In the Classroom

Indiana puts the brakes on its plan to revamp high school diplomas

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The Indiana State Board of Education approved the voucher waiver requests at its June meeting.

After almost two years of work attempting to overhaul the state’s high school diplomas, the debate has been shelved.

Sarah O’Brien, a first grade teacher from Avon and the vice chairwoman of the Indiana State Board of Education, said after two hours of public testimony that the board couldn’t make a decision without more data and information on the types of diplomas students will earn when graduating this year.

“I think there are a lot of good things in the diplomas,” O’Brien said. “But our schools and our kids and our teachers are tired of change for the sake of change.”

The board overwhelmingly approved the plan to halt work on changing the diplomas, an effort led in part by state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and board member Steve Yager. She abstained from the vote to put the effort on hold while all the other board members voted yes. Ritz said she wasn’t championing any particular plan for diploma changes.

New requirements in math, fine arts and specific career “pathways” were sticking points for board members. The latest proposal from a task force of educators and other stakeholders differed just slightly from what the state board discussed last fall. At that time, vocal opposition from parents and educators led the board to create a new panel to revise the proposal. Ritz said changes to math requirements were a critical issue.

“Mathematics from the very, very, very beginning has been the topic of conversation,” Ritz said. “We have to really take a look at that information (from 2016 graduates), and I think that’s what the board wants to do. They want to see the real data before we make any changes.”

On one side of the diploma debate are educators who want to keep the current system. Some have told board members they fear students could be pigeonholed too early into career tracks or barred from earning a diploma if they can’t pass all the required math classes.

“A diploma is not a checklist, and therefore adding (math) classes won’t fix that problem,” said Steve Baker, principal at Bluffton High School. “I believe that better math is more important than more math.”

Those pushing for changes include college officials and business leaders who say they too often see Indiana high school graduates arrive unprepared for college courses or on-the-job demands.

“As a state I believe we’re failing to adequately prepare thousands of our young people,” said Pam Horne, a vice provost at Purdue University. “We don’t have have a college access problem in Indiana, we have a college completion problem.”

But it hasn’t been that long since diplomas were last updated, some educators testified to the state board today.

The state’s diplomas were changed for 2012-13 freshmen requiring them to earn six math credits in high school and take at least one math course each year. The first group of students to be held to those new standards will graduate this spring, so it’s not yet clear what effect the changes will have. Board members want to see if the new requirement reduces the number of graduates who need help to brush up their skills by taking basic level courses in college.

“I think many of us are very concerned that 2016 will be the first group of students graduating with our current diploma structure,” said Kim Dodson, executive director of the Arc of Indiana, a group that advocates on behalf of people with special needs. “We can’t recommend changes at this time until we see data.”

And there’s no mandate that the diplomas must be changed at all. Rather, the bill passed by the Indiana General Assembly in 2014, which launched the debate, merely called for a review of diploma types. Any changes had to be presented to the board, which has full authority to decide whether or not to adopt any proposed changes.

The latest version of the plan would let students starting high school in 2019 pursue three diploma options instead of the current four — a “core 44” diploma, an “honors” diploma and an updated “general” diploma. The four existing options are general, core 40, core 40 honors and career and technical honors diplomas.

The newest proposal is different from what was presented last fall mainly in how the programs are structured, with some changes to credits and courses required. The core 44 draft diploma — which most Indiana students would be expected to complete if the plan were approved — replaced the earlier “college- and career-ready” diploma draft. The versions remain very similar with a few simplifications to the math class “sequences” and clearer language around how students may use elective credits.

Some educators say the suggestions for electives could limit students in the future from exploring their interests, as electives are supposed to allow them to do.

“We have flexibility under the current system that allows our students to tailor in their area of interest or need,” said Tom Zobel, principal at Whiteland Community High School.

The new general diploma draft would drop from an eight-credit math option in the “workforce ready” draft to six credits. It also loosens an earlier capstone class requirement, making it instead “strongly encouraged.”

Some educators worried that the additional requirements in the “workforce ready” diploma could be barriers for students with special needs who already struggle to complete high school.

Before the legislature made changes earlier this month, a loophole in state law allowed schools to choose which diploma types they offered. To try to boost student skills, some high schools stopped offering general diplomas. But students and educators said that meant some kids who might have qualified for a general diploma but couldn’t meet the requirements for a core 40 diploma were left without a credential, blocking them from jobs, college or training programs.

