Who Is In Charge

Two struggling IPS schools could be 'restarted' next year

Shanae Staples, left, met with parents at School 69 Thursday to discuss her plan for restarting the school as Kindezi Academy.

Indianapolis Public School is likely to “restart” two long-struggling schools next year so that they will be run in partnership with newly founded charter schools.

Joyce Kilmer School 69 and Riverside School 44 appear set to join a growing cadre of schools in the IPS “innovation network.”

“Both of those schools have been chronically failing and underperforming for consecutive years,” said Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. “It’s not just been one year, two years — it’s been multiple years of underperformance.”

Ferebee’s team will recommend that School 44 be run by Global Preparatory Academy, the first charter school founded by former Pike Township principal Mariama Carson, and that School 69 be run by Kindezi Academy, a charter school founded by Shanae Staples and Kevin Kubacki, who also created the Enlace Academy charter school.

The IPS board will hear about these proposed partnerships next week, but Ferebeee does not expect the board to vote on them until a later meeting.

Both School 44 and School 69 were named “priority” schools by the district, and they have received extra support and resources since 2014. The possibility of restarting the schools with outside charter managers has been on the horizon for a while, and the district has been leading parent meetings to discuss improving the schools, district officials said.

Another reason the administration chose these schools for restart is because leadership is in flux at both schools, Ferebee said. The principal at School 44, Kirshawndra Davis, resigned effective July 1. School 69 has two part-time principals, who came out of retirement to lead the school.

“We believe that there are windows here that we need to take advantage of, of restarting schools that have really struggled in the past,” Ferebee said.

As innovation schools, School 44 and School 69 would convert to charter schools under contract with the district, but the state would attribute their student test scores to IPS. Teachers and staff at innovation schools are not part of IPS unions, so they do not share IPS employee contracts.

The move would be another step toward shared management with charter schools to try to turn around the lowest scoring IPS schools. The strategy has strong support from the school board but has raised concerns among some parents and school communities that the district is giving away control over too many schools.

“To really get the school where it needs to be, the school needs to be able to operate with the maximum amount of flexibility to make decisions,” said Aleesia Johnson, the district’s innovation chief.

Building a neighborhood charter school

School 69 has a long record of poor performance on state tests. It received F grades from the state for the latest four years available, and only 13 percent of students passed ISTEP in 2015. District administrators hope to partner with Kindezi to restart the Eastside elementary school, Ferebee said.

Kindezi is the brainchild of Staples and Kubacki, who received a fellowship from the non-profit Mind Trust to develop the idea. In 2013, the pair launched a charter school, Enlace Academy, that rented space in an IPS building. Last year, it became an innovation school, giving it access to district services. Kindezi will share the same philosophy of high expectations for all students and approach to teaching, Staples said.

But she emphasized that it won’t merely replicate Enlace. Kindezi leaders will work with parents and the community to craft a school to fit their needs. Like Enlace, Kindezi will use blended learning, with kids splitting their class time between online course work, teacher-led instruction and small student groups.

The charter school will be open to students from outside the neighborhood, but Staples said the goal is to mostly draw students who live near the school.

Staples said building good neighborhood schools is important to her because of her own experience in school. She grew up in a low-income, black neighborhood in Miami, she said, and her parents scraped together the money to send her to private school in another area. The school was transformative, she said, but it was like living a separate life from the one she had at home.

“I did miss out on that piece of being a part of the community, and being in a school where the culture reflected my own,” she said. “We want to be a neighborhood school. We want to be a community hub.”

A high-quality neighborhood school is precisely what Charron Perry, a parent at School 69, wants for her son.

When her son was in first grade last year, he had five different teachers, Perry said. She thinks School 69 needs more teachers and structure. But she kept her son enrolled because it’s their neighborhood school — the same school she attended as a child and the school where her mother used to teach.

“I’ve always loved School 69,” she said. “I wanted to keep him there because he’s in this neighborhood. He knows the kids in this neighborhood.”

