In the Classroom

Plan to require more math, offer fewer diploma options raises concerns

PHOTO: Photo by David Armstrong via Flikr

With Indiana poised to move forward to adopt new definitions for how to qualify for its high school diplomas, parents and educators are still concerned about what it could mean for kids with special needs and other learning barriers.

Jason Bearce, with the Commission on Higher Education, said upping requirements is intended, in part, satisfy the needs of employers seeking workers who have more math skills. In each new diploma option, two to four more credits of math are required, which could equal one or two more years of study. Many states are moving toward diplomas that require more credits and more challenging coursework, Bearce said.

In 2014 Bearce said state legislators asked the Indiana Career Council to recommend how to improve the state’s diplomas. Today’s special meeting of the Indiana State Board of Education was to consider recommendations, which include offering just three diploma types instead of four while adding new required coursework.

“We’re not really talking about monstrous change in terms of what we expect from students,” Bearce said. “Colleges and employers for the most part speak with fairly consistent voice on this.”

Under the plan, there would be a “college and career ready” diploma, an “honors” diploma or a “workforce ready diploma” starting for kids who are high school freshmen in 2018. Currently there are four diploma options: General, Core 40, Core 40 honors and career and technical honors diplomas.

“The wide range of diploma options now is confusing,” Bearce said. “It’s confusing to students, it’s confusing to parents and sometimes, it even makes counselor’s jobs more difficult. A lot of this is about simplifying the process.”

But parents and educators still think the new options just don’t fit for some students. Beatriz Joyce, the mother of a kindergartner who has Down syndrome, said she wants her daughter to have every opportunity in her education — and that includes the chance to earn a high school diploma. Dropping the general diploma could make that much more difficult.

“Like everyone else she has her strengths and weakness, and we have high expectations for her,” Joyce told the board. “She might not be able to become a doctor or teacher, but I will be happy to know that at the very least she will be able to participate and get a high school diploma.”

Indiana state law today doesn’t require all school districts to offer all four diploma options. Some districts only offer the Core 40 diploma, suggested for students who want to go on to four-year colleges or professional fields, as the least-demanding option.

Ritz said a recent survey reported that half of Indiana schools do not offer a general diploma.

Tammy Hurm with the Indiana Council of Administrators of Special Education said the group this year will advocate to the legislature that all schools should offer all diplomas. Some schools today have stopped offering the general diploma, intended for students who will go straight into the workforce, to the frustration of parents like Joyce.

Students who would prefer to earn a general diploma but attend schools that don’t offer it can be stuck finishing school but not earning a diploma. Instead, some earn a just certificate of completion. That can leave them unqualified for future jobs that expect evidence of academic accomplishments.

“If a student has a certificate of completion and is asked a question on job application, ‘do you have a high school diploma?’ can that student answer yes?” board member Vince Bertram asked.

“At this point, no,” said Jenny Berry, a representative from the Indiana Department of Education.

Mike McDivitt, principal at Oak Hill High School, said he doesn’t believe another year of required math makes a diploma more “rigorous,” but creates a hardship for schools that have to provide even more classes without any extra state aid to help pay for those costs, and for students who might already be getting extra help for math.

“Almost all the students at Oak Hill High School that earn a general diploma have already completed three years of high school math,” McDivitt said. “Many enter high school underprepared in Algebra 1, and many take two years to complete that.”

But the majority of students with special needs do graduate with Core 40 diplomas, Bearce said, and he doesn’t believe the new diplomas have to be a barrier to them.

Berry said the diploma committee is looking into how the certificate of completion can be strengthened so students who earn it qualify for a wider range of jobs.

“We want to push Indiana in the right direction, but we don’t want to create something untenable in terms of implementation,” Bearce said.

The diploma committee is scheduled to meet again Friday, Ritz said, and diplomas must be approved by the state board by Dec. 1.

First Person

I’ve spent years fighting for integrated schools in New York City. I’m also Asian-American. Mayor de Blasio, let’s talk.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Parents weigh in on a proposal to integrate District 2 middle schools by making them enroll students with a range of academic abilities earlier this year.

Dear Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza,

I write as a school integration advocate, racial justice activist, public school mother, and a first-generation Japanese-American.

I have spent years working with other parents to make New York City’s public school system more equitable, facilitating conversations on school integration as a means to dismantle racism in our society. I believe it is past time we address the segregation in New York City public schools, and I agree that something must be done with the specialized high schools — which currently admit few black and Latinx students — as part of this work.

However, I am concerned about how you’ve rolled out this proposal without including the people it will affect.