But that changed when House Bill 1219 was passed with broad support earlier this month by the Indiana General Assembly. The bill requires all schools to offer all state diplomas to students.

Even after more work to refine the proposal, some board members said they still simply weren’t persuaded by the new plan.

“I don’t think I’m any closer to being able to make a decision on this than I was a month ago,” O’Brien said.

Passing ISTEP emphasized in A-F formula vote

Separately, the state board approved a proposal to determine how student test score improvement will factor into school A-F grades.

Once results from the 2016 ISTEP are calculated, the state will use a chart, called a “growth table,” to determine how many “growth points” a student has earned. Points are awarded based on an evaluation of whether a student’s score improved, fell or did not change from the previous year.

Under the proposed table adopted unanimously by board members, students who make one year of growth and pass the test receive 100 “growth points,” while students who make one year of growth but don’t pass receive 75 points. The other option would’ve given both groups of students 100 points.

For now, the different models don’t result in vastly different numbers of As, Bs, Cs, Ds or Fs.

“With 100 points it’s indicating … you’re passing and staying on-track,” Cynthia Roach, the state board’s testing director said. “On the old model those kids never received credit. (With 75 points) you’re still doing OK, but it’s not enough.”

Ending the churn

A splintered system and lack of teachers have created instability for Detroit schools. Now, leaders are craving solutions.

Social studies teacher Aaron Ames learned that his former school took summer paychecks back from teachers who quit in August when money disappeared from his bank account.

Like many school leaders in Detroit, Danielle Robinson spent the month of August doggedly searching for teachers.

Robinson is the top Detroit official for Phalen Leadership Academies, a nonprofit charter school network that took over three Detroit schools from another manager in July.

By late August, with the start of school just days away, Phalen still needed 34 teachers to staff Murphy, Stewart and Trix elementary schools.

And there wasn’t much time.

“We did $5,000 retention bonuses,” Robinson said. “We did  $5,000 signing bonuses. We did $1,000 referral bonuses … We needed to make sure we had enough teachers because that’s a huge thing for students when they come back — a permanent teacher in the classroom. ”

Phalen’s challenge was extreme — a problem exacerbated by management changes and by the dissolution of the state-run recovery district that had been overseeing the three schools. They’re now overseen by a Detroit district unsure of its plans for charters.

But the schools’ scramble for teachers is hardly unusual in a city where liberal school choice laws, a decentralized school system and a shrinking pool of available teachers have so destabilized the teacher labor force that many school leaders say they’re constantly looking for new educators to hire.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like this in my career,” said Mark Ornstein who heads the seven-campus University Prep charter school network in Detroit. “There’s just not enough people to fill the number of vacancies …. We’re all seeing more and more teachers leaving in the middle of the year.”

So many schools are looking for teachers — in August, September and throughout the year — that educators can wait for bonuses and enticements to grow before accepting an offer. And every time a teacher takes an offer and leaves, that creates a vacancy likely to be filled by a teacher from another school. That other school then has a vacancy to fill.

As teachers leave, students suffer. Research shows that teachers hired during or just before the school year are less effective than those who’ve had more time to prepare and to properly learn their school’s curriculum.

Experts say the teacher churn is driven in part by the fierce competition between schools in Detroit that has intensified as charter schools have expanded — they now comprise nearly half of the city’s schools — and as more suburban schools actively recruit city kids. Parents often enroll in multiple schools while weighing their options and schools are left to guess how many students they’ll have and how many teachers they’ll need.

“It’s another consequence of this hyper-competition that has been created by our charter school programs and laws here in Michigan and it’s really working to the detriment of everybody involved,” said Mike Addonizio, a professor of education policy at Wayne State University.

“The schools are competing for students,” he said. “The students will dictate the revenues and that dictates their budget and therefore their ability to hire staff … And if a school is plagued with high teacher turnover, that makes it difficult for students. Outcomes won’t be good and as that information becomes public, those schools don’t do well in school choice decisions and enrollment will drop.”

Some Detroit schools are now pushing back on teachers who quit mid-year by putting financial penalties into teachers’ contracts that discourage them from leaving, but advocates say real solutions will require major changes.

Among them: improving conditions in schools so that teachers want to stay and creating partnerships between district and charter schools to minimize instability.

