Future of Schools

Half of Indianapolis charter schools scored lower than IPS on ISTEP in 2014

PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson / The Star
Lead Kindergarten teacher Liz Amadio, right, works with students at Enlace Academy.

Charter schools were designed to be a better alternative to low-scoring traditional public schools, especially in cities like Indianapolis where many children must overcome barriers to learning.

But of the 18 charter schools operating this year in the city that took ISTEP last year, about half fell below the Indianapolis Public Schools districtwide average of 51.6 percent passing.

Those nine charter schools, where only about half the students, or fewer, passed ISTEP in 2014, have one thing in common: they serve more poor children than the average IPS school. Some of them are focused on students with special needs that can make it harder to earn a passing score on the state test, such as large numbers of children who are learning English as a new language or in special education.

But several of charter schools below the district average have what sometimes can be considered an advantage: they have been around for several years and are connected to national networks of schools.

Chalkbeat is publishing short profiles of the top-scoring and lowest-scoring Marion County schools on ISTEP for three types of schools — Indianapolis Public Schools, township schools and charter schools. Check out our past stories on the top-rated IPS schools, lowest-scoring IPS schools and the top-scoring charter schools.

(ISTEP scores and grades for the 2014-15 school year are not expected to be released until late this year or early next year.)

While seven of the top nine Indianapolis charter schools for ISTEP scores are homegrown charter schools, the story is different for the nine schools that rank below the IPS average. For those schools, seven of nine are part of national networks. Just two are locally run charter schools.

Charter schools are free public schools run independently from school districts. Each has a local governing board that decides who will manage the school. Those boards report to a sponsor, also sometimes called an authorizer. In Indiana, the legislature has given the state charter board, universities, school districts and the Indianapolis mayor the authority to be sponsors. Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office sponsors most of the city’s charter schools.

Sponsors have the authority to decide when charter schools can open, monitor their progress toward and hold them accountable for their performance, which can include shutting them down.

Many charter schools focus on students who come to school with barriers to learning. For example, several have large numbers of students that come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. To do so, a family of four cannot earn more than $44,863 annually. Some have large numbers of students in special education or who are learning English as a new language, two challenges that can make it harder for a school to earn a high passing rate.

Here’s a look at the lowest-scoring Indianapolis charter schools:

Indianapolis Lighthouse Charter School

A K-12 school located on the city’s southeast side, Indianapolis Lighthouse Charter School’s scores were on the rise for six years until the school absorbed students when its sister school, Monument Lighthouse, closed in 2013.

IndyLighthouseCharterMug
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
With more than 1,000 students, Indianapolis Lighthouse is one of the city’s biggest charter schools.

The school’s enrollment jumped by more than 300 students to 1,016 in grades K-12. Since the merger, test progress has slowed.

About half the school passed ISTEP in 2014, 49.7 percent, down for the second straight year from the 2012 high of 52.8 percent. As a result, the school was rated a D in 2014, down from a C the year before. As recently as 2011 it had been rated an A.

Even though the school’s ISTEP decline has been slight, the passing rate is low, failing to outdo the IPS average of 51.6 percent. Lighthouse has since opened a second school, Indianapolis Lighthouse Charter School East. The schools are among the few Indianapolis charter schools run by out-of-state companies. The Massachusetts-based Lighthouse Academies network has schools in eight states. The school is sponsored by the Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office.

About 85 percent of the school’s students come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. About 72 percent are black, 15 percent white and 9 percent Hispanic. Roughly 3 percent are English-language learners and 12 percent are in special education.

Andrew J. Brown Academy

With a 49.6 percent passing rate on ISTEP in 2014, Andew J. Brown Academy has seen three straight years of falling scores, down from 64 percent passing in 2011.

Andrew J. Brown Academy is run by National Heritage Academies, one of the country's biggest charter school companies.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Andrew J. Brown Academy is run by National Heritage Academies, one of the country’s biggest charter school companies.

Located on the East side, the school’s grade has seen a corresponding decline. It was rated an F just four years after it was rated an A in 2011.

The school, serving 645 students in grades K-8, is run by Michigan-based National Heritage Academies, one of the largest charter school management companies in the country. The school is sponsored by Ballard’s office.

Andrew J. Brown Academy services a high-poverty population, with 94 percent of its students coming from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The school is 61 percent black, 30 percent Hispanic and 2 percent white.

A large number of students at the school are learning English as a new language at nearly 28 percent. About 10 percent are in special education.