As opposition mounts and the Asian communities across the city mobilize against your plan, I wanted to share some thoughts so that you are better prepared to create a meaningful dialogue on perhaps the most complex part of the school integration work.

I would like to ask three things from you. One is to please see us Asian New Yorkers for who we are.

There is no question that Asians have been (and many still are) marginalized and disempowered. If one learns the history of Asians in the U.S., she understands that our past is filled with violence and struggles. Our history is steeped in discriminatory policies at federal and local levels, including the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese internment. We were only given the “model minority” status because doing so was convenient for domestic and international politics.

We are also a very diverse group of people, representing more than four dozen countries. This fact alone makes it very difficult to make any general statements about us.

That doesn’t mean, though, that we should be ignored in this conversation or inaccurately lumped in with whites. High average test scores do not automatically equal privilege, and they are certainly no match for white supremacy — a concept many self-proclaimed “non-racists” are unable to recognize. This lack of understanding makes it nearly impossible to identify Asians as oppressed people of color.

The second thing I ask is to bring all of us – whites, blacks, Latinx, and Asians (East, South, and Southeast Asians) – together to develop solutions to integrate our schools.

The unfortunate fact is that our city is not typically equipped to have productive conversations about race and racism. And if racism of white against black/Latinx is difficult to grasp for some, understanding how Asians fit into this discourse is even harder.

Our position is so complicated, even racial justice activists – including Asians themselves – often do not know how to talk about us. When we are not ignored, we are perceived as “outsiders,” even if this is the only country some of us know.

But there is no reason we can’t work together. History tells us that Asians have been fighting for civil rights alongside black and Latinx people for decades, even after the white system began using us as pawns. Even in the highly contentious affirmative action arena, in which some Asians have been co-opted by white anti-affirmative action groups, many Asians remain in favor of affirmative action and are continuing to fight for equity for all people of color.

Finally, to make that work, I ask that you adopt a “bottom up and top down” approach, in which community conversations and shared decision-making happen under your leadership. Such a framework has been proposed by a group of advocates, including students.

The Department of Education has already hosted a series of town halls to solicit ideas on diversifying our schools, and has done a good job of getting people to come out. However, on this proposal for the specialized high schools, there was no consultation with affected communities, including students.

Let’s practice what we preach and have an inclusive, participatory process. Let’s not ignore the Asian community when we talk about school integration, and let’s specifically include Asian voices — parents and students — in this discussion about specialized schools and all schools. Let’s have real conversations aimed at uniting those who have been marginalized, not dividing them. And let’s explain how these decisions will be made and why.

This is an opportunity to start a conversation that should have happened when Brown v. Board of Education was decided 64 years ago, and to create more equitable, integrated schools. Let’s make sure we do it right.

Shino Tanikawa is the vice president of District 2’s Community Education Council and a school integration advocate.

What's Your Education Story?

Bodily fluids and belly buttons: How this Indianapolis principal embraces lessons learned the hard (and gross) way

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Christine Rembert at the Teacher Story Slam, April 19, 2018.

For Christine Rembert, principal at Francis W. Parker School 56 in Indianapolis Public Schools, education is the family business.

Her dad teaches chemistry to adults, and her mom is a retired high school English teacher. So it made sense that Rembert, too, would be an educator. As she has transitioned from a teacher to an administrator, she’s done a lot of learning — in fact, she considers herself not the person with all the answers, but the “lead learner” in her school.

And it hasn’t always been glamorous. Dealing with bodily fluids, for example, is a regular part of her day. As a new principal, she confronted that head-on in an anecdote she recounted in a recent story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media, and the Indianapolis Public Library.

Here’s an excerpt of her story. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity:

The last story I have to tell happened in my first few months as a school administrator, and I’ve learned many things from this story. I was sitting at my desk and doing some work, and my behavior person came in.

That’s the person who’s kind of the bouncer in the school who manages all the naughty kids. So we had that person, and she came in, and she was a tall woman — over 6 feet tall. She looked down at my desk, and she said: Do you want me to tell you the story first?

And I, in all my brand-new administrator wisdom, said no. And she goes, well, I have a teacher and a kid, and we need to talk to you.

And I was like, OK come on in!

Well, note to self: When the behavior person says do you want me to tell you the story, you need to say yes right then.

Because the reason is you have to not laugh.

So the teacher came in, and she has a Clorox wipe, and she’s (frantically wiping her nose). And I was like, OK, that’s weird. She sat down, and the child came in, and she was kind of sad.

I proceeded to hear the story whereby the child had stuck her finger into her (wet) belly button and then held it up to the teacher’s nose and said: Smell my finger.

Public education is like living in a fraternity house.

Check out the video below to hear the rest of Rembert’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students, and parents here.