Perry is excited about Kindezi because the new school plans to have two teachers in each classroom and an emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math.

“We do need a change,” she said. “I want to see what my son can do.”

Teaching kids in both English and Spanish

The proposed charter school partner at School 44 will also serve students in the neighborhood, but it will be a dual language school in which students are taught in both English and Spanish.

School 44 has three years of F grades from the state, and it is among a handful of schools in the district that had a single digit pass rate on ISTEP last year — only 14 students, 8 percent, passed both sections of the test.

Global Prep is led by Carson, who also received a Mind Trust fellowship to plan her school. As a principal in Pike Township, Carson — who is married to U.S. Rep. Andre Carson, D-Indianapolis — helped turn around a low-scoring elementary school.

Global Prep aims to help students achieve the fluency of native Spanish speakers. Classes will have two teachers, a native Spanish speaker who will teach entirely in that language and a teacher who will lead lessons in English.

“In order for students to learn a language meaningfully,” Carson said. “It needs to happen when they are little, and it needs to be embedded in content and language.”

The dual-language program will begin in grades K-2, Carson said. Each year the school will add a grade until it is K-8. The school will continue to serve neighborhood kids in grades 3-6 next year, Carson said, but classes won’t follow the dual-language model because those students won’t have enough time in the school to gain fluency.

Carson initially planned to launch a charter school that would be independent from IPS, but last summer she began talking with district leaders about the possibility of running an innovation school in an IPS building. She decided to create an innovation school instead of an independent charter school in part because of the services the district could can offer — from busing and custodial care to special education, she said.

The students at Global Prep will be split about fifty-fifty between kids who speak Spanish at home and native English speakers, Carson said. To balance the population at the school, where only about 20 percent of students are native Spanish speakers, she recruited students from neighborhoods around its boundaries.

Most of the families Carson met with while she was recruiting were enthusiastic about an immersion school, she said.

“The economic benefit, especially for families in poverty that I spoke to is a big (factor),” she said.

A growing innovation network

Innovation schools are a relatively new idea, first authorized in 2014 by House Bill 1321. Although there are now several schools in the IPS innovation network, most were started from scratch or became innovation schools after launching as traditional charter schools.

The only school to convert from a traditional IPS school to an innovation school so far is School 103, which last summer was taken over by the Phalen Leadership Academy charter school network. Earl Martin Phalen and Marlon Llewellyn also received a Mind Trust fellowship to adapt the model at Phalen Leadership Academy to work in IPS schools. Llewellyn is no longer involved with the school.

Several organizations were interested in partnering with IPS at to create additional innovation schools, according to Ferebee. The selection of two more schools incubated by The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based group that has been a strong advocate for change in IPS schools, demonstrated district confidence in its programs.

“These are two very, very talented and experienced educators,” said Steve Campbell, vice-president of communications for the Mind Trust. “The ideas that they have for our schools are exactly what we’re looking for — innovative, creative and with a commitment to high quality.”

New Leadership

Coaching will be key as Griffin adds two from Memphis iZone to state district team

PHOTO: (Mark Weber, The Commercial Appeal)
Achievement School District new chief Sharon Griffin greets Alethea Henry (right) at Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary on the first day of school.

After more than 20 years in traditional Memphis schools, Alethea Henry is making the leap to the state’s controversial turnaround district and will bring with her lessons learned from Shelby County Schools’ heralded Innovation Zone.

But Henry is clear that her switch in allegiance is mostly to follow the iZone’s former leader and new Achievement School District chief – Sharon Griffin. Shelby County Schools iZone is a group of 24 low-performing schools within Memphis’ traditional district that won praise for improving student test scores under Griffin.

“I decided to join the ASD…primarily because of the opportunity to serve under the awesome leadership and tutelage of Dr. Sharon Griffin,” said Henry, who is now in charge of support teams for the state district. “My tenure in the iZone afforded me the opportunity to learn valuable lessons. Fortunately, I have been able to apply those lessons learned in my new role with ASD.”