Indiana Math and Science Academy

The first of what is now a network of three Indiana Math and Science Academies has struggled the past two years, with 41.4 percent passing ISTEP in 2014, up slightly from the prior year.

The original Indiana Math and Science Academy now has two sister schools as part of its network.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
The original Indiana Math and Science Academy now has two sister schools as part of its network.

But before 2013, the school had seen five straight years of test score gains.

Run by Illinois-based Concept Schools, it earned a C in 2014, up from an F, but well below the A it earned in 2011. The school is sponsored by Ballard’s office.

Located southeast of downtown, the school serves about 560 students in grades K-12. About 79 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

About 64 percent of the school’s students are black, 27 percent are Hispanic and 5 percent are white. A large number of the school’s students are learning English as a new language at 22 percent. About 11 percent are in special education.

KIPP Indianapolis College Preparatory Academy

KIPP, a middle school for about 345 students in grades 5-8, has had its ups and downs when it comes to passing ISTEP. Lately, it’s been back down.

KIPP Indy moved into the former IPS School 110 building last year.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
KIPP Indy moved into the former IPS School 110 building last year.

About 47.9 percent passed ISTEP in 2014, down for the second straight year and dropping the school to a D. The school’s passing rate has been on a roller coaster. Between 2007 and 2009, scores dropped to a low of 31 percent passing. Then scores jumped for three straight years to 60 percent passing in 2012, earning an A, before falling again.

The school is affiliated with the well-regarded New York-based national KIPP charter school network. It moved last year to a new building, the former IPS School 110, and started a separate elementary school, KIPP Unite, in the same building. The school is sponsored by Ballard’s office.

The school is very racially isolated — 95 percent of students are black. About 83 percent of the school’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Less than 1 percent are English-language learners and about 19 percent are in special education.

Tindley Renaissance Academy

Now in its third year, Tindley Renaissance is the first elementary school that is part of the Tindley Accelerated Schools network.

Second graders work on literacy at Tindley Renaissance School last year.
PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Second graders work on literacy at Tindley Renaissance School last year.

But 2014 was the first year the school took ISTEP, and its passing rate was far below that of other schools that are part of the Tindley network at 44.3 percent.

The school, with about 500 students in grades K-4, is located in the same neighborhood as the other Tindley schools on the city’s northeast side. The school is sponsored by Ballard’s office.

Like other Tindley schools, Tindley Renaissance is very racially isolated, with 93 percent black students, and serves mostly low income enrollment in which about 70 percent of students comes from a family that is poor enough to qualify for free lunch.

The school has no English-language learners, and about 10 percent of its students are in special education.

Imagine Life Science Academy West

Imagine Life Science Academy West is the last remaining Indiana charter school run by Imagine Schools, a Virginia-based charter school management company.

Imagine Life Sciences Academy West in in Indianapolis avoided being closed when it found a new charter sponsor.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Imagine Life Sciences Academy West in in Indianapolis avoided being closed when it found a new charter sponsor.

A second Indianapolis school closed, and two in Fort Wayne converted to private schools after their charters were not renewed. The company just converted from a for-profit company to a nonprofit organization. The school is sponsored by Trine University.

Imagine West has been a long time low performing when it comes to passing ISTEP. Just 41.4 percent passed in 2014 and the school has never seen more than half its students pass. The school was rated an F, down from a D the prior year.

Imagine West is a large school serving about 590 students in grades K-8. It sits next door to IPS School 79, which has been rated an A for four straight years, on the city’s northwest side.

About 82 percent of its students come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The school is 65 percent black, 30 percent Hispanic and 3 percent white.

A large number of students are English-language learners at about 24 percent, and 14 percent are in special education.

Indiana Math and Science Academy South

The newest sister school of Indiana Math and Science Academies network struggled in its first year, with 41.4 percent passing ISTEP in 2014.

Run by Illinois-based Concept Schools, Indiana Math and Science Academy South is one of three sister schools in the city.
PHOTO: Wikipedia
Run by Illinois-based Concept Schools, Indiana Math and Science Academy South is one of three sister schools in the city.

Also run by Illinois-based Concept Schools and sponsored by Mayor Greg Ballard’s office, it earned a D on its first report card.

Located southeast of downtown, the school serves about 285 students in grades K-8. It serves a high-poverty population, with about 95 percent of its students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch.

About 66 percent of the school’s students are black, 18 percent are white and 7 percent are Hispanic.

Very few of the school’s students are learning English as a new language at less than 1 percent. About 15 percent are in special education.

