppes cited Wilson’s years of experience managing large urban school districts, as well as his experience leading secondary schools in Denver. Wilson was principal of the now-closed Montbello High School and worked for five years as an assistant superintendent in Denver before becoming superintendent in Oakland, California, and then chancellor in D.C.

He resigned as chancellor in February after it came to light that he skirted the district’s competitive school lottery process to get his oldest daughter into a high-performing school.

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg said in a previous Chalkbeat interview that Wilson was a good fit for the consultant job because “he is probably the country’s foremost thinker on these issues around career and technical education and concurrent enrollment,” which allows high school students to take college classes and receive credit for free.

Wilson’s resume says he ran Denver Public Schools’ concurrent enrollment program during his tenure as the assistant superintendent for post-secondary readiness from 2009 to 2014. It also notes he led the district’s career and technical education program.

The number of students taking concurrent enrollment classes increased during his tenure, his resume says. Graduation rates increased and dropout rates decreased, partly due to efforts to open new alternative schools, which the district calls “multiple pathways schools,” it says.

Boasberg said Wilson will be helping to expand the district’s career and technical program, called CareerConnect, to those schools.

Wilson’s consultant contract says he will “support the strategic planning process, including stakeholder engagement, evaluation of successful practices used elsewhere, and assisting the team in thinking through systemic needs for the thoughtful growth of the program.”

The contract notes that Wilson’s position is grant funded. It says his fee includes a $69 per-diem expense and $178 in daily lodging expenses. His fee is based on a $150-per-hour rate, it says.

The contract specifies that Wilson will work two days a week for eight hours a day.

In his justification for why the contract was not competitive, Suppes wrote that local consulting companies that have worked with Denver Public Schools in the past “would not have experience in this area” and would have been more expensive at $175 to $200 an hour.

National consulting companies, Suppes wrote, “are often strong in doing this type of work, but might not have the skill depth available.” Plus, he wrote, the national consultants would have charged two to four times as much as the district is paying Wilson.