Indiana

Hannon's goal: Help parents make choices and give schools useful data

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Students gather in the gym on a Wednesday morning in February at IPS School 27, a Center For Inquiry magnet school.

Caitlin Hannon gave up her job and her Indianapolis Public School Board seat for an idea that, while a pretty good bet to give her a future role in education in the city, is far from a slam dunk to succeed.

She’s taken the leap from suggesting a unified enrollment system as a board member to starting one herself. Her goal goes beyond just matching families with the best schools for their children.

She also thinks if parents all fill out one common application form, whether they want an IPS or charter school, and feed their desires into one database, it could help solve for Indianapolis one of education’s biggest mysteries: the motivations behind how and why they made those choices.

Hannon now has two years to start a nonprofit, find financial support, create a complex data system and, most importantly, get buy-in from her former board colleagues, the office of a new mayor, the leaders of local charter schools and perhaps even other public schools and even private schools.

Why take such a risk?

“We built this system to give families in public schools other choices,” she said. “How do you actually find what those options are?”

Understanding parent choices

On Monday, Hannon was selected by the Mind Trust as just the ninth “education entrepreneur” fellow since the organization was founded in 2006. The goal of the program is to provide education innovators time and financial support for groundbreaking ideas to improve student learning in Indianapolis.

The Mind Trust is investing $240,000 to create the system between the two-year fellowship pay and help with start-up costs.

Hannon said her goal is to create a single application parents could use to request schools for the 2017-18 school year. Her plan is to have it ready in late 2016 before the district normally begins gearing up its magnet school lottery.

Her vision is a system parents can use to learn about schools, rank them by preference and request children be assigned to their favorites.

A unified enrollment system is not a unique idea. New Orleans is a well-known example among a handful of cities that have tried it.

Hannon proposed such a system while on the school board, and Superintendent Lewis Ferebee was supportive. He said the district had preliminary conversations with Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office, which oversees a stable of more than 20 charter schools, about a shared system for both.

Other charter schools in the city will be invited to also join in. An invitation to private schools is even possible, especially those that receive publicly funded vouchers that use state education dollars to pay tuition for poor and middle class families that qualify.

“I think it would be worth sitting down with places like the Oaks Academy and Archdiocese of Indianapolis to see if they are interested in a seat at the table,” Hannon said.

As the number of schools that participates grows, the data should begin to shed light on what factors parents consider most important in choosing schools.

The answer could include surprises.

Many studies show the academic reputation of a school is a key factor parents consider when given a choice. But other factors are often rated nearly as important, such as whether the school is safe, how close it is to home, the recommendations of friends and family even what kind of lunch they serve.

So for some families, academic factors could be the top or as low as the third or fourth priority.

Surprisingly, schools sometimes fail to communicate to parents information about critical factors they use to choose where to enroll their students, said Addie Angelov, a University of Indianapolis professor who has written a book about school marketing.

Instead, schools are often overly focused on the priorities of legislators, who emphasize test scores and A-to-F grades far ahead all other factors.

“Politicians think if it’s an A, it’s good,” she said. “You don’t even need to walk through the building. But families don’t think that way. They may rank that much lower.”

Ensuring fairness, inspiring confidence

IPS has been working toward improving access to its own school choice options: magnet schools built around themes like foreign language instruction or Montessori curriculum and encouraging families to attend an expanded enrollment fair to learn about those schools.

But the district’s choice system doesn’t always work well. Popular schools have waiting lists, and the processes for being selected aren’t always clear to parents.

Plus, the magnet lottery is open only to families that go through the effort to apply. Others might not understand their options within the district beyond their neighborhood schools, much less those outside IPS. There is some evidence that children more likely to face learning barriers are less likely to get coveted spots in magnet schools. Some magnet schools, for example, have far fewer poor children or children who need special education services than a typical IPS school.

But if everyone is selecting schools through the same system, which makes their options clearer, those kids might get more opportunities.

“This establishes without any question that it’s completely fair,” Hannon said. “Even for district magnets there will be equal access.”

