Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools adds schools to ‘innovation’ program, reshaping district

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 69 is now managed by Kindezi Academy.

The Indianapolis Public Schools took another step today in its dramatic shift away from the traditional school district model.

While IPS has historically run all of its schools from its central office downtown, the IPS School Board is increasingly transferring schools to private managers who operate independently from the district. Today, the board added two more schools to its “innovation school” roster, allowing them to operate independently, like charter schools, while still remaining under the authority of IPS.

School 44, a diverse Westside school, will become Global Prep Academy, converting the school to a dual language Spanish immersion model. School 69, a long-struggling school Northeast of downtown, will be restarted as Kindezi Academy, a school founded by the leaders of the Enlace Academy charter school where students will spend time during each class working independently on computers, in addition to lectures and small group work with teachers.

Read: Two struggling IPS schools could be ‘restarted’ next year.

By next fall, more than 10 percent of Indianapolis Public Schools students are projected to attend schools that run independently with charter-like flexibility.

It’s a big change for the state’s largest school district. All IPS students were in traditional, district-managed schools until this year when the district converted a failing school to an “innovation” school, launched a new elementary school with a charter partner and pulled four existing schools into its innovation network.

The changes are controversial, in part because when schools convert, their teachers and staff are no longer represented by the teachers union. They are hired and paid by the charter network or non-profit that runs the school. The outside groups then control money and resources that used to flow to traditional district schools.

“They are taking away from the traditional public schools,” said Larry Yarrell, a former IPS principal and chair of the NAACP education committee. “You’re taking money away from the traditional schools. You’re taking resources away from the traditional schools. You’re taking quality teachers and educators and you’re placing them in these innovative schools.”

But supporters say the changes will lead to better schools for kids.

“If we allow our school leaders and our school teams, who know those kids best to make decisions that will best serve those kids and families, we will see improved outcomes,” said Aleesia Johnson, the district innovation officer.

The district-charter partnerships are part of a national trend in urban districts, but the legal framework and political climate in Indianapolis has accelerated the growth of these kinds of schools in the city, said Jordan Posamentier, deputy policy director for the Center for Reinventing Public Education, which supports the approach.

“They are moving ahead swiftly,” Posamentier said. “They’re doing it faster than you see other cities doing it.”

Next year, enrollment in IPS innovation schools will more than double, from about 1,389 to 3,076 students, according to district projections. The main reason for that jump is a plan to convert four existing district schools to innovation status and allow outside organizations to takeover management.

In addition to the vote on School 44 and School 69, the board is poised to approve applications from leaders of two IPS schools who are aiming to convert to innovation status to gain greater freedom over staffing and instruction. Those schools are Cold Spring, an environmental science magnet, and School 93, which began using the homegrown turnaround model Project Restore last year. If their plans are approved, they will be the first schools to voluntarily pursue innovation.

It’s all part of a larger district shift toward a “portfolio” strategy, where the central office provides services, from transportation to special education teachers, but does not direct choices like curriculum, staffing or teacher training. In the long term, IPS aims to transform all of its schools either to innovation status or to autonomy schools, which offer school leaders more flexibility without the full independence of innovation. Next year, the district will pilot its first six autonomous schools.

Innovation schools, which were authorized by lawmakers in 2014, are considered part of the district under state law. IPS is held accountable if the schools receive poor grades on annual state report cards and gets credit for strong student test scores. The school board also decides on contracts with outside management organizations.

But the district is giving up oversight over the day-to-day operations at schools, said board member Gayle Cosby. If something goes wrong at a school, parents can appeal to the IPS board, she said. But it has little say in how innovation schools respond.

“The only thing the IPS board has any power to do is to cancel the contract,” Cosby said. “I just don’t see that happening.”

Cosby is not opposed to all innovation plans, and she voted to convert schools 44 and 69.

One reason the district has expanded the innovation network is to stabilize long-shrinking enrollment. This year, IPS added three charter schools to the network that were previously renting space in district schools: Enlace Academy, KIPP Indy College Prep Middle School and KIPP Indy Unite Elementary School. The students at those schools are now part of district enrollment.

Joining the innovation network is beneficial for charter schools in part because they get access to additional funding from property taxes that pays for services such as transportation. If the schools choose to get those services from IPS, that helps the district financially.

“We believe that’s cost neutral, and we’re bringing innovative programs to schools that have historically been struggling,” said Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

Most of the funding the state provides for students at innovation schools simply flows through the district. Based on their contracts with the district, the schools receive the full per-student allocation for the kids they serve — about $6,731 this year.

That’s more than traditional district-managed schools, which lose some of their funding to central office expenses. For example, at the relatively well-funded School 84 on the Northside, the district spends about $5,955 per student, according to a budget estimate.

As districts transition to a portfolio strategy, central offices typically provide fewer services and shrink in size and cost, Posamentier said. Instead of making education decisions, they shift to more of a broker of services that schools can choose to purchase, he said.

“Rethinking what the central office does is critical here,” he said. “Money is distributed very differently.”

IPS has already begun reducing the size of its central office. Since July 2013 when Ferebee took over, the district cut central office staff by 25 positions, which added up to a savings of $2.2 million from July 2013 through June 2015, according to the district.

Regardless of its financial impact, Johnson said increasing enrollment by attracting students to the district is one aim of innovation schools.

“It sends a positive message to families and to the community that people are interested in, invested in and want to be a part of IPS,” she said. “We’re building a really powerful narrative where people are saying, ‘I know there are great options and I’m excited to be part of the district.’ ”

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below:

Mergers and acquisitions

In a city where many charter schools operate alone, one charter network expands

Kindergarteners at Detroit's University Prep Academy charter school on the first day of school in 2017.

One of Detroit’s largest charter school networks is about to get even bigger.

The nonprofit organization that runs the seven-school University Prep network plans to take control of another two charter schools this summer — the Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies elementary and the Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies middle/high school.

The move would bring the organization’s student enrollment from 3,250 to nearly 4,500. It would also make the group, Detroit 90/90, the largest non-profit charter network in the city next year — a distinction that stands out in a city when most charter schools are either freestanding schools or part of two- or three-school networks.

Combined with the fact that the city’s 90 charter schools are overseen by a dozen different charter school authorizers, Detroit’s relative dearth of larger networks means that many different people run a school sector that makes up roughly half of Detroit’s schools. That makes it difficult for schools to collaborate on things like student transportation and special education.

Some charter advocates have suggested that if the city’s charter schools were more coordinated, they could better offer those services and others that large traditional school districts are more equipped to offer — and that many students need.

The decision to add the Henry Ford schools to the Detroit 90/90 network is intended to “create financial and operational efficiencies,” said Mark Ornstein, CEO of UPrep Schools, and Deborah Parizek, executive director of the Henry Ford Learning Institute.

Those efficiencies could come in the areas of data management, human resources, or accounting — all of which Detroit 90/90 says on its website that it can help charter schools manage.

Ornstein and Parizek emphasized that students and their families are unlikely to experience changes when the merger takes effect on July 1. For example, the Henry Ford schools would remain in their current home at the A. Alfred Taubman Center in New Center and maintain their arts focus.  

“Any changes made to staff, schedule, courses, activities and the like will be the same type a family might experience year-to-year with any school,” they said in a statement.