Future of Schools

State board OK with IPS promises that Arlington High School is on the mend

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
State Board of Education member Dan Elsener asks questions of IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee at a board meeting last year.

Arlington High School has struggled this year, but the Indiana State Board of Education on Wednesday took a less urgent tone about the need for improvements than they did just six months ago.

In May when it looked like Arlington might be returned from state takeover to Indianapolis Public Schools, the state board put on the brakes. They wanted assurances first.

Then-board member Dan Elsener said the district would first have to demonstrate it was “well structured” and “well managed.” Ultimately the board wasn’t ready to trust that IPS fit that description, so they kept control over Arlington even while putting IPS back in charge of running the school day-to-day.

But at today’s state board meeting, only board member David Freitas expressed concern that Arlington might be moving in the wrong direction. Gordon Hendry, a board member who asked the Indiana Department of Education for more details on the Arlington transition in October, was absent.

“I just want to be sure that we continue to advocate for every child in Indiana, and I’m concerned for the children at Arlington,” Freitas said. “It’s my understanding that we still retain control of Arlington, and I feel almost a personal responsibility to be sure that it is continuing to move forward.”

A series of reports from WFYI’s education reporter Eric Weddle, who is making regular visits to Arlington, have described disorder at the school and calls from Principal Stan Law for more staff to help him get a handle on its many problems.

But Law and other IPS officials told the state board that a series of steps they’ve taken in the last few weeks would bring quick improvements.

For example, the school recently moved students out of the first floor and closed it off. The immense size of the building, which could accommodate more than 2,000 students, also contributed to discipline problems, deputy superintendent Wanda Legrand said.

The district is providing new Arlington teachers with mentors and on-going training, Legrand said. More staff has been added, too. Law said there are still a few teaching positions open in math, science and special education, but he’s focused on finding the right people to fill the jobs, not just whoever shows up first.

“A lot of our kids come in with a lot of challenges — social, emotional, academic challenges,” Law said. “We want teachers there and staff members also there who want to work with such a population.”

Arlington continues to need work to fill all its open teaching jobs, improve learning and build stronger relationships between students and teachers, Law and IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee acknowledged.

There has been a lot of change at Arlington. Some teachers and students from last year remain, but a large number of new teachers and students have since arrived. That has led to some of the tension, Legrand said

“Challenges, of course, always occur when you blend people,” she said.

The school, which enrolls 600 students so far this year, is 89 percent black, 1 percent Hispanic and 10 percent white, Ferebee said. About 25 percent of students have special needs, and most students come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. To do so, a family of four must make less than $44,863 annually.

Arlington was taken away from Indianapolis Public Schools in 2012 after six straight F-grades and turned over to be run by Tindley Accelerated Schools, a charter school network. Then the network abruptly pulled out before the end of its five-year contract. So the state gave Arlington back to IPS.

IPS said in some cases, it is holding out on hiring teachers to try to find those that fit best. But board member Vince Bertram said IPS needs better hiring strategies. Good teachers have too many options, he said.

“I don’t think its sustainable, I don’t think it’s a scalable strategy,” Bertram said. “There are just too many other choices and options. What are those incentives … that we can use to attract people to IPS and to Indiana?”

The district’s now offers up to $18,000 for teachers who take on key leadership positions under it’s recently-signed labor contract, Ferebee said, which could attract more teachers to IPS. The district also has partnerships with Marian University, Ball State University, IUPUI and University of Indianapolis to recruit teaching candidates and is helping its most promising teacher aides to earn licenses to become classroom teachers.

Freitas praised a new partnership between Charter Schools USA with IPS at Emma Donnan Middle School, and asked Ferebee whether such an arrangement could benefit Arlington as well. IPS and CSUSA agreed that students in grades K-6 would be added at the middle school as long as IPS gets to share oversight.

So far, only one of three former IPS schools managed by CSUSA has shed its F-grade — Manual High School. Donnan has been rated an F or an equivalent grade since 2010.

But Ferebee said adding elementary school grades didn’t make sense at high school like Arlington. The district instead would continue to explore how school feeder patterns might be improved throughout the district.

Last month, Indiana Department of Education officials told the state board that Arlington was a top concern because of the difficulties there since the start of school. But Superintendent Glenda Ritz said today she believed Arlington was making progress.

“I think there has been some good movement in the school to make sure they’re on-track, making sure they have a great climate,” Ritz said. “They are moving in a good direction.”

IPS School Board Race 2018

Indiana teachers union spends big on Indianapolis Public Schools in election

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
IPS board candidate signs

The political arm of Indiana’s largest teachers union is spending big on the Indianapolis Public Schools board. The group donated $68,400 to three candidates vying for seats on the board this November, according to pre-election campaign finance disclosures released Friday.

The three candidates — Susan Collins, Michele Lorbieski, and Taria Slack — have all expressed criticism of the current board and the leadership of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. Although that criticism touches on many issues, one particular bone of contention is the district’s embrace of innovation schools, independent campuses that are run by charter or nonprofit operators but remain under the district’s umbrella. Teachers at those schools are employed by the school operators, so they cannot join the union.

The trio was also endorsed by the IPS Community Coalition, a local group that has received funding from a national teachers union.

It’s not unusual for teachers unions to spend on school board elections. In 2016, the union contributed $15,000 to an unsuccessful at-large candidate for the Indianapolis Public Schools board. But $68,400 dwarfs that contribution. Those disclosures do not capture the full spending on the election. The three candidates endorsed by Stand for Children Indiana — Mary Ann Sullivan, Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, and Evan Hawkins — are likely getting significant unreported benefits.

