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.

new money

House budget draft sends more money to schools, but not specifically to teacher raises

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Despite months of heated debate, Indiana House Republicans are not setting aside extra dollars for meaningful teacher raises in their version of the state’s $14.5 billion education budget plan released Monday night.

Even though lawmakers are proposing preserving a controversial merit-based bonus pool and adding small amounts for teacher training programs, their budget draft would largely leave it up to school districts to dole out raises through increased overall funding.

The budget draft proposes increasing what Indiana spends on schools overall by $461 million — or 4.3 percent — through 2021, a little more than increases in years past. The basic per-student funding that all districts get would jump from $5,352 per student this year to $5,442 per student in 2020 and $5,549 per student in 2021. House lawmakers are also adding in a one-time payment of $150 million from state reserves that would pay down a pension liability for schools. But while lawmakers and Gov. Eric Holcomb have said that pension payment would free up about $70 million in schools’ budgets each year, the state likely wouldn’t require the cost-savings be passed along to teachers.

Although increasing teacher pay is a top goal for House Republicans, lawmakers have crafted bills that hinge on districts spending less money in areas such as administration or transportation rather than adding more money to school budgets and earmarking it for teacher salaries.

Their criticism of school spending has raised the ire of superintendents and educators who say they have little left to cut after years of increasing costs and state revenue that has barely kept pace with inflation.

But budget draft, which is expected to be presented to and voted on by the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday, doesn’t completely omit efforts to incentivize teachers to stick around. Unlike Holcomb’s budget proposal, House lawmakers are keeping in the current appropriation of $30 million per year for teacher bonuses.

The House budget draft would also set aside $1 million per year for a teacher residency pilot program and $5 million per year for schools that put in place career ladder programs that allow teachers to gain skills and opportunities without leaving the classroom.

Teacher advocacy groups, such as the Indiana State Teachers Association and Teach Plus, have been supportive of residency and career ladder programs, but the organizations have also called for more action this year to get dollars to teachers. Additionally, the ideas aren’t new — similar programs have been proposed in years past.

Calls for the hundreds of millions of dollars it would take to raise teacher salaries to be more in line with surrounding states will likely go unheeded for now as the state instead prioritizes other high-profile and expensive agencies, such as the Department of Child Services and Medicaid.

But while plans for major teacher pay raises appear to be on hold, House lawmakers are looking to boost funding in other areas of education to support some of the state’s most vulnerable students.

The budget draft would increase what the state must spend on preschool programs for students with disabilities from the current $2,750 per-student to $2,875 in 2020 and $3,000 in 2021 — the first such increase in more than 25 years.

House lawmakers are also proposing the state spend more money on students learning English as a new language, at $325 per student up from $300 per student now. While all schools with English learners would receive more money per student under this plan, the new budget draft removes a provision that had previously allocated extra dollars to schools with higher concentrations of English learners.

A 2017 calculation error and an uptick in interested schools meant state lawmakers did not budget enough money for schools with larger shares of English-learners in the last budget cycle, so they ended up getting far less than what the state had promised. But even the small increases were valuable, educators told Chalkbeat.

House lawmakers also suggested slashing funding for virtual programs run by traditional public school districts. Going forward, funding for both virtual charter schools and virtual schools within school districts would come in at 90 percent of what traditional schools receive from the state — now, only virtual charter schools are at the 90 percent level. It’s a marked change for House lawmakers, who in years past have asked that virtual charter school funding be increased to 100 percent.

The virtual funding proposal comes as lawmakers are considering bills that would add regulations for the troubled schools, where few students pass state exams or graduate.

