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.

another path

‘They’re my second family.’ Largest Pathways to Graduation class earn their diplomas

Jasmine Byrd receives an award for excellence after giving a speech to her fellow graduates.

Before last fall, Jasmine Byrd never envisioned herself striding across the stage to receive a diploma at a graduation ceremony.

But then Byrd moved to the Bronx from Utah and entered New York City’s Pathways to Graduation program, which helps 17- to 21-year-olds who didn’t graduate from a traditional high school earn a high school equivalency diploma by giving them free resources and support.

Just walking into this space and being like, this is what you’ve accomplished and this is what you’ve worked hard for, is a great feeling,” said Byrd, who also credits the program with helping her snag a web development internship. “I’ve built my New York experience with this program. They’re my second family, sometimes my first when I needed anything.”

Byrd is one of about 1,700 students to graduate during the 2017-18 school year from Pathways, the program’s largest graduating class to date, according to officials.  

This year, students from 102 countries and 41 states graduated from Pathways, which is part of District 79, the education department district overseeing programs for older students who have had interrupted schooling.

The program also saw the most students ever participate in its graduation ceremony, a joyful celebration held this year at the Bronx United Palace Theater. According to Robert Evans, a math teacher at one of the program’s five boroughwide sites and emcee of the graduation, about 600 students typically show up to walk the stage. But students can be a part of the ceremony even if they received their passing test results that morning, and this year more than 800 graduates attended.

There were still students coming in last night to take photos and to pick up their sashes and gowns,” said Evans.

The graduation ceremony is unique in part because the program is. Students who have not completed high school attend classes to prepare to take the high school equivalency exam. But the program also prepares students to apply for college, attend vocational school, or enter the workforce by providing help applying for colleges, creating resumes, and other coaching.

To make sure that the program is accessible to all students, there’s a main site in every borough and 92 satellite sites, located in community centers and youth homeless shelters like Covenant House. Students who want to work in the medical field, like Genesis Rocio Rodriguez, can take their courses in hospitals. Rodriguez, who graduated in December, is now enrolled in the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and passing the exam meant being one step closer to her dream of becoming a nurse.

When I got my results I was with my classmate, and to be honest I thought I failed because I was so nervous during it. But then I went online, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I did it!’ My mom started crying and everything.”

Byrd said the program worked for her because of the supportive teachers and extra resources.

“The teachers are relatable,” said Byrd. “They don’t put on an act, they don’t try to separate the person from the teacher. They really reach out, even call you to get you out of bed in the morning.”

Carmine Guirland said the supportive environment of social workers, guidance counselors, and teachers is what attracts him to the work at Bronx NeOn, a site where students who are on probation or who are involved with the court system can prepare for the exam, college, and careers.

When students are on parole they will have really involved [parole officers] who would text me at the beginning of class to check in so that we could work together,” said Guirland. “It’s really about that village thing. The more support systems that are available the more success the students will have.”

Reflecting on his experiences with the graduating class, Guirland’s most treasured memory was when one of his students proposed to his girlfriend in a guidance counseling session. Even though they aren’t together anymore, the moment was a reflection of the relationships that many of the students build during their time at Pathways to Graduation.

“It’s this amazing high moment where this student felt like the most comfortable place for him to propose to his girlfriend and the mother of his child was in our advisory circle,” said Guirland.

New Standards

Tennessee updates science standards for first time in 10 years. New guidelines stress class discussion, inquiry

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Fourth grade science teachers Lamarcus Marks, of Rivercrest Elementary, and Angie Clement, of Bartlett Elementary, test out a lesson on kinetic and potential energy at Arlington High School, one of 11 statewide sites where Tennessee teachers are training for next year's new science standards.

How can a wolf change the river? Why doesn’t a cactus have leaves? Why can’t you exterminate bats in Tennessee?

With new state science standards coming to classrooms next fall, these are the kinds of questions students will explore in their science classes. They’ll be tasked not only with memorizing the answers, but also with asking questions of their own, engaging on the topic with their teacher and classmates, and applying what they learn across disciplines. That’s because the changes set forth are as much about teaching process, as they are about teaching content.

“At the lowest level, I could just teach you facts,” said Detra Clark, who is one of about 300 Tennessee educators leading teacher trainings on the new standards to her peers from across the state. “Now it’s like, ‘I want you to figure out why or how you can use the facts to figure out a problem.’”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Detra Clark, a science coach in Shelby County’s iZone, demonstrates a sample lesson for sixth grade science teachers.

On Wednesday, Clark — a science coach for the iZone, a group of underperforming schools that Shelby County Schools is looking to turn around — unpacked for her peers, who gathered at Arlington High School, a key component of the new material: three-dimensional modeling. Under three-dimensional modeling, students should be able to do something with the content they learn, not just memorize it.

In recent years, Tennessee students have performed better on state science tests than on their math and English exams. But state science standards for grades K–12 haven’t been updated since 2008. By contrast, math and English benchmarks have undergone more recent changes. To give the stakeholders time to adjust, results from next year’s science test, the first to incorporate the new standards, won’t count for students, teachers, or schools.

At the training session, Clark, standing before a room of sixth-grade science teachers, held up a chart with the names of woodland animals, such as elk and deer. Under each name, she tracked the population over time.

“At our starting population, what do we see?” she asked.

“The deer, it decreases again because it’s introduced to a predator,” a teacher responded.

“More resources, more surviving animals” another teacher chimed in.

“How can we explain what happened in year two, when we’re dealing with students?” Clark asked the group.

“The population went up,” a teacher said.

“They start to reproduce!” another teacher interjected.

Clark nodded.

In another classroom, this one composed of kindergarten teachers, Bridget Davis — a K-2 instructional advisor for Shelby County Schools — clicked through a video of fuzzy critters, each paired with a close relative, such as two different breeds of dogs.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
In a teacher training session on Wednesday, kindergarten teachers highlight the three dimensions of three-dimensional modeling, a key part of new state science standards.

She encouraged the teachers to ask their students what traits the animals shared.

“The first thing they’re going to say is, ‘Well, one’s big and one’s small,” she said. “What we really want them to say is, ‘Well, their fur is the same color,’ or, ‘Mom has a patch of black hair here and the baby doesn’t.’ We want them to look at detail.”

She added, “We want them to get used to being a detective.”

The science standards that have been in place for the past decade fulfills the first dimension of three-dimensional modeling.

Doing something with that knowledge satisfies the second dimension, and the third dimension requires teachers to apply to their lessons a “cross-cutting concept” — strategies that students can apply to any subject, like identifying patterns or sequences.

Under the existing standards, a student may not have been introduced to physical science until the third grade. But starting next year, Tennessee schoolchildren will learn about life science, physical science, earth and space science, and engineering applications, beginning in kindergarten and continuing through high school.

“I do believe that this is the best our standards have ever been, because of the fact that they are so much more detailed than they have been in the past,” Davis said.

About a thousand Shelby County teachers made their way to trainings this week, which were free and open to all educators. Several administrators also met to discuss ways they can ensure the new standards are implemented in their schools.

As with anything new, Jay Jennings — an assistant principal at a Tipton county middle school and an instructor at Wednesday’s training — expects some pushback. But he’s optimistic that his district will have every teacher at benchmark by the end of the 2018–2019 school year.

“We talked before about teachers knowing content, and that’s important,” he said. “But what we want to see is kids knowing content and questioning content. We want to see them involved.”

He reminded other school leaders about last year’s changes to English and math standards, a transition that he said was challenging but smoother than expected.  

“Teachers are going to go out of their comfort zone,” he explained. “But it’s not changing what a lot of them are already doing.”