For charter schools, the system could eliminate concerns raised by critics about “skimming,” or the notion that some charter schools target wealthier or more academically accomplished students and find ways to discourage other children from enrolling.

Such practices are illegal. Charter schools are required to accept all children who enroll just like traditional public schools and most hold public lotteries if more student apply than the school can fit.

“This can be the proof point that we don’t do that,” Hannon said.

Some charter schools could be uneasy, however, about turning over control of their enrollment processes to an outside organization handling such large amounts of data. The advantage is far more families could learn about the school and consider applying.

“I can understand their worry,” Hannon said. “I’ve been part of a bureaucracy the last three years and seen how slow it can move and that can be frustrating. But this is giving up a small amount of freedom to make a system that works for all. The best charter school leaders think it’s right for kids.”

Better or worse for IPS?

Other critics worry that such a system could advantage charter schools, funneling more students out of IPS.

When students leave, so do the state dollars that support their schools. As the district has lost students and received less state aid over several decades it has become harder to offer as many services or even afford to pay regular raises to teachers.

“I just think it’s an unnecessary marriage,” board member Gayle Cosby said.

Cosby recently traveled to New Orleans for an education conference and heard from families who used that city’s shared enrollment system. They described waiting in long lines and being shut out from their favored options.

“Everything I heard was they were not able to get close to the choices they wanted,” she said.

For now, Cosby is in the minority on a board that has otherwise not been troubled by Ferebee’s interest in the idea.

Hannon’s departure from the board, however, removes its biggest champion of the common application idea, so a new board member could have different ideas.

The board is accepting applications for the open spot through 5 p.m. on Aug. 21. Those interested should send a resume and cover letter explaining why they want to join the board to mulhollandz@myips.org.

Interviews will be held on Aug. 26, and the board expects to vote on a replacement at its regular meeting on Aug. 27. The successful candidate must earn four votes from the six remaining board members.

Hannon is optimistic her successor will be like minded about her idea because the majority of those picking her replacement share her views.

Connecting parent demand with school decisions

An effective system could do something else for schools. It could be a data treasure trove that reveals more information about how and why parents choose schools.

For example, Hannon said, all schools could get a better understanding of which schools are in high demand and which have the fewest families interested in choosing them.

That’s a useful factor for school board members to weigh as they make big decisions about schools that loom over the next few years. IPS is looking at how best to use schools, for example, that have low enrollment. Should they be combined? If two schools are combined, should the children always be shifted to the one with the higher test scores? Or if parents are choosing the lower-rated school of the pair in bigger numbers, perhaps that is an argument to shift the students there instead?

“This gives us an opportunity to know where the parents think they want kids to go to school,” Mind Trust CEO David Harris said, “to see where the parents think schools are effective.”

That kind of information would have helped her as a school board member, Hannon said. For example, as IPS tries new methods to turn around schools, should test scores and A-to-F grades be the only factor to help choose which schools need a complete overhaul?

Last year, the school board was persuaded to try the district’s home-grown Project Restore school improvement method at School 93 after parents at the school, with help from the advocacy group Stand For Children, collected signatures demanding it. Administrators worked out a plan with the two former School 99 teachers who founded Project Restore to expand it there.

IPS also has new partnerships this year with charter school networks designed to improve struggling district schools. School 103 is now run in partnership with the district by administrators from the Phalen Leadership Academy Charter School and Charter Schools USA launched an elementary school within Donnan Middle School with the goal of preparing students better before they reach seventh grade.

As more schools move toward shared district-charter oversight, blurring the lines between school types, Hannon argues the need for parents to have information and access will grow.

“How cool would it be to have a wealth of data about what schools parents want in this neighborhood?” she said.

A third-party organization managing student enrollment requests and assignments for schools inside IPS, outside the district and those jointly run can help ensure confidence in the system and fairness, Hannon said.

“I heard from people you need somebody independent,” she said. “There is so much change happening at the district. We’re just now getting to a place where districts and charters are collaborating.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede