In the Classroom

With its jackpot $28.5 million grant, Warren Township pushes career programs, online learning and teacher training

PHOTO: James Vaughn
Davoni White (left) and Chris Patterson (right) rush to set up a camera in one minute during an advanced studio production class at Warren Central High School. The FrontRunner studio (pictured here) was funded by the Race to the Top grant.

Three years ago, Warren Township got a lucky break when it was one of just 16 school districts nationwide to win a big federal Race to the Top grant.

The district walked away with $28.5 million for its goal of more closely connecting what its schools teach to the individual needs of its students.

The district has used the money to try out a host of new ideas. It added state-of-the-art facilities to the career center at its high school, added a computerized system to keep students learning even if they are kicked out of school and poured money into training teachers.

But the district isn’t stopping there. Before the grant dries up in 2017, Warren hopes to use the money to add “blended learning,” a system that mixes teacher-led lessons with individual work on the computer, to all of its elementary, intermediate and middle schools.

“The grant has helped us build the wings of the plane before we take off rather than try to take that plane off and build the wings at the same time like a lot of districts around us are forced to do,” said Ryan Russell, assistant superintendent of educator effectiveness.

Warren Township has the fifth largest enrollment of the 11 Marion County school districts with 12,100 students, many of which face the same learning barriers that students in other high-poverty districts battle.

More than 70 percent of students come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, which for a family of four means less than $43,500 in annual income. In IPS, by comparison, about 75 percent of students qualify, and statewide the figure is about 49 percent.

Three of its nine elementary schools earned a D letter grade from the state for low test scores, including the once high-rated Sunny Heights Elementary School. Two of its three middle schools earned a D. Warren Township High School earned a C on its last state report card.

The grant was intended to spark innovation in school districts with these sorts of challenges and help them turn the corner to better student outcomes. Race to the Top school district winners were expected to find ways to personalize learning for students, especially using technology, that other districts around the country could learn from.

“The goal with Race to the Top was to really gain some momentum and spearhead this effort to personalize learning for students,” Russell said. “We’re not talking about a magnet school. We’re not talking about just one school out of our 18 sites. We’re talking about, as a district, committing to personalized learning.”

One example are changes at the Walker Career Center, which is attached to the high school.

A ‘real-world’ experience

Gabbi Mitchell stood shoulder to shoulder with professionals and did exactly the same work to produce videos during the VEX Robotics competition in November at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

She’s not getting paid, but you could argue her work is semi-professional. Mitchell has a job with a tiny student-run video production company called FrontRunner, which is housed at the career center.

Last week, FrontRunner was gearing up for its second time covering Gen Con, an annual gaming convention that takes over Downtown Indianapolis each August.

The school district spent $1.7 million from the Race to the Top grant to build a state-of-the-art studio equipped with a green screen, seven high definition cameras and a production trailer for students working in the field.

The idea for FrontRunner originated with Dennis Jarrett, who spent about a decade working in television at RTV6 before transitioning to teaching.

Students were doing live broadcasts and “real journalism” before the grant, Jarrett said. But he wanted to add a layer to the real-world experience they were getting. Now, organizations like Gen Con and VEX Robotics actually pay FrontRunner to produce videos during their events – money Jarrett hopes will keep the program going once the grant runs out.

“After this year, we have to be self-sufficient,” Jarrett said. “So what we’re able to do with the monies that we’re making is ensure that we can sustain this after the grant is done.”

For the students, Jarrett teaches video production classes during the school day. After school, they apply what they’ve learned in their work for FrontRunner.

“We’re outfitted on the level of any other production company or TV facility here in Indianapolis,” Jarrett said.

The Walker Career Center is home to more than 20 career-focused electives, from engineering to cosmetology. There is a fully functioning restaurant on site where students create, prepare and serve the food.

“It exposes these kids to something while they’re in high school and maybe it’s not for them,” Jarrett said. “Maybe they don’t like the fact that TV isn’t all glamour. Maybe they don’t like the fact that they have to spend four hours setting equipment up. So it exposes them to a career path while they’re still in a position to make a decision – they can change.”

Mitchell, 17, said she hopes to study broadcast journalism at Syracuse University – one of the best programs in the country – and would love to work at a network like CNN as an anchor or correspondent.

“I can do anything around here,” Mitchell said, sitting in the studio’s control room. “I can be on camera. I can use the camera. I can edit. I can do replay. But the thing I enjoy the most is capturing a story. I feel like everybody has a story and it just takes the right person to see it.”

An alternative to expulsion

By the end of the 2013-14 school year, Warren Township schools had expelled nearly 70 students and Superintendent Dena Cushenberry was frustrated.

The district needed an alternative to kicking kids out.

“My charge was, ‘How do we keep these students in school?’” Cushenberry said. “Maybe not in the school environment, per say. But how do we continue their education even though they’re not in the four walls of Warren Central High School or a middle school?”

Now they have an alternative thanks, again, to Race to the Top.

Today, when students are suspended and facing expulsion, the district’s Director of eLearning John Keller offers them a choice: stay in school by agreeing to take online courses or continue down the road to expulsion.