“In other states, schools set their budgets and know their enrollment so much further ahead that they can come to a [spring] job fair and know exactly who they need to hire,” said Karey Henderson, the director of the Metro Detroit Charter Center who was the assistant superintendent of a 10-school Michigan charter network called Global Educational Excellence.

In Michigan, enrollment “doesn’t really get fleshed out often until Count Day [in October],” Henderson said. “Teachers are nervous and they’re applying around …. We would be trying to train new teachers but then a public school would get more kids and need more teachers and our teachers would get a call … We would have to start out the year with long-term subs in the classroom.”

Then, if parents see a substitute in the classroom, they might move their child to another school — and the churn continues.

Much of the attention this year has focused on the difficulties facing Detroit’s main school district as it works to fill scores of vacancies  in its 106 schools, but the problem is playing out somewhat differently in charter schools where teachers tend to be younger and are more likely to change jobs — or to the leave the profession entirely — from one year to the next.

A recent report from the state education department found that charter school teachers are twice as likely to leave their jobs compared to teachers in traditional public schools. The same report found a higher teacher turnover in Michigan as compared to the national average and put the price tag of replacing a teacher at nearly $10,000.

PHOTO: Michigan Department of Education
A recent Michigan Department of Education report shows that Michigan teachers — especially those who work for charter schools — are more likely to leave their jobs than their peers across the country.

Another state report shows the problem for all schools could get even worse in coming years as the number of people applying for teacher certifications drops precipitously — much faster than the number of students who need a teacher.

School leaders say they’re taking steps to attract more teachers. Detroit school  superintendent Nikolai Vitti says he’s working to build a “teacher pipeline” that would encourage district graduates to go into education, do their training in Detroit and work here when they graduate.

Charter school leaders say they’re making similar efforts.

Grand Valley State University now provides scholarships to education students who do their training in Detroit charter schools overseen by Grand Valley, said Rob Kimball, who heads the university’s charter school office.  

Leaders from Grand Valley charter schools have also been meeting with their counterparts from schools overseen by Central Michigan University to discuss a “coordinated talent strategy,” Kimball said.

“There’s definitely an interest in coming up with a shared solution,” Kimball said. “We need to design a solution to really stabilize the marketplace for teacher talent and to develop a pipeline [for future teachers].”

PHOTO: Michigan Department of Education
A recent report from the Michigan Department of Education warns that number of new teacher certifications is dropping much faster than the number of students in the state.

In the absence of a citywide solution, individual schools are doing whatever they can to fill classrooms.

In the case of the Phalen Leadership Academies, Robinson, the top official, said her schools  applied for emergency certifications to put some people without teaching credentials into classrooms. The new teachers will get extra coaching to help them succeed, Robinson said, but it was a tough choice for an Indiana-based network that prides itself on hiring only highly qualified staff.

“None of our other schools in our network use emergency permits,” Robinson said.

Some charter schools have created bonus systems that require teachers to return for the next school year in order to collect last year’s bonus.

Others — including the University Prep schools — have contracts that don’t allow teachers to get their full summer pay unless they return for the new school year.

Social studies teacher Aaron Ames said he learned that the hard way when he resigned his job at the University Prep Academy Middle School on Aug. 18 to take a position with a different school.

Suddenly, he said, his last paycheck disappeared from his bank account.

“I looked at my bank account one day and saw a negative $900,” Ames said.

University Prep had paid him on Aug. 15 but took the money back when he quit three days later.

Ornstein said his teachers’ contracts begin on Aug. 1. If they resign before teacher training begins on Aug. 21, it means they didn’t do any work and shouldn’t have been paid.

Ames was furious. “It kind of make me want to quit teaching,” he said. “They should find a way to keep teachers honestly instead of trying to punish us for leaving.”

Contract provisions that seem designed to penalize departures are becoming increasingly common in Detroit charter schools, teachers union leaders say.

“At one charter school, the teachers call it the ‘death tax,’” said Nate Walker, an organizer and policy analyst with the Michigan chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents teachers in the main Detroit district and in a handful of city charter schools. “They’re loading up penalties on teachers to try to deter them from leaving so close to the beginning of the school year … but that’s not going to fix the problem because the labor market in Detroit is destabilized and decentralized.”

Walker called for schools to give teachers contracts earlier in the year and to coordinate with each other so that teachers can know they’ll have income and health insurance over the summer even if they plan to change jobs in September.