ASD leadership team and salaries

  • Sharon Griffin, ASD chief, $180,000
  • Tonye Smith McBride, chief of school improvement/accountability, $125,004
  • Lisa Settle, chief of operations and culture/climate, $114,996
  • Robert White, chief of communications/external affairs, $114,996
  • Alethea Henry, lead instructional support director, $105,000

Tonye Smith McBride is also joining the state district’s leadership team after decades in Memphis’ traditional district. McBride and Henry coached iZone principals and educators alongside Griffin. Appointing two people with experience coaching administrators offers a clue to Griffin’s strategy of working with teachers and principals to improve student performance.

Schools in the iZone have outpaced progress of those run by the state, which have struggled to show academic improvement. The Achievement School District – now comprising 30 schools, most of them in Memphis – was launched in 2012 to transform the state’s worst performing schools by converting them to charter schools.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and Griffin have said that the state district needs more consistency from school to school, and McBride will lead the charge to share best practices across charter operators.

“As part of the iZone, I served as a principal, instructional leadership director and eventually director of school improvement and accountability for the entirety of SCS,” McBride said. “When you combine all of these together, the work is very much the same…just lots more of it.”

McBride said her new role will focus on ensuring charter operators are following federal and state laws. Similar to her previous roles in Shelby County, McBride will oversee the district’s Special Education team, support career and technical education, and create system-wide “practices to meet the academic and social-emotional learning needs of our students.”

McBride coached dozens of iZone principals – including the principal of Trezevant High School, a school within the iZone where reports of improper grade changing launched an ongoing investigation within Shelby County high schools. McBride was not implicated in grade changing and a team of outside investigators found no evidence that she was involved in any other wrongdoing.

Griffin told Chalkbeat she’s confident McBride is up for the steep challenge of improving state-run schools. Recent test scores remain far below the statewide average and dropped in high school.

“When she was a principal, Chief McBride knew how to take a school from a low-performing school to the next phase,” Griffin said.

For Henry, some of her lessons learned include establishing deep support for teachers, something Griffin said educators within the state district have told her was lacking. Henry will focus on improving teacher training and is in charge of creating a strategic plan for “addressing instructional needs across the entire ASD portfolio,” she said.

“Just like every child is different, so are teachers and schools,” Henry said. “Support must be intentional and meet the unique needs of the people being supported. It is no one’s job to ‘fix’ teachers.”

The remaining team members, Robert White and Lisa Settle, have been in state-run leadership for years, and Griffin said she was excited for the context and experience they will bring.

White will continue to work on bettering the district’s historically stormy relationship with its communities – and will focus on telling the district’s story of a new era under Griffin’s leadership.

Settle has been with the turnaround district since the beginning. She moved from the position of chief performance officer, where she made sure charter operators followed federal and state rules, to the chief of operations and culture/climate. Griffin said Settle will now oversee the district’s relationship with Shelby County Schools and focus on building maintenance. Many of the achievement district’s school buildings are leased from Shelby County Schools and need repair.

“I’m still with the district because we aren’t finished – there’s work still to do,” Settle said. “One thing that is changing now is the way we view support needed. We were an authorizer of charter schools, and we still are, but there are traditional district functions we need to provide like a focus on academics, and support around building maintenance.”

Still missing from Griffin’s team is a second in command. When Griffin was hired in April, the state Department of Education announced that it would also “soon add a leader to oversee the development and support of high-quality public charter schools, and this role will work closely with Dr. Griffin to support the portfolio of charter operators serving schools in the Achievement School District.”

PHOTO: (Mark Weber, The Commercial Appeal)
Achievement School District new chief Sharon Griffin chats with students at Frayser-Corning Achievement Elementary on the first day of school.

Sara Gast, spokeswoman for the department, said the right person hasn’t been found for the role yet, and they are still actively seeking candidates.

