Future of Schools

One student's fresh start a symbol for new Carpe Diem Shadeland charter school

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Student Quentin Brown welcomes dignitaries to the new Carpe Diem Shadeland charter school.

Tuesday was another nerve-wracking new start for Quentin Brown, this time standing before a gleaming, recently constructed school.

Brown, wearing a red striped tie, tried not to sweat in the intense sunlight as he stepped forward to give the student speech welcoming dignitaries to the ribbon-cutting for the new Carpe Diem Shadeland charter school on the city’s East side.

Because he can’t help but gesture with his hands while speaking, Brown struggled a bit to keep the microphone close to his lips and his handwritten speech in sight as he talked. But when he spoke about how hard it can be to stay optimistic for the future, Brown didn’t need the paper or the mic.

Students put their thumb prints and signatures on a learning tree as part of the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new Carpe Diem Shadeland charter school.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Students put their thumb prints and signatures on a learning tree as part of the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new Carpe Diem Shadeland charter school.

“I thought I would just fail again like at the other schools,” he said as he told his classmates of his worries walking in the door of a school where most of the learning is done on computer. “I thought I had no hope. But they seemed enthusiastic about me coming to Carpe Diem.”

When Carpe Diem came to town three years ago with its first campus on Meridian Street, just south of Fall Creek, it was the city’s first school to lean heavily on a cutting-edge but controversial strategy called “blended learning.”

Students spend most of their time sitting in cubicles learning independently by working through online programs.

The goal for Carpe Diem schools is 300 students and only five teachers. The Shadeland campus has about 80 students right now in grades 6-10. Students do meet in core classes for part of the day, where they focus on group work and individual help. Instructional aides also are on-hand in the school’s large cubicle-laden main room to offer help.

The original campus now has about 225 students and posted strong initial test scores. It equaled the state average with 73 percent passing ISTEP — 20 points above the IPS average — the first year, but the passing rate slipped in 2014 to 62.7 percent. The slide meant the school earned a D for its first grade.

Still, it was a strong enough start that the Arizona-based company opened two new campuses. The other is on the West side on 38th Street.

Students write down their dreams as part of the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new Carpe Diem Shadeland charter school.
Students write down their dreams as part of the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new Carpe Diem Shadeland charter school.

“We want to educate, we want to empower and we want to equip,” said Harold Niehaus, Carpe Diem’s chief learning officer. “We want take you from where you are and move you forward so you can be successful.”

That’s what Brown wants, too. He should be a senior, but he only has enough credits to be in 10th grade.

Two years ago, as Carpe Diem came to town, Brown was living through the transition at Arlington High School as the state took over from Indianapolis Public Schools and handed it off to be run by the Tindley charter school network.

Back then, Brown was quoted in the Indianapolis Star saying he thought Arlington was improved after Tindley took over. It had been chaotic under IPS, he said. Brown said he struggled to learn in large classes, for example, when the district was in charge.

There were some good moments for Brown after the Tindley takeover. He played Lord Montague in a performance of Romeo and Juliet, for one. But the transition to Tindley was hard, too. There were new rules, but in other ways, he said, the school didn’t change that much.

Carpe Diem board Chairman Jason Bearce speaks at the ribbon cutting for the new Carpe Diem Shadeland campus.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Carpe Diem board Chairman Jason Bearce speaks at the ribbon cutting for the new Carpe Diem Shadeland campus.

“I’m not trying to bash Arlington, but it wasn’t a good fit for me,” he said.

After bouncing to other schools he was homeschooled last year. When he got a flyer in the mail about Carpe Diem, he and his mother decided to find out if he could get a fresh start there.

Brown wasn’t sure about the blended learning concept and spending so much time on a computer, but Principal Byron Brown (no relation) won him over.

“Sometimes a change in environment or relationship can actually change a kid,” Byron Brown said. “Look at him. After just four weeks, he’s giving a speech to the whole school.”

On the hunt

Want a say in the next IPS superintendent? Here’s your chance.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat

Parents, teachers, and neighbors will have a chance to weigh in on what they hope to see in the next Indianapolis Public Schools superintendent and the future of the district at three community meetings in the coming weeks.

The meetings, which will be facilitated by Herd Strategies at three sites across the city, will gather feedback before the school board begins the search for a new superintendent. The school board is expected to select the next superintendent in May.

Board President Michael O’Connor said the meetings are designed to get input on what the public values in the next superintendent. But they will also play another role, allowing community members to reflect and give feedback on the district’s embrace of innovation schools, one of the most controversial strategies rolled out during former Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration.

“As we look for the next superintendent, it’s perfect for us to take input on that path that we’ve taken and then hear what [community members] think is working well and maybe what they think we could do better,” O’Connor said, noting that the administration and board are often criticized for failing to engage the public.

Innovation schools are run by outside charter or nonprofit managers, but they are still considered part of the district. Indianapolis Public Schools gets credit from the state for their test scores, enrollment, and other data. The model is lauded by charter school advocates across the country, and it helped Ferebee gain national prominence.

Ferebee left Indianapolis in January after he was tapped to lead the Washington, D.C., school system. Indianapolis Public Schools is being led by interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson, who was formerly the deputy superintendent and is seen as a leading candidate to fill the position permanently.

Here is information about the three scheduled community input sessions:

Feb. 27, Hawthorne Community Center, 1-3 p.m.

March 7, Arsenal Technical High School in the Anderson Auditorium, 6-8 p.m.

March 13, George Washington Carver Montessori School 87 in the gymnasium, 6-8 p.m.

Unmet needs

A social worker in every grade? Perhaps for 10 Colorado elementary schools

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Fifth-graders practice mindfulness at Munroe Elementary School in Denver.

Educators, parents, and social workers told of students struggling with depression, younger and younger children attempting suicide, and youths ending up in prison. A bill approved Thursday by a Colorado House committee would pay for a three-year trial to provide social and emotional help for elementary students in the hopes of addressing some of these challenges.

If approved by the full legislature and signed into law, the measure would create a three-year pilot program at 10 high-needs schools. It is estimated to cost about $5 million a year. House Bill 1017 would place social workers, counselors or psychologists in every elementary grade at the test schools starting next year.

In an impassioned presentation, bill sponsor state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, said schools need more social workers “to stop our children from dying by suicide, from ending up incarcerated, from being failed by our system.”

Suicide is a leading cause of death among youth ages 10 to 24 in Colorado, and advocates of the bill said schools are often ill-equipped to deal with children suffering from trauma, bullying and behavioral challenges.

The bill was scaled back from an original version that would have cost $16 million a year. Michaelson Jenet said the nearly $5 million annual cost would be funded in part by $2.5 million from the state’s marijuana cash fund, with the rest from private foundations.

The National Association of Social Workers recommends one social worker for every 250 students, and one for every 50 students at high-needs schools.

Colorado schools don’t come close to those numbers.

About one-third of the state’s 178 school districts employed social workers during the 2016-17 school year, the most recent for which data was available from the Colorado Department of Education. Those districts represented about 89 percent of that year’s 905,000 pre-K through 12th grade students.

The nearly 590 social workers employed worked out to less than one full-time employee per 1,000 students.

Englewood’s Sheridan School District had three social workers for 1,511 students, while Yuma County had 1½ social workers for 807 students.

The two largest districts, Denver and Jefferson County, employed more than one-third of school social workers that year, with more than one social worker for every 1,000 students. Denver voters approved a 2016 tax to help pay for more social workers.

But many districts have no social workers. And most school social workers are stretched thin.

Jessie Caggiano is a social worker who serves more than 3,000 students at four high schools in Weld County.

“I’m not able to meet with students effectively on a one-on-one basis, because I’m trying to implement other services schoolwide,” she said. “I’m only at each of my schools one day a week, so I’m not able to meet their needs by any means.”

Darlene Sampson, president of the Colorado chapter of the Association of Black Social Workers, recalled working at a Denver school when a student was killed in the cafeteria.

“Many kids are carrying their trauma in their backpacks into the school,” Sampson said.

And Cam Short-Camilli, representing the Colorado School Social Work Association, said students are facing increased emotional problems at most schools. The increase in youth suicide and suicide attempts is especially difficult, she said. One Denver incident last fall attracted national attention.

“Every school district, every student is impacted, that’s rural, urban, suburban schools,” Short-Camilli said. “In the past five years, I’ve been at elementary schools, and it’s been extremely shocking. Kids at those schools, there’s an immense ripple effect.”

But state Rep. James Wilson, a Salida Republican, questioned whether the pilot program would be possible to replicate because of the high number of professionals needed.

“I’m sitting here feeling like the Grinch,” Wilson said. “I cannot bring myself to put together an unrealistic pilot. Will it really work in the real world?”

State Rep. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat, also expressed concerns, but voted for the bill.

“I’m concerned how we’re going to fund it,” she sad. “The suicide rate is off the chart and our kids need so much help. I don’t think we can wait. I have a lot of phone calls and emails about this bill, people who really need the help.”

HB-1017 next goes to the Appropriations Committee before being considered by the full House, then the Senate. It is one of several measures aimed at offering help for students and their families beyond academics at public schools.