The current structure encourages teachers to hold on to last year’s job until the insurance for next year’s job kicks in in August or September, Walker said.

“This is a lot easier said than done because of the multi-operator system that we have right now, but if employers were to make the commitment that any time they’ve given someone an offer to work in the fall, they’re also willing to turn on insurance for that employee, that could solve at least part of the problem,” Walker said.

The only way to fix the rest of the problem, Addonizio said, is to address the reasons that teachers leave in the first place.  

“The best thing that a school or a school district can do to combat the teacher turnover problem is to improve working conditions in the school,” Addonizio said. “For new teachers, their compensation might mean something, but more than anything, they want some mentoring, assistance from veteran teachers. They want some help.”

Henderson said schools need to find a way to start working together — instead of just poaching teachers from each other.

“Get everyone in the room,” she said. “I know everyone is protective over how they manage their schools and run their H.R. but if you get enough H.R. people together in the same room, I think you can come up with a solution.”

disaster ready

Here’s how New York City schools are preparing to serve students impacted by Hurricane Maria

Just weeks after Hurricane Maria traced a deadly path across the Caribbean, The New American Academy Charter School in Flatbush, Brooklyn got a call.

It was a family member looking for a school for two young relatives after their home on Dominica was wrecked, along with most of the small island.

Before long, the students were enrolled in kindergarten and first grade. The school quickly gave the family a scholarship for after-school care and provided free uniforms — even including new shoes, socks and underwear.

“They lost everything,” said Lisa Parquette Silva, the school’s headmaster. “As soon as I heard these two students needed a place, it was not a question.”

New York City is preparing to potentially welcome an influx of students fleeing Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands after the powerful hurricane struck in September, knocking out power grids and flattening homes. The leaders of the country’s largest school system insist they are ready for whomever comes.

“We are going to do whatever we can to support and accommodate them,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a recent press conference, “starting with our public schools.”

Hundreds of thousands could flee Puerto Rico. As home to some of the largest Caribbean communities on the mainland, New York City is a logical place for many of those people to land. They are likely to bring with them an untold number of children who need to enroll in schools — though officials say it’s hard to know how many until they actually arrive.

Already, the Orlando school system reported enrolling almost 300 students from Puerto Rico as of last week. In Miami-Dade, the number was around 200, according to The 74.

In New York City, schools have not yet seen a significant uptick in enrollment, officials said. The few students who have arrived have landed in Bronx and Brooklyn schools, they added.

Serving those students will likely require a host of extra resources. The Miami-Dade school system is expecting to spend $2,200 for every student the district takes in, according to the Wall Street Journal.

New York City schools chancellor Carmen Fariña said the city has sent representatives to Puerto Rico to understand how the situation there could impact schools. Meanwhile, the education department has begun to survey principals here to find out which schools have space to take in new students — and assured those schools that they would get extra funding. Guidance counselors are being trained to meet storm survivors’ unique needs.

“Money will be allotted to those schools to be able to service those children,” Fariña said at the press conference, “understanding in many cases there may be extra support needed for families and trauma.”

The state education department recently put out guidance for schools, saying children who have fled a disaster are likely protected by federal law for homeless students. Under the law, districts can waive documentation requirements for school enrollment — which the city is doing at its Family Welcome Centers — and students are eligible for free meals.

Nicholas Tishuk, executive director of Bedford Stuyvesant New Beginnings charter school in Brooklyn, said he is already fielding calls from people who are looking for schools as they consider whether to bring over family members from Puerto Rico.

The independent charter school recently packed a van with donated lanterns, batteries and water to be shipped to the island. School leaders have also put the word out that they are ready to enroll students impacted by the storm.

If the school runs out of space, Tishuk hopes it can still serve as a clearinghouse to put families in touch with other local options.

“A school can be a very powerful place to get extra resources,” he said, noting that New Beginnings has a bilingual staff that regularly collaborates with social-service agencies. “Even if it’s not our school, you should reach out to a school that can help you connect to those resources.”

Schools that take in displaced students will most likely have to offer bilingual classes and provide counselors who can support children who have been separated from their parents and are living in the city with relatives.

Eve Colavito, director of schools for DREAM charter school in East Harlem, said one of the most important things schools can provide is stability. The pre-K through ninth-grade school enrolled a middle school student from Puerto Rico this week.

“Our goal initially,” she said, “is to make school as normal and predictable as possible for them.”