Stand for Children, which supports innovation schools, typically sends mailers and hires campaign workers to support the candidates it endorses. But it is not required to disclose all of its political activity because it is an independent expenditure committee, also known as a 501(c)(4), for the tax code section that covers it. The group did not immediately respond to a request for information on how much it is spending on this race.

The candidates’ fundraising varied widely in the reporting period, which covered the period from April 14 to Oct. 12, with Taria Slack bringing in $28,950 and Joanna Krumel raising $200. In recent years, candidates have been raising significantly more money than had been common. But one recent candidate managed to win on a shoestring: Elizabeth Gore won an at-large seat in 2016 after raising about $1,200.

Read more: See candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

One part of Stand for Children’s spending became visible this year when it gave directly to tax campaigns. The group contributed $188,842 to the campaign for two tax referendums to raise money for Indianapolis Public Schools. That includes a $100,000 donation that was announced in August and about $88,842 worth of in-kind contributions such as mailers. The group has a team of campaign workers who have been going door-to-door for months.

The district is seeking to persuade voters to support two tax increases. One would raise $220 million for operating funds, such as teacher salaries, over eight years. A second measure would raise $52 million for building improvements. Donations from Stand for Children largely power the Vote Yes for IPS campaign, which raised a total of $201,717. The Indiana teachers union also contributed $5,000.

Here are the details on how much each candidate has raised and some of the notable contributions:

At large

Incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan, a former Democrat state lawmaker, raised $7,054. Her largest contribution came from the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which donated $4,670. She also received $1,000 from Steel House, a metal warehouse run by businessman Reid Litwack. She also received several donations of $250 or less.

Retired Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Susan Collins, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $16,422. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $15,000. She also received several donations of $200 or less.

Ceramics studio owner and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Joanna Krumel raised $200. Her largest contribution, $100, came from James W. Hill.

District 3

Marian University Executive Director of Facilities and Procurement and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Evan Hawkins raised $22,037. His largest contributions from individuals were from businessmen Allan Hubbard, who donated $5,000, and Litwack, who donated $2,500. The Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee contributed $4,670 and web design valued at $330. He also received several donations of $1,000 or less. His donors included IPS board member Venita Moore, retiring IPS board member Kelly Bentley’s campaign, and the CEO of The Mind Trust, Brandon Brown.

Frost Brown Todd trial attorney and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Michele Lorbieski, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $27,345. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $24,900. She also received several contributions of $250 or less.

Pike Township schools Director of Information Services Sherry Shelton raised $1,763, primarily from money she contributed. David Green contributed $116.

District 5

Incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an Indianapolis Public Schools parent, raised $16,006. Her largest contributors include Hubbard, who donated $5,000; the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which gave $4,670 and web design valued at $330; and the MIBOR PAC, which contributed $1,000. She also received several contributions of $500 or less, including from Bentley.

Federal employee and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Taria Slack, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $28,950. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $28,500.

Innovation zone

Two more Denver schools win additional freedom from district rules

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki/Chalkbeat
Alex Magaña, then principal at Grant Beacon Middle School, greeted students as they moved between classes in 2015.

Two more Denver schools this week won more flexibility in how they spend their money and time. The schools will create a new “innovation zone,” bringing the district’s number of quasi-autonomous zones to three.

The Denver school board on Thursday unanimously approved the schools’ application to operate more independently from district rules, starting in January.

The new zone will include Grant Beacon Middle School in south Denver and Kepner Beacon Middle School in southwest Denver. The two schools are high-performing by the district’s standards and follow a model that allows students to learn at their own pace.

With just two schools, the zone will be the district’s smallest, though Beacon leaders have signaled their intent to compete to open a third school in the growing Stapleton neighborhood, where the district has said it will need more capacity. The district’s other two innovation zones have four and five schools each.

Schools in zones are still district schools, but they can opt out of paying for certain district services and instead spend that money on things that meet their specific needs, such as additional teachers or aides. Zones can also form nonprofit organizations with their own boards of directors that provide academic and operational oversight, and help raise extra dollars to support the schools.

The new zone, called the Beacon Schools Network Innovation Zone, will have a five-member board of directors that includes one current parent, two former parents, and two community members whose professional work is related to education.

The zone will also have a teacher council and a parent council that will provide feedback to its board but whose members won’t be able to vote on decisions.

Some Denver school board members questioned the makeup of the zone’s board.

“I’m wondering about what kinds of steps you’re going to take to ensure there is a greater representation of people who live and reside in southwest Denver,” where Kepner Beacon is located, asked school board member Angela Cobián, who represents the region. She also asked about a greater representation of current parents on the board.

Alex Magaña, who serves as executive principal over the Beacon schools and will lead the new zone, said he expects the board to expand to seven members within a year. He also said the parent council will play a key role even if its members can’t vote.

“The parent council is a strong influence,” he said. “If the parent council is not happy, that’s going to be impacting both of the schools. I don’t want to undersell that.”

Other Denver school board members questioned the zone’s finances and how dependent it would be on fundraising. A district summary of the zone’s application notes that the zone’s budget relies on $1.68 million in foundation revenue over the next 5½ years.

Magaña said the zone would eventually seek to expand to four schools, which would make it more financially stable. As for philanthropic dollars, he said the zone would work to ensure any loss of revenue doesn’t hurt the schools’ unique programs or enrichment.

“I can’t emphasize enough that it won’t impact the schools,” he said.

Ultimately, Denver school board members said they have confidence in the Beacon model and look forward to seeing what its leaders do with their increased autonomy.