Future of Schools

Tindley's woes, and CEO's departure, raise tough questions for charter schools

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Marcus Robinson has long had his critics, but in many ways, his name has been synonymous with the best successes of Indiana’s charter school movement.

Robinson was the driving force behind Tindley Accelerated Schools, the top-scoring charter school network in The Meadows neighborhood of Indianapolis. Tindley post some of the highest test scores in the city despite enrolling many children who must overcome poverty-related barriers to learning.

So revelations over the past two months of financial troubles at Tindley, including questionable travel expenses incurred by Robinson, have rippled far beyond the school.

Robinson said last week he would step down by the end of the school year and leave Tindley, but the controversy raises broader questions for charter schools in Indiana’s school choice epicenter.  Among them:

  • Will the departure of a key leader from one of Indiana’s strongest charter school groups weaken the movement? Robinson’s record and reputation made him one Indiana’s most respected charter school voices. But his last chapter at Tindley is now already serving as an example of the worst fears of charter critics about the potential misuse of public dollars intended to serve children.
  • Will Robinson resurface somewhere else in Indiana’s charter school world? Robinson said his immediate goal is to finish a Columbia University doctorate he has been traveling to New York to pursue, but his next steps after that are in doubt.
  • Are the well-regarded Tindley schools in trouble? The immediate road ahead looks bumpy. School officials pledged that they will solve their money problems, but further expansion plans — which once included ambitions for 14 Tindley schools by 2023 — have been halted.

Tindley champion David Harris, CEO of The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis nonprofit that advocates for educational change, believes Tindley’s setback will be short lived.

“The future is extremely bright, by far brighter than it’s ever been since I’ve been doing this work,” Harris said. “Tindley will not only weather this, they will be a big part of it going forward.”

But Joel Hand of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, a group that has lobbied against expanding school choice, said he hopes Robinson’s resignation is seen as a cautionary tale about the potential excesses of charter schools.

“The use of these dollars for charter schools is supposed to be geared toward educating the children,” he said. “Maybe this is the ultimate accountability for Marcus Robinson and Tindley.”

A high-scoring, fast-growing charter network

For Tindley, it’s not just high test scores that have made the network a charter school darling. Robinson and his team have raised hopes that successful schools can be the centerpiece of a wider effort to improve struggling neighborhoods.

Since the first Tindley school opened in 2004 at the site of abandoned grocery store, The Meadows has seen crime fall and community investments grow as more kids attended, and graduated from, the now six-school network.

“It’s a transformed place,” Harris said. “The ripple effect will be felt for many generations in that community. They had a fabulous vision and a fabulous team, but Marcus was the one that made that come to a reality. What he accomplished is really extraordinary.”

Then-Mayor Greg Ballard hailed the school-led overhaul of The Meadows as a model for other neighborhoods to follow. By its fifth year, the school was exceeding state averages on standardized tests, graduating three-quarters of its students and sending most of them to college. A waiting list of families that wanted to enroll began to lengthen and some families were even moving into The Meadows to be closer to the school.

What followed was more than $60 million in investment in The Meadows, Tindley board member John Neighbors said. That includes the schools, new apartments, a wellness center and a YMCA.

“Had the schools not been successful, it would have been much harder to do that,” Neighbors said.

None of it could have happened without Robinson, Neighbors said. The school was actually rejected the first time it applied for a charter and was only able to secure one after Robinson, then a Cathedral High School teacher, came on board.

But as much as Robinson’s fans credit his leadership with building Tindley into a success, his recent choices have gotten much of the blame for the school’s suddenly murky future.

Financial woes come to light

Robinson has had to explain his own questionable travel spending at the same time he was pushing an aggressive plan to build new schools.

It was that expansion — since 2012, Tindley has added two middle schools and three elementary schools — that helped set the stage for the money problems the network faces today.

The new schools were made possible by a $4.5 million gift from a donor, Robinson said. It was helped along by consistently strong test scores that kept attracting more students. The four schools that have been open long enough to qualify for state grades earned two A’s and two B’s last year.

But Robinson and the Tindley board failed to anticipate the intense competition the new schools would face from a flood of new charter schools. Ballard, who left office in January, nearly doubled the number of city-sponsored charter schools in his tenure to more than 30, leaving many schools — not just Tindley — scrambling to fill their classrooms with enough students to pay their bills.

Tindley Acclerated Schools CEO Marcus Robinson agreed to take over management of Arlington High School, which was taken over from IPS by the state in 2012.
PHOTO: Matt Detrich/The Indianapolis Star
Tindley Acclerated Schools CEO Marcus Robinson agreed to take over management of Arlington High School, which was taken over from IPS by the state in 2012.

By 2014, Tindley was in enough of a financial squeeze that Robinson abruptly ended a contract with the state to manage Arlington High School, a former Indianapolis Public School that was taken over by the state in 2012, and Tindley pulled out at the end of that school year. He blamed the state for turning down his request for more aid, saying running Arlington had gotten too costly.

The school’s problems intensified later in 2014 when the Indianapolis NAACP criticized the network for its high expulsion rate, perhaps dissuading some families from enrolling their children. Tindley had expelled students at a much higher rate than other schools in the city but Robinson insisted tough discipline was not negotiable in order to ensure stable learning environments.

And by last December, the Indianapolis Business Journal reported a series bleak developments: a $2.8 million cash shortfall, a former treasurer who described the organization as “broke” and a $8.7 million bailout from a state loan fund that equated to nearly half its annual budget.

With all of that going on, reports of Robinson’s spending caught even some of his supporters by surprise.

Former Treasurer Eric Stovall told the Indianapolis Business Journal some of Robinson’s travel expenses, including $10,000 to stay in expensive hotels during several visits to New York and sometimes flying first class were, in his view, “unethical” for the leader of a cash-strapped charter school network.

But Robinson insists he violated no rules and would have paid the extra costs for the more expensive airline tickets and hotel rooms had anyone asked him to.

“Tindley has one of the best charter boards in the country,” he said. “They are very astute and serious about their fiduciary duty. They violated no laws and broke no ethics rules, nor have any of their staff in how they have traveled.”

Travel expenses raise concerns

Board member Neighbors said the board has put together a committee stocked with financial experts that he is confident will craft a plan to lead the school back to fiscal stability.

“The board needs to assure the financial integrity of the school,” he said. “We will conquer these issues if we can keep the kind of people we have in place and keep the parents’ confidence, which we will do.”

But it might be a while before anyone talks about expansion again.

“I don’t think there is additional money to fund growth in this market,” Robinson said.

Neighbors isn’t placing blame on Robinson. In fact, he argued that it’s a mistake to conflate Robinson’s travel expenses, which he said were noticed and addressed more than a year ago, with Tindley’s more recent financial troubles.

“We didn’t find any impropriety in Marcus’ conduct,” Neighbors said. “Maybe he should have thought more carefully about something like this. But he didn’t do it every week. It was a few instances of first class travel and staying in hotels that maybe he shouldn’t have.”

Marcus Robinson, CEO of Tindley Schools, (center) addresses the Indiana State Board of Education in 2014.
PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Marcus Robinson, CEO of Tindley Schools, (center) addresses the Indiana State Board of Education in 2014.

But Hand, whose organization seeks to defend what it sees as attacks on traditional public schools, said it’s difficult to see public education dollars flowing to an administrator’s lavish travel spending — something he said seems far more likely in a charter network than a public school district.

“I’d be shocked if there was any traditional public school administrator spending their money similarly,” he said. “The vast majority of public schools are cutting all travel for teachers and administrators and for professional development. To hear a story about charter school where the head of school is making these kinds of expenditures is very troubling.”

To Hand, Robinson’s spending, and Tindley’s deep financial woes, demonstrate one of the central dangers that critics of charter schools have long warned about: that relaxed oversight makes the public dollars ripe for misuse.

“Freeing up schools from certain regulations is not a bad thing,” Hand said. “But if its not accompanied with strict oversight and high levels of accountability we can have problems just like this.”

Whereas a public school is overseen by an elected school board accountable to the public, charter school oversight is more complex. Tindley is a private, nonprofit organization with a board of directors that employs its staff, but it also is monitored by the mayor’s office, which serves as its sponsor.

Kristin Hines, the city’s charter school director, noted that the city had called for Tindley to tighten up its financial practices following some recent reviews and audits.

“We continue to routinely and regularly oversee the board and the school’s financial performance, she said. “We have held the school responsible through annual financial reports in the past. We will continue to hold the school accountable to rigorous financial standard and high expectations with regard to board oversight.”

But Hand said the oversight in this case seemed to leave a lot to be desired.

“Doesn’t this kind of speak to the lack of accountability and oversight that is really there for many charter schools?” he said. “The use of these dollars for charter schools is supposed to be geared toward educating the children.”

A doctorate and an uncertain future

Robinson said the decision to leave Tindley was his alone and was not a result of the network’s financial woes.

“My top priority is finishing this doctorate I started four and a half years ago,” he said. “There was just no way I could do that at the helm of Tindley. The rigors are too much.”

Part of his motivation to finish, he said, is to reinforce with his actions the schools’ mantra for their students: They need to finish what they start academically.

“My first priority is to be a role model for what I expect from kids,” Robinson said.

After that? He’s not sure.

“It will definitely be about kids,” he said.

Robinson has two young children. He’s not necessarily looking to move on from Indianapolis. But he wouldn’t rule it out.

“I would hope my next opportunity would be here,” he said. “But I’m open to whatever.”

Neighbors said he wishes Robinson would have stayed on.

“What’s regrettable, and I hesitate to say this, what we’ve experienced over the last several months created enough stress in Marcus’ own mind to cause him to evaluate his situation and make the decision that he made,” Neighbors said. “I am personally disappointed that we move into a new era without Marcus but I am encouraged by what we have in place.”

 

Listening Tour 2018

5 bold ideas for how Chicago can send more kids through college

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Chalkbeat Chicago sat down with educators and OneGoal staff as part of our series of listening tours throughout the city

It takes resilience and a lot of support to launch students on the path to college, let alone get through Year One.

“Students trying alone to make it is not going to work,” said Kate Kaushal, a counselor at Phillips Academy High School in Bronzeville. “It takes a village.”

In a conversation on Tuesday, educators, Chalkbeat reporters and editors, and staff from the nonprofit OneGoal brainstormed ways to marshal that village to guide more students in Chicago’s neighborhood schools toward college and careers. As the sixth stop of Chalkbeat’s summer listening tour, the two-hour discussion took place at the Loop office of OneGoal, which offers one-on-one coaching to help low-income high school students transition to college.

The discussion covered many of the challenges schools face, from keeping students moving forward during their “sophomore slump,” to conquering the complexity of college applications and financial aid forms — and, moving beyond, to keeping students in college once they get there.  In 2016, 66 percent of CPS high school graduates enrolled in two- or four-year colleges. But of district students who had enrolled in college in 2011, only 57 percent graduated by spring 2016.

Tuesday’s group shared ideas that are working — and even came up with other bold ones that could catch on. Here are five ideas that came out of our conversation:

1. Build out a system of post-secondary “help desks” in libraries and public spaces

Sharon Thomas Parrott suggested instituting “help desks” to support high school students in navigating financial aid

Problem: The variations among applications for colleges and trade programs is mind-boggling,  even for adults, said Kaushal of Phillips Academy.: “Each college has a different process, and a different portal, and students get frustrated when applying.”

Solution: Sharon Thomas Parrott, an ex-officio member of One Goal’s Board of Directors who began her career as a CPS teacher, proposed a network of community “help desks” that could help students review options and navigate applications and federal financial aid forms. “How do we support schools and provide counseling opportunities without counselors?” she asked rhetorically. Help desks with services in English and Spanish would also help make the process more accessible to parents and guardians.

2. Financial aid navigators accessible to high school students throughout the city, either at schools or through organizations

Problem: College has become astronomically expensive. It’s great to encourage students to pursue higher education, “but don’t sugarcoat it either,” said Andrew Nelson, a humanities teacher at Multicultural Academy of Scholarship High School in South Lawndale. However, reality can also discourage families.

Solution: Alejandro Espinoza, OneGoal Chicago’s director of secondary partnerships,  suggested that the city or schools can provide financial aid navigators to help families figure out how much schools cost, what financial aid is available, and how loans figure into the picture. “Parents won’t take a risk if they don’t know this information.”

3. Start the post-secondary conversation earlier

Mary Beck, principal of Senn High School, emphasized the importance of Freshman Connection for getting incoming students on track for high school graduation

Problem: Many students don’t enter high school with thoughts about what they’ll do afterward, and may not think about them until junior year, when their options — such as entering into a trade or a college — become limited because they lack required courses and credits.

Solution: Mary Beck, the principal of Senn High School in Edgewater, said that her school has placed much emphasis on Freshman Connection, a program that gets incoming students acquainted with staff and graduation requirements before the school year starts. At Senn, the goal is to get students on track to graduate before they even show up for Day One of high school. “It’s setting yourself up so that you have options,” she said. “They have to be prepared to apply for a four-year college even if they don’t ultimately go.”

4. Focus on individual students once they get to college

Problem: Students who make it to college don’t always stay there. Beyond academics, it can be challenging to deal with a new environment, cost, and even culture. Adults often tell students that once they’re in college ‘you’re going to be an adult, no one is going to hold your hand,’ said Kaushal, “but sometimes someone still needs to hold their hand.”

Solution: Thomas Parrott said that colleges or external programs could provide counselors who sit down with incoming college students and looking at what classes they’ll take in freshman year, as those grades set the foundation for the students’ trajectories in college. Kaushal added that guidance needs to continue in college. While organizations such as OneGoal provide one-on-one coaching for college freshmen, she said that continued coaching will help ensure students ultimately graduate.

5. Students need to see success stories

Problem: Students sense challenges facing their family, neighborhood and city all the time. They need to hear stories of resilience — and see exactly how kids who look like them persevered.

Solution: OneGoal Director of External Affairs Chloe Lahre said that mentors, connected through a robust directory of program alumni, could offer practical advice and encouragement. Nelson of Multicultural Academy suggested more stories in the media about students overcoming setbacks. It would be helpful, he said, “seeing people who have had similar experiences and seeing what their story is like.”

In our listening tours, we’ve gathered parents, community groups, students, and educators to discuss pressing issues in Chicago education. Our seventh event, in partnership with City Bureau, is next Thursday, August 23. It is open to the public.

Timely Decision

Detroit school board approves 2018-19 academic calendar after union agrees to changes

PHOTO: Hero Images
Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said teachers agreed to calendar changes to do what's best for students.

The Detroit school board approved this year’s academic calendar Tuesday night, hours after Detroit’s main district and its largest teachers union settled a contract disagreement.

The calendar approval, which comes just three weeks before the first day of school, includes some changes to the original calendar spelled out in the teachers’ contract.  The new calendar was approved last week by a school board subcommittee without comment from the the Detroit Federation of Teachers, and it was on the agenda for tonight’s meeting of the full school board.

After discussion with the district, the union signed an agreement on the changes, known as a memorandum of understanding.

The calendar eliminates one-hour-early releases on Wednesdays and moves the teacher training that occurred during that time mostly to the beginning of the school year. It also will move spring break to April 1-5, 2019 — a few weeks earlier than the April 19-26 break specified in the contract.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the situation was not ideal, and he realizes that some teachers may already have made plans for the week of April 19-26.

“Hopefully, our teachers realize they should be there,” he said. But if vacation plans were already made and can be changed, “that’s good.”

“We will be prepared as much as possible to have substitutes and even district staff, if it’s necessary,” he said.

Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said teachers aren’t pleased about the agreement.

“No, we were not happy with the change,” Bailey said.

Addressing a question from board member LaMar Lemmons, Bailey said the calendar changes “did constitute an unfair labor practice” because, among other reasons, teachers lost preparation days with the new calendar.

“We are not happy, but we are here for students,” Bailey said. “We understand this is what’s right for students. We put students first, and we are going to work it out.”

The earlier spring break is designed to avoid the testing window for the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, a college entrance exam commonly known as the PSAT.

Other changes to the calendar include eliminating scheduled parent-teacher conferences on October 31 because of the Halloween celebration.