The budget draft also includes:

  • $5 million per year added to school safety grants, totaling $19 million in 2020 and $24 million in 2021
  • Doubling grants for high-performing charter schools from $500 per student to $1,000 per student, at a cost of about $32 million over two years. The money is a way for charter schools to make up for not receiving local property tax dollars like district schools, lawmakers say.
  • $4 million per year more to expand the state’s private school voucher program to increase funding for certain families above the poverty line. Under the plan, a family of four making between $46,000 and $58,000 annually could receive a voucher for 70 percent of what public schools would have received in state funding for the student. Currently, those families receive a 50 percent voucher.
  • About $33 million over two years (up from about $25 million) for the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship program.

rethinking the reprieve

Indiana lawmakers take step to eliminate generous ‘growth-only’ grades for all schools, not just those in IPS

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

A panel of Indiana lawmakers took a first step Monday to stop giving new and overhauled schools more generous state A-F grades that consider only how much students improve on tests and cut schools slack for low test scores.

The House Education Committee was initially looking to clamp down on Indianapolis Public Schools’ innovation schools, barring them from using student test score improvement as the sole determinant in their first three years of A-F grades. The more generous scale has boosted IPS’ performance as it launches a new strategy of partnering with charter operators, by allowing some innovation network schools to earn high marks despite overall low test scores.

But lawmakers expanded the scope of the bill to stop all schools from receiving what are known as “growth-only grades” after Chalkbeat reported that IPS’ overhauled high schools were granted a fresh start from the state — a move that would allow the high schools to tap into the more lenient grading system.

“I want to be consistent, and I felt like [grading] wasn’t consistent before, it was just hodge-podge,” said committee Chairman Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican. “We need to be transparent with parents.”

Read: Why it’s hard to compare Indianapolis schools under the A-F grading system

The committee unanimously approved the bill. If it passes into law, Indianapolis Public Schools stands to be one of the districts most affected. Growth-only grades for innovation schools have given the district’s data a boost, accounting for eight of the district’s 11 A grades in 2018. All of its high schools could also be eligible for growth-only grades this year.

Indianapolis Public Schools officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In the past, they have defended the two-tiered grading system, arguing that growth on state tests is an important window into how schools are educating students. Growth-only grades were originally intended to offer new schools time to get up and running before being judged on student test scores.

IPS was also the target of another provision in the updated bill that would add in stricter rules for when and how schools can ask for a “baseline reset” — the fresh start that its four high schools were recently granted.

Read: IPS overhauled high schools. Now, the state is giving them a fresh start on A-F

The resets, which districts can currently request from the state education department if they meet certain criteria that show they’ve undergone dramatic changes, wipe out previous test scores and other student performance data to give schools a fresh start. The reset schools are considered new schools with new state ID numbers.

The state determined a reset was necessary for IPS’ four remaining high schools because of the effects of decisions last year to close three campuses, shuffle staff, and create a new system a new system for students to choose their schools. Each school will start over with state letter grades in 2019.

But Behning and other lawmakers were skeptical that such changes merited starting over with accountability, and they were concerned that the process could occur without state board of education scrutiny. If passed into law, the bill would require the state board to approve future requests for accountability resets.

A state board staff member testified in favor of the change. The state education department did not offer comments to the committee.

Rep. Vernon Smith, a Democrat from Gary, said he didn’t like the fact that a reset could erase a school’s data, adding that he had concerns about “the transparency of a school corporation getting a new number.”

The amended bill wouldn’t remove the reset for IPS high schools, but by eliminating the growth-only grades, it would get rid of some of the incentive for districts to ask for a reset to begin with. Under current law, reset schools are considered new and qualify for growth-only grades. But the bill would require that reset schools be judged on the state’s usual scale, taking into account both test scores and test score improvement — and possibly leading to lower-than-anticipated state grades.

The amended bill would still offer a grading grace period to schools opening for the first time: New charter schools would be able to ask the state to give them no grade — known as a “null” grade — for their first three years, but schools’ test score performance and test score growth data would still be published online. Behning said he didn’t include district schools in the null-grade measure because they haven’t frequently opened new schools, but he said he’d be open to an amendment.

The bill next heads to the full House for a vote.