Enlace Academy

Located in an IPS-owned building on the city’s northwest side, Enlace serves a student body that includes a huge number of English-language learners at 57 percent of the school.

Enlace Academy is a charter school, where 55 percent of students are English language learners.
PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson / The Star
Enlace Academy is a charter school, where 55 percent of students are English language learners.

When it reported ISTEP scores for the first time in 2014, its passing rate was a very low 28.6 percent. Enlace has not yet earned a grade from the state. (For more on the school read this story from WFYI’s Eric Weddle that was part of a joint project with Chalkbeat.)

The school’s goal is to use technology and follow a blended learning approach similar to that of Carpe Diem. Students split their learning time between computer-led lessons and instruction from a teacher.

With about 202 students in grades K-5, the school serves a high-poverty population, with about 98 percent of students qualifying for free-or reduced price lunch.

The school is about 70 percent Hispanic, 27 percent black and 3 percent white. About 9 percent are in special education.

The locally run school is sponsored by Ballard’s office.

Damar Charter Academy

Damar Charter Academy is unique in that it enrolls almost exclusively students who need special education services. It is affiliated with Damar Services Inc., a local organization that helps children and adults with autism, intellectual disabilities, developmental disabilities and behavioral challenges to live more independent lives.

Damar Charter Academy
PHOTO: G. Tatter
Damar Charter Academy serve nearly all students who need special education services.

The school was founded in 2011 to provide a school for children with those sorts of challenges. Very few of the students qualify to take ISTEP. Others take alternative tests crafted to better fit their needs.

Of those who do take ISTEP, few pass — just 10 percent in 2014. The school is sponsored by the Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office.

Damar is a small school of about 160 students in grades K-12 located on the city’s southwest side. About 81 percent come from families poor enough to qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

The school is about 69 percent white, 23 percent black and 2 percent Hispanic. Less than 1 percent are English-language learners. More than 96 percent are in special education.

'indigenized' curriculum

Denver doesn’t graduate half of its Native American students. This charter school wants to change that.

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Tanski Chrisjohn gets help adjusting the microphone at a school board meeting from Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

The Denver school district is not serving Native American students well. Fewer than one in four Native American sixth-graders were reading and writing on grade-level last year, according to state tests, and the high school graduation rate was just 48 percent.

Even though that percentage is lower than for black or Latino students, educator Terri Bissonette said it often feels as if no one is paying attention.

“Nobody says anything out loud,” said Bissonette, a member of the Gnoozhekaaning Anishinaabe tribe who graduated from Denver Public Schools and has worked in education for 20 years as a teacher and consultant. “We’re always listed as ‘others.’”

Bissonette aims to change that by opening a charter school called the American Indian Academy of Denver. The plan is to start in fall 2019 with 120 students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades and then expand into high school one grade at a time. Any interested student will be able to enroll, no matter their racial or ethnic background.

The Denver school board unanimously and enthusiastically approved the charter last week – which is notable given enrollment growth is slowing districtwide and some board members have expressed concerns about approving too many new schools.

But the American Indian Academy of Denver would be unlike any other school in the city. The curriculum would focus on science, technology, engineering, art, and math – or STEAM, as it’s known – and lessons would be taught through an indigenous lens.

Bissonette gives a poignant example. In sixth grade, state academic standards dictate students learn how European explorers came to North America.

“When you’re learning that unit, you’re on the boat,” Bissonette said. “I’d take that unit and I’d flip it. You’d be on the beach, and those boats would be coming.”

Antonio Garcia loves that example. The 17-year-old cites it when talking about why the school would be transformational for Native American youth, a population that has historically been forced – sometimes violently – to assimilate into white culture. For decades, Native American children were sent to boarding schools where their hair was cut and their languages forbidden.

Garcia is a member of the Jicarilla Apache, Diné, Mexikah, and Maya tribes. A senior at Denver’s East High School, he recalls elementary school classmates asking if he lived in a teepee and teachers singling him out to share the indigenous perspective on that day’s lesson.

“Indigenous students don’t have a place in Denver Public Schools,” Garcia said. “We’re underrepresented. And when we are represented, it’s through tokenism.”

According to the official student count, 592 of Denver’s nearly 93,000 students this year are Native American. That’s less than 1 percent, although Bissonette suspects the number is actually higher because some families don’t tick the box for fear of being stigmatized or because they identify as both Native American and another race.

The district does provide extra support for Native American students. Four full-time and three part-time staff members coordinate mentorships, cultural events, college campus visits, and other services, according to district officials. In addition, five Denver schools are designated as Native American “focus schools.” The focus schools are meant to centralize the enrollment of Native American students, in part so they feel less isolated, officials said.

But it isn’t working that way. While the number of students at some of the schools is slightly higher than average, there isn’t a large concentration at any one of them. Supporters of the American Indian Academy of Denver hope the charter will serve that role.

“It’s very hard being the only Native person that my friends know,” second-grader Vivian Sheely told the school board last week. “It would be nice to see other families that look like my own.”

That sense of belonging is what Shannon Subryan wants for her children, too. Subryan and her daughters are members of the Navajo and Lakota tribes. Her 7-year-old, Cheyenne, has struggled to find a school that works for her. Because Cheyenne is quiet in class, Subryan said teachers have repeatedly suggested she be tested for learning disabilities.

“Our children are taught that listening before speaking is more valued than speaking right away,” Subryan said. “She understands everything. It’s just a cultural thing.”

After switching schools three times, Cheyenne ended up at a Denver elementary with a teacher who shares her Native American and Latina heritage. She’s thrived there, but Subryan worries what will happen when Cheyenne gets a new teacher next year. As soon as Cheyenne is old enough, Subryan plans to enroll her at the American Indian Academy of Denver.

In addition to the school’s “indigenized” curriculum, Bissonette envisions inviting elders into the classrooms to share stories and act as academic tutors, exposing students to traditional sports and games, and teaching them Native American languages. Above all, she said the school will work to hire high-quality teachers, whether they’re Native American or not.

The school is partly modeled on a successful charter school in New Mexico called the Native American Community Academy. Opened in 2006, it has a dual focus on academic rigor and student wellness. Last year, 71 percent of its graduates immediately enrolled in college, school officials said. In Denver, only 38 percent of Native American graduates immediately enrolled.

Several years ago, the New Mexico school launched a fellowship program for educators who want to open their own schools focused on better serving Native American students. Bissonette will be the first Colorado educator to be a fellow when she starts this year.

She and her founding board of directors are hoping to open the American Indian Academy of Denver in a private facility somewhere in southwest Denver. That region is home to the Denver Indian Center and has historically had a larger population of Native American families.

However, she said she and her board members realize the Native American population isn’t big enough to support a school alone. More than half of all Denver students are Latino, and they expect the school’s demographics to reflect that. Many Latino students also identify as indigenous, and Bissonette is confident they’ll be attracted to the model.

“This really is a school from us, about us,” she said.

COUNTING TNREADY

School boards across Tennessee scrap TNReady scores from students’ grades

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki

As the school year comes to a close following the standardized testing debacle that concluded in Tennessee this month, many school districts have decided the scores won’t count toward students’ final grades.

Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest district, will take up the issue Tuesday when the school board meets in a work session.

Earlier this year, the district was one of about half of the state’s school systems that reported to the state it likely would not use the scores because the results were not expected to be received at least five school days before the end of the year. But that early tally was unofficial.

“The survey was just to let us know what they were planning for so we could have a sense of what districts were planning on doing, but it was not binding in any way,” said Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

Now, one by one, a growing number of districts are opting not to count the scores against students whenever the results are released.

This year’s online testing was plagued with a series of testing snafus, including login troubles, an apparent cyberattack, a dump truck cutting a fiber optic line and the wrong test being issued to some students. It’s the third year in a row that TNReady testing has gone wrong.

Bartlett City Schools decided during a special school board session last week not to use the scores on high school report cards after previously saying it would. So did the Franklin Special School District. The week before, Williamson County, Blount County, and Collierville school board members voted the same.

Millington Municipal Schools also will not be using the scores in that district’s final grades. But the district decided in December not to include the scores, said Stacy Ross, a spokesperson for the district.

“The decision was made because the scores from testing would not be back in time for final report cards,” Ross said in a statement to Chalkbeat.

It’s unclear of the 71 school districts that had initially said they planned to count the scores, how many have changed their minds.

Greene County is one of a few districts that has decided to count the scores as 15 percent of students’ final grades.

Before this year’s testing challenges, state law had required that the high school end-of-course exams count for 15 percent of a high school student’s final grade unless the scores came in too late for report cards.

But after the testing snafus, legislators left it in the hands of school boards to decide how much to count TNReady scores — if at all — toward students’ grades.

High school raw scores are expected to be delivered electronically to districts by May 22 and grades 3-8 scores are expected to be available by June 15, according to the state.