In the Classroom

Once fast-growing, Homegrown Summer Advantage dwindles to 160 Indianapolis students

PHOTO: James Vaughn
Mave Davis, a first grade teacher for Summer Advantage, looks on as a couple of students practice writing their names June 15 at Stephen Decatur Elementary School. Only 160 kids were able to participate this year, down from last year's 350.

Little “scholars” grabbed white paper breakfast bags as they hopped off their assigned buses last month at Stephen Decatur Elementary School and crowded against the walls in a hallway to eat.

They’re the lucky ones, program manager Stephanie Werner said.

The scene resembled a routine first day at any elementary school for these 160 students, except that it was summer and they were participating in a well-regarded program called Summer Advantage, designed to help them catch up to, or even jump ahead of, their peers.

But fewer kids than ever got the chance to reap the potential benefits.

“I’ve seen students come to us struggling at their current levels,” said Werner, who teaches second grade at Gold Academy during the school year. “When they return to school after being in Summer Advantage, they’re more on level with where they should be and where we would want the kids to be academically.”

Last year, more than twice as many Decatur kids — 350 of them — participated in Summer Advantage, a free program founded and nurtured in Indianapolis that aims to boost test scores for poor kids.

The trend is statewide: a fraction of the kids who were once a part of the program in Indiana are enrolled this summer.

Despite what supporters say is a strong track record of success, the once fast-growing program is now fading fast from Indiana while expanding to other places around the country. In Indianapolis, Summer Advantage is completely gone from two districts that were once key players — Pike Township and Indianapolis Public Schools.

So what happened?

The answer is partly money — after initial grants ran out, districts said they couldn’t afford to keep the program going. But founder Earl Martin Phalen thinks there’s more to the story. Districts cut ties with the program at the same time he launched a charter school.

A winning idea

Phalen, a one-time Harvard classmate of President Barack Obama, was the first winner of The Mind Trust’s education entrepreneur fellowship in 2009. The idea behind the fellowship was to cast a wide net in search of innovative ideas to help kids learn and bring the innovators to Indianapolis to try them out.

Once a foster kid, Phalen excelled to eventually graduate from Yale, and then Harvard. He joined a mentoring program while in law school and felt a kinship with children who needed help in school. So instead of working as a lawyer, he spent several years at a Boston nonprofit he co-founded that supported mentoring and after school programs. The summer, Phalen thought, was a missed opportunity for kids who needed a boost.

Phalen’s idea for Summer Advantage beat out hundreds of applications and he was given a year’s salary and start-up money to get the program off the ground on the condition he start it in Indianapolis.

Decatur signed on in 2009 to try it out and district officials were pleased by the results.

Based on tests given before and after students participated in Summer Advantage, kids were making as much ground academically in five weeks as they were during a full quarter of a school year. A student who was reading at a level that would be expected at the start of third grade, for example, was reading at a level equivalent to two and a half months into third grade by the program’s end.

Overall, Indianapolis student test scores showed the average student’s improvement equaled a jump ahead of about 2.3 months in reading and 2.4 months in math over the life of the program, Phalen said.

And the program was growing quickly.

In 2013, at its peak, a total of 2,415 Indianapolis kids in three school districts participated, and Phalen was even more ambitious. He told the Indianapolis Star he wanted it to serve 25,000 kids by 2014, including 10,000 in Indiana.

But in two years, things changed drastically.

Focus shifts to other states, charter school

In 2013, Phalen added a new dimension to his idea: building a charter school.

The broader goal was a network of Phalen Leadership Academy charter schools, and The Mind Trust, an education advocacy group, was again a key supporter. Phalen got start up aid from the city’s charter school incubator, which The Mind Trust also helped fund. The network will take over managing School 103 this fall in a first-of-its-kind partnership with IPS.

The Phalen Leadership Academy borrowed ideas from the summer program and built on it. But at the same time the school was taking shape, Summer Advantage began to shrink.

While enrollment has plummeted here, it remains steady in other cities around the country.

This summer, about 2,000 students participated in Colorado, Illinois, Alabama and New York. But it is no longer offered in Pike, IPS or other cities around the state, like Muncie and Elkhart, which the program also served briefly.

Money has been a big problem.

In the early years of the program, a key funding source were federal grants administered by the Indiana Department of Education.