Griffin acknowledged that the current team will have to do more with less. A year ago, more than half of 59 central office staff positions were slashed to cut costs, and a new leadership team was brought in under then-superintendent Malika Anderson. Griffin’s team of four is significantly smaller than that of Anderson.

“I believe we have the right people in place and skill set to impact student achievement,” Griffin said. “But there is added responsibility for us because our team is smaller.”

Verna Ruffin, the turnaround district’s chief academic officer, was recently hired as superintendent of a school district in Waterbury, Connecticut, White said. Six former members of central office staff took positions with charter operators within the turnaround district or pursued other opportunities after the restructure last year.

Griffin said now that the new team is in place, they can get to work.

“I have to make some changes while hitting the ground,” Griffin said. “I needed people who understood the context and could get things done.”

pushing back

McQueen calls superintendents’ request to pause state testing ‘illegal and inconsistent with our values’

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen pens a letter in response to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Director Shawn Joseph.

Tennessee’s education chief is pushing back after leaders of the state’s two largest school districts asked for an indefinite break from standardized testing.

“Pausing a state assessment would be both illegal and inconsistent with our values as a state,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen wrote in an Aug. 13 letter emailed to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Director Shawn Joseph.

“It would turn our back on the students we most need to ensure receive a world-class education.”

Hopson said that Joseph sent their letter on Aug. 3 both electronically and through the mail to outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam and McQueen declaring “no confidence” in the troubled state test, TNReady.

However, McQueen wrote that the state has still not received that letter. “Let me begin by sharing my disappointment that the letter you addressed to Governor Haslam and me has been shared widely in the media but has yet to actually be shared with the Governor or me,” she said in the letter.

McQueen emphasized that an annual statewide assessment is required by state and federal law and that without it, the state would have a harder time monitoring the progress of vulnerable students.

“Historically, it has been the students from racial and ethnic minorities, economically disadvantaged students, students with disabilities, and English learners who have been most ignored and underserved by our schools when we have not had a statewide assessment that accurately measures student performance, or when we have not used the same measuring stick for all kids,” she wrote.

Hopson told Chalkbeat that McQueen’s letter was the first he had heard from the commissioner since their letter was sent. Joseph was not immediately available for comment on Monday.

The Aug. 3 letter from the two superintendents triggered a chain of responses. A group of civil rights leaders penned a letter last week urging the state to press on with standardized testing, while the school board of Knox County Schools voted to draft a letter expressing no confidence in the state Department of Education.

The state has struggled to administer TNReady cleanly since its failed online rollout in 2016, prompting McQueen to cancel most testing that year and fire its testing company. Except for scattered scoring problems, the next year went better under new vendor Questar and mostly paper-and-pencil testing materials.

But this spring, the return to computerized exams for older students was fraught with disruptions and spurred the Legislature to order that the results not be used against students or teachers.

For the upcoming school year, the state has hired an additional testing company to assist Questar, and McQueen has slowed the switch to computerized exams so that only high school students will test online. In addition, the state Department of Education has recruited 37 teachers and testing coordinators to become TNReady ambassadors, tasked with offering on-the-ground feedback and advice to the state and its vendors to improve the testing experience.

“It is important to note that Tennessee educators have been engaged extensively in the development of TNReady,” McQueen wrote in her Aug. 13 letter. “Tennessee teachers help to write questions, design the test, edit questions and forms, and review and finalize our state assessment.”

McQueen also addressed part of the superintendents’ letter that said districts spent “tens of millions of dollars” investing in new technology to prepare for online testing that didn’t work. Both Hopson and Joseph’s districts are suing the state over the adequacy of education funding.

McQueen said the state’s expectation was that technology would not be purchased “simply to take a test” and that there was no need for special technology to take TNReady.

“To suggest that an investment in technology is limited to online testing shows a misunderstanding of the increasing role of technology in education and undervalues the great work many of your teachers have done to enhance their teaching through technology,” she wrote.

Read McQueen’s letter to the superintendents in full below: