After years of clashing with state officials over state takeovers of public schools, Indianapolis Public Schools are now taking a new approach — they are working with the state.

With the state’s blessing, the district has assigned seven of its lowest-scoring schools — among those most at risk for takeovers — to new “transformation zones” where they get extra support from the district. The idea is to turn them around without the state taking charge.

That means frequent visits from teaching coaches, tailored teacher training and new approaches to teacher leadership, including a pilot program beginning next year in which the district will offer extra pay to some successful teachers who agree to coach their peers and take on additional students.

For now, the zone schools are getting several visits a week from a team of five coaches who work with teachers to help them better meet the needs of struggling students.

“(It) is a cutting edge model in terms of focusing on the target schools and providing them with some very high-quality assistance, with very high expectations,” said Cheryl Beeson, the director of transformation for high schools for IPS.

Modeled on a much-lauded turnaround program implemented in Evansville, the state-funded $1.55 million program is administered in partnership with Mass Insight, a Massachusetts-based company that helped create the program in Evansville. It is designed to give schools the tools they need to improve — whatever those tools may be.

It’s not always easy to know what a school needs, Beeson said, but zone schools receive intense scrutiny that can help point school leaders to the best solutions.

“Within a short amount of time, we will see some strands of answers,” Beeson said. “There won’t be one answer, but there will be various things that are connected and interrelated.”

The district is in its first year of implementing the zones, so it is too early to tell whether they will achieve the goals the district has outlined or dramatically improve floundering student test scores.

But just establishing the zones was a radical shift for IPS and the Indiana State Board of Education. While Indianapolis has, in recent years, seen contentious state-led efforts to improve struggling schools, IPS is taking the lead with this new approach. With the support of the state board, it is initiating its own efforts to fix failing schools.

Fixing the pipeline

Transformation zones aim to solve a big challenge facing IPS: by the time students reach middle or high school, they can be years behind in learning. Those learning delays can cause behavior problems that exacerbate academic issues. That’s why the zones are designed as clusters around two struggling Westside high schools and schools that typically feed into them.

The schools in the zone are Northwest and George Washington high schools and four elementary schools —School 48, School 107, School 63 and School 49.

Arlington High School, which was returned to the district this fall following state takeover, also is part of the transformation zone program though its feeder schools are not currently involved.

The k-12 structure allows the district to help kids at every stage, officials say.

For younger kids, the program aims to reduce the number of students failing state tests and catch them up on the skills, such as reading at grade level, they’ll need to succeed as they progress. In middle and high schools, the challenge is helping students who are already lagging far behind their peers.

At all levels, said Brynn Kardash, the director of transformation for elementary schools, the solution is based on a simple premise: providing intensive, high-quality training to school staff and leaders to help change school cultures and, eventually, lead to more learning.

“It’s not that we try to do everything different in the transformation zones,” Kardash said. “We just have the resources to provide more frequent support within the zones to the elementary and to the high schools.”

The intense coaching and training is especially important at struggling schools that are often staffed with relatively inexperienced teachers since the combination of inexperienced teachers with tough-to-teach, high-need students can be particularly challenging.

Changing practices

Like all of the schools in the transformation zones, School 48 has gotten low marks from the state. On nearly every report card in the last five years, it’s been rated an F. Last year, just 21 percent of students passed the math and reading sections of the state ISTEP standardized exam.

The school’s administration has been in turmoil. When Principal Crishell Sam took over a year ago, she was the third leader the school had in a single year. But now that the school is part of the zone program, Sam is banking on the right support to change the school’s direction.

The transformation zone program sends Kardash and a coach to the school several days a week, Sam said. At first Gabriel Surface, the coach at School 48, was there all day, three days a week, but now that teachers are settled in, he’s down to half days. Surface is a resource for teachers, said Sam, because he has time to provide a lot more one-on-one attention than she does.

When teachers face stubborn problems, they are asking for help earlier and more often than before the zone, she said.
“It’s a more proactive approach,” Sam said.

Sometimes teachers will meet with a coach to talk through barriers for individual students, like a kid who is struggling to recognize the sounds that begin words, an early reading skill. Other times, they will address broader teaching weaknesses.

This week, for example, Surface is working with a teacher who has been having a hard time using stations: kids are not transitioning smoothly from one activity to another and the stations have work for students at different levels.

Another teacher at School 48 has really mastered stations, Sam said, so Surface and the teacher who’s struggling spent some time in her classroom, watching how she made it work. They talked through what was working, and now they are bringing those successful ideas back to the first classroom to see if they can make stations more useful.

When a school is not meeting state standards, educators need to be open to new approaches, Sam said.

“We have to take a look and reflect and say, ‘OK, what do we need to do different?’” she said.

Uncertain results

Over the last decade there’s been a huge push to improve failing schools in Indiana, with the state board actively intervening in schools that receive low ratings from the Indiana Department of Education. The transformation zones are testing a new approach to handling failing schools — one that sidesteps the possibility of state takeover or other state involvement by targeting resources at schools without taking control away from the district.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee and district partner Mass Insight pitched the zones to the state board, which endorsed the plan. The state board is fully funding the first year of the project, including the cost for staff and consulting fees, using $1.55 million in federal grant money.

Proponents of the transformation zones have been clear from the start: turning around deeply troubled schools is not a quick fix. When he spoke to the state board, Mass Insight President Chris Maher acknowledged that improving test scores would be a long-term challenge. In the early stages, he said, the zone schools should see improved attendance, reduced suspensions and positive feedback from teachers.

So far, the impact on attendance has been murky. IPS provided average daily attendance rates in the schools for January 2015 and 2016. Attendance improved at most of the schools by between about 1 and 2 percentage points, and it’s near 95 percent.

But a few schools actually saw declines in attendance, including the high school grades at George Washington High School, where average daily attendance dipped by 4.5 percentage points to 87 percent. That’s troubling because attendance is strongly linked to student achievement and high school graduation.

School 48 is just beginning a push to improve attendance, Sam said. But her school already has seen improvements in student discipline, she said. The school has seen fewer behavior problems compared to last year, though she declined to provide details. The district initially agreed to provide data on discipline and suspension rates at transformation zone schools but, more than a week later, has not yet provided any details.

UPDATE: In the hours after this this story published, the district provided suspension rates in the zone schools for January 2015 and 2016. The number of suspensions dropped to 47 this year compared to 168 last year. School 48 had two suspension in January 2016, up from zero during the same period last year.

Less than a year into the new initiative, the jury is still out on how successful the zones will be at transforming schools, but Sam is optimistic about the benefits of the extra support.

“Whenever you’re dealing with a school who has some deficits,” she said, “the more hands on deck, the better.”