For example, state records show Decatur Township received $977,051 in 2009 as part of a Reading First federal grant, which requires schools to take a scientific approach to reading instruction, according to Daniel Altman, a spokesman for state Superintendent Glenda Ritz.

Phalen said he asked Ritz’s team to continue support for the program, but apparently Summer Advantage did not apply for new funds. Altman said department records show no applications submitted on behalf of Summer Advantage during Ritz’s administration.

In 2013, Pike and IPS ended partnerships with the program.

Phalen thinks it’s no coincidence two key districts backed out as his new charter school took off.

“The grants ran out and then the two districts where we were serving the most kids ended their partnership with us because we applied to run a charter school,” Phalen said. “Those were 2,000 students who we were deeply connected to.”

But Pike Superintendent Nate Jones rejected the argument that politics was a factor. He said Pike cut ties simply because there wasn’t enough federal funding.

“If they hadn’t offered us that money, we would have never entered that partnership with him to begin with,”  Jones said.

Former IPS Superintendent Eugene White declined to comment.

‘A win-win scenario’ for Decatur, but will it hold up?

The program, which ended for the summer on Friday, survived this year. But its future in Indiana is unclear.

This year, The Indianapolis Foundation and the Summer Youth Program Fund raised about $175,000 collectively for Summer Advantage, said Roderick Wheeler, who oversees both grants for the Central Indiana Community Foundation. The program, which costs $1,400 per kid, was about $32,000 short of its goal Friday.

The Indianapolis Foundation helps fund about 80 summer programs, Wheeler said, but Summer Advantage is unique.

“There are very few – if any – summer programs that partner with school districts,” Wheeler said. “Summer Advantage is a vendor. What makes that helpful is nonprofit dollars coming alongside public dollars.”

CICF will continue to seek other partners and hopes to help Summer Advantage expand to serve 1,000 kids in Indianapolis over the next three years.

In Decatur, Superintendent Matthew Prusiecki said the program is good for the kids who participate.

Summer Advantage offers a mix of math and literacy instruction along with enrichment activities. Fridays are spent on extra-curricular opportunities, like field trips and guest speakers.

In Decatur, students spent the first three hours of each weekday in the classroom, which was led by a teacher and teaching assistant, followed by an hour of lunch and recess and two hours of art provided by Arts for Learning, a local nonprofit.

“It’s just a win-win scenario for us here in Decatur,” Prusiecki said. “As long as we can continue to work things out together — we have the demand as far as our students are concerned — there’s no reason not to continue Summer Advantage.”

How I Teach

Crazy contraptions, Chemistry Cat, and climbing stories: How this Colorado science teacher connects with kids

PHOTO: Courtesy of Shannon Wachowski
Shannon Wachowski, a science teacher at Platte Valley High School, holds a toothpick bridge as a her students look on.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Shannon Wachowski once started a parent-teacher conference by sharing that she was concerned about the student’s lack of motivation. The boy’s mother quickly began adding criticisms of her own — alarming Wachowski enough that she started defending the teen.

It was then the student’s behavior began to make more sense to Wachowski, who teaches everything from ninth-grade earth science to college-level chemistry at Platte Valley High School in northeastern Colorado. She realized that school, not home, was the boy’s safe place.

Wachowski is one of 20 educators who were selected to serve on the state Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education.

She talked to Chalkbeat about how she uses parent conferences and classwork to learn students’ stories, why making Rube Goldberg contraptions boosts kids’ confidence, and what happens when she raises her hand in the middle of class.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
Originally a practicing chemical engineer, I became a teacher because I wanted a more fulfilling career. I had tutored chemistry in college and really enjoyed it.

What does your classroom look like?
Because my students work in teams 90 percent of the time, my tables are arranged so that students can sit in groups of four. I wrote a grant last summer for standing desks so each two person desk raises up and down. They are convenient for labs or when students need a change of scenery. My walls contain student-made license plates (an activity I do on the first day of school) and other student work from class, including various Chemistry Cat memes!