No longer are those students missing out on an education. For some of them, they’re even making it to graduation.

Since the program launched in October, 26 students have agreed to take online classes rather than be expelled. Two graduated on time this past spring. Seven earned credits.

But not doing the work is equivalent to agreeing to the expulsion.

“It doesn’t always work,” Cushenberry said. “You have some students that don’t want that. We try to make sure that everyone still has access to an education even when they think they don’t want it.”

Most of their school work can be completed at home, but the students take all of their tests at the district’s central office. Some students find the program suits them and they communicate with Keller often, he said. But he doesn’t hear from others after a mandatory orientation.

“The ball is very much in the student’s court,” Keller said. “We’re saying, ‘Hey, this track goes over the cliff to expulsion and this track stays on the rails. But it’s pretty much all you now in the sense that this is your time to be an adult about your learning and it’s going to take some initiative. I’m not going to call you and get you out of bed.”

A new kind of teacher

"I personally believe the best way we can support our students is to invest in our teachers. And so the biggest positive impact I believe Race to the Top has had is truly giving us an opportunity to invest far more in them than we ever could have imagined without it."Ryan Russell

Making greater use of online learning has also meant more learning for teachers, some of whom are more adept at using new technologies for instruction than others.

In the past two years, the district has paid for more than 50,000 training hours for its teachers and administrators.

“I personally believe the best way we can support our students is to invest in our teachers,” Russell said. “And so the biggest positive impact I believe Race to the Top has had is truly giving us an opportunity to invest far more in them than we ever could have imagined without it.”

Most of the money from the grant has been spent, one way or another, on the more than 700 teachers in the district.

Russell said Warren wants students working at their own paces and seeing real-time results.

In many cases, that means teachers have to change the way they teach, which is the most challenging part of the process, he said.

“We as teachers were trained to kind of command and control a classroom – to be up front, a sage on the stage,” Russell said. “But personalization and blended (learning) really requires you to shift your role into more of a facilitator and a coach.”

Younger children, the district has learned, actually have a lot of understanding about how technological tools work and quickly learn how to use them for school work. So the district wants to connect that understanding directly to their lessons.

“We know that kids right now in kindergarten – all they know is technology,” Cushenberry said. “We had to figure out, ‘How do you make education relevant for the students of this generation?’”

Investment strategy

Here are the initiatives Memphis’ education philanthropists will focus on in 2018

PHOTO: Matt Detrich/The Indianapolis Star
A charter leader from Indianapolis, Marcus Robinson is now CEO of the Memphis Education Fund, a philanthropic collaborative that invests in education improvement initiatives for Memphis schools.

A Memphis philanthropic group has shed its “Teacher Town” name but still plans to spend this year recruiting new teachers while also investing in growing the city’s single-site charter operators.

Unlike similar organizations in other cities across the country, the Memphis Education Fund plans to center its search locally — by helping local universities and groups prepare teachers for the challenges of urban education.

Originally called Teacher Town, the fund was created in 2014 by Memphis education leaders and local philanthropists with a goal of transforming Memphis into a destination city for talented teachers. That vision built on a major investment by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to improve teaching in the city.

In 2016, the group adopted a broader goal of improving all schools; brought in a new leader, Marcus Robinson, from Indianapolis; and joined Education Cities, a national collective of local groups seeking to reshape schools in their cities

In part inspired by changes that have taken place in Indianapolis, where Robinson had worked as a charter leader, Education Cities coordinates local groups advocating for the “portfolio model,” a vision in which cities have more charter schools and let district schools operate more like charters.

Robinson told Education Cities a year ago that his next step for Memphis would be “to unite everyone around a common set of operating principles, expectations, and evaluations to create a level playing field for each operator to perform optimally.” This appears to be in line with the portfolio vision, which aims to give all schools flexibility to operate as they see fit, while holding them equally accountability for results.

But instead of bringing the Shelby County Schools district and local charter operators closer together, 2017 saw them waging open competition for students.

For 2018, Robinson is tackling priorities that are not likely to inflame divisions. The fund will continue to focus on principal training, along with helping single-site charter organizations, boosting reading skills among the city’s youngest students, and recruiting new Memphis teachers.

“We’re hell-bent to fill classrooms with teachers,” said Robinson, pointing to elementary schools as having some of the greatest need.

Memphis will need an estimated 3,600 new teachers by 2020, said Lesley Brown, who directs how the fund invests its money to attract, develop and retain talent for local schools.

Rather than recruiting teachers from outside of Memphis, Teacher Town’s original focus, Robinson said the fund is strengthening partnerships with local universities and teacher preparation programs, such as one launched at Rhodes College in 2016 with the help of a $7 million gift from the fund.

The Memphis Education Fund receives support from several local philanthropies, including The Pyramid Peak Foundation and the Hyde Foundation. (Chalkbeat also receives support from Hyde; read about our funding here.)

Robinson added that the fund also is ramping up its support for single-site charter operators, such as helping teachers implement new literacy curriculum at Memphis Delta Preparatory Charter School and STAR Academy Charter School.

“There’s less of an appetite for national charter organizations to move into Memphis,” he said. ”The next phase isn’t national CMOs (charter management organizations), but how do we encourage single-site schools to evolve.”

The group has doled out such grants to charters as part of a larger effort to boost student reading levels and develop teacher training for Core Knowledge Language Arts and KIPP Wheatley.

“Early literacy is a huge focus,” Robinson told Chalkbeat. “When we look at the test scores, early elementary scores are horrific. What’s the root? Access to quality literacy instruction.”

getting in

Detroit district moves beyond test scores for admittance to elite high schools like Cass Tech and Renaissance

The Detroit school district is changing its application process for students hoping for a spot at selective high schools like Cass Technical High School.

Detroit’s main school district is changing the way it decides which students gain entry to the city’s elite high schools.

Students applying to Cass Technical High School, Renaissance High School and two other selective high schools will no longer be judged primarily on the results of a single exam.

Instead, an admissions team comprised of teachers and staff from the schools, as well as administrators in the district’s central office, will use a score card that gives students points in various categories.

Students can get up to 40 points for their score on the district’s high school placement exam, up to 30 points for their grades and transcripts, up to 20 points for an essay and up to 10 points for a letter of recommendation. Students already enrolled in the district will also get 10 bonus points that will give them an edge over students applying from charter and suburban schools.

That is a change over past years when  students with the highest test scores largely got automatic admissions to their top-choice schools. Other factors like grades, essays, student interviews, and letters of recommendations were typically only considered during an appeals process for students who didn’t make the first-round cut.

“You can imagine that there was a great deal of subjectivity to that, and if you’re a student who might not be a good test taker, you were at a disadvantage,” said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who, as a dyslexic, said he was not a strong test-taker in school.

“I can empathize with that gifted student whose intelligence is not always identified by a standardized test,” he said.

Vitti said he hopes the new process “will have more of a quality control … It’s a consistent process to ensure that we’re being equitable and fair when students are being enrolled in these schools.”

The district’s decision to reduce the role of testing in admission decisions mirrors a trend across the country where college admissions offices are increasingly moving beyond SAT and ACT scores to give more weight to grades and other factors in admissions decisions.

Cities like New York and Boston are reviewing their use of test-based admissions for their elite high schools in the face of an onslaught of criticism that the tests discriminate against students of color and students who come from poor families and reinforce already prevalent segregation in the districts.

“Tests tend to favor kids who come from backgrounds and whose families have the wherewithal to focus on test prep,” said Bob Schaeffer, the public education director at FairTest, an organization critical of schools’ reliance on test scores to make crucial decisions.

In addition to changing the admission criteria for Detroit’s selective high schools, the district is also for the first time requiring all district 8th-graders to take the exam. In the past, only students who applied to the top schools took those tests.

“Not every school emphasized the exam application process, so it would be dependent on an individual parent’s ability to navigate the system,” Vitti said.

Only about half of the district’s 8th graders took the exam last year. Data provided by the district show that several schools had just a handful of students take the test while others had dozens of test-takers. (See the full list of test-takers from district schools here.)

Vitti hopes that requiring 8th graders to take the test and encouraging more of them to write essays and gather letters of recommendation to apply will help prepare them to apply to college four years later.

“We’re creating a culture of college readiness,” he said.

The district is also using the exam to survey students about their career ambitions and plans to make high school programming decisions based on their answers, Vitti said, adding that high schools will also use the exam results to determine which students could benefit from advanced classes and which ones need more help.

Some parents and educators say they welcome efforts to make the application process more equitable.

Hope Gibson, the dean of students at Bethune Elementary-Middle School on the city’s west side, said students were excited when the school encouraged them to apply to the selective schools.

“They feel like we believe in them,” she said.

The changes, however, have put some families on edge as they worry about how the new approach will affect students’ chances at landing a spot in their first-choice school.

Aliya Moore, a parent leader at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, a K-8 school that typically sends roughly half of its graduates to Cass and Renaissance, said parents had trouble getting information about the process and have been frustrated with Vitti and the school officials he brought to Detroit with him from his last job running schools in Jacksonville, Florida.

“I don’t like these new people coming here and criticizing our old ways,” said Moore, who graduated from Cass Tech in 1998 and has a daughter enrolled there now. “The district is now full of changes. Some are good, but some are like, if something is not broken, why are you trying to fix it? We support Dr. Vitti. We have nothing negative to say. But when you come in and you just totally dismantle what was, even if it was working, we don’t understand that.”

Among Moore’s concerns is the district’s use of  a new test this year, which makes it more difficult for the school to help students prepare. Also, this year’s test is being administered online while prior tests were on paper.

Vitti said the district is using a new test this year because last year’s exam wasn’t an option.

“The license expired years ago and the district was illegally using it,” he said.

The new test will be online, he said, though students with disabilities and other students whose parents request it will be allowed to take the test on paper.

The Detroit district now has four examination schools including Cass, Renaissance and Martin Luther King Jr. High School. The district this year converted Southeastern High School into an exam school after Southeastern returned to the district from five years in the Education Achievement Authority, a now-dissolved state-run recovery district.