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ________. Why?
My heart. Initially I became a teacher because I loved my content. I soon realized however, that while content is important, developing relationships with students is paramount. No learning will happen if positive relationships are not established first. When I am frustrated with student behavior, I try to put myself in their place and respond in a caring and compassionate manner.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite lessons is when my students build Rube Goldberg devices. It gets somewhat chaotic because they are working in teams and materials are everywhere, but every single student is engaged. In the end, they can apply what they know about energy to design a multi-step contraption. I have seen very low-confidence students excel at this activity, and it is very rewarding to see them experience success in a science class.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
One strategy I’ve recently started using came from my experience leading professional development for other teachers. I will be somewhere in the middle of the room (usually not the front) and raise my hand. When students see me raise my hand, they will raise theirs and pause their conversation. Then other students see those students and raise their hand, etc. Once everyone is quiet, then I’ll make my announcement. Like all other strategies, I need to practice being consistent with it.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I always plan the first couple of days for “get to know you” activities. My students design their own paper license plates using whatever letters, numbers, or design they would like. They then have 30 seconds to talk about their license plates.
I noticed that in some of my more challenging classes I needed a way to better connect with my students. At the beginning of most class periods I share some sort of funny story about what happened to me the evening prior — for some reason, I am never short of these stories — or a picture of my dog, or my latest climbing adventure. Sharing this information does not take long and eventually, students will ask if I have a story to share if I haven’t done so in a while. This also leads to them sharing stories with me, and finding that we may have more in common than we think.

Tell us about a memorable time-good or bad-when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
At parent-teacher conferences one year I had a parent come in with their student. This student was not the most motivated individual — not disrespectful, just did not seem to want to do anything with his time. As I was explaining this to his parent, the parent started talking very negatively to and about the student, so much so that I found myself trying to defend the student and bring up positive qualities about his character. This interaction helped me to understand some of the student’s behavior in class, as well as realize that for some students, school is their safe place. There are often lots of reasons for a student’s behavior that I may not be aware of, which is why it is important to get to know each student and their situation as best as possible.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
When I have time outside of school, one of the things I enjoy doing is throwing pottery. I am currently reading “Science for Potters” by Linda Bloomfield. It combines my love of science and art into one book.

What is the best advice you ever received?
Since I teach a variety of levels, I often have one class that challenges my classroom management skills. This can be frustrating as I am the type of person that would like to achieve perfection in every circumstance. When I have a discipline issue in my class, I often see it as a personal failure. My husband often reminds me that “You can’t control other people’s behavior, you can only control your response to it.”

behind the music

‘We just wanted to help the movement’: Meet the NYC teacher whose students wrote a #NeverAgain anthem

PHOTO: Kyle Fackrell

Among the many creative displays of protest that stood out during Wednesday’s national student protest against gun violence was an original song by Staten Island students: “The truth: We need change.”

The song, uploaded to YouTube Wednesday morning, features John W. Lavelle Preparatory Charter School students in a soaring anti-gun counterpoint, led by seniors Jerramiah Jean-Baptiste and Aeva Soler.

“Don’t run away from the truth,” Soler sings during one exchange. “If we don’t act now, what should we do?”

Jean-Baptiste picks up where she leaves off: “We need change in this time of doom. It shouldn’t be the case that we’re losing lives too soon. I shouldn’t feel afraid inside my school. We need change.”

We checked in with Kyle Fackrell, Lavelle Prep’s longtime music teacher, who has worked with Jean-Baptiste, Soler, and their classmates for nearly five years, since their introductory eighth-grade music class. Here’s what he told us about the song, his students, and their ambitions.

How the song came to be: “I knew that my students were very passionate about this subject. When I learned about the walkout coming up and that it would be coming up soon, I was aware of these students and their songwriting abilities, and I suggested the idea of writing a song. They really just ran with it.”

What the process was like: “We’ve worked together a lot and have made a lot of music together. When I proposed this idea it was like clockwork. It was really exciting to see how fast Jerramiah could come up with the ideas.”

On the students’ goals: “We just wanted to help the movement. I was having that conversation with my students today, should the song get the success we hope it gets, that would be great, but really want we to maintain our genuine interest in making a difference with the song. I’m just supporting them.”

What the reaction has been: “It’s been very positive. … Everyone who hears the song is blown away. It really is thanks to the talent of the young students that I’m blessed to be helping them develop.”

On what motivates his students: “None of them were coming at it from knowing people who were in a shooting. They’re just very aware and intelligent students. I think the point that the students in Florida are making is that a lot of people underestimate kids and youth, and I think these students are also underestimated — about how much they are aware of what’s going on in the world, and that they should have a say.”