Building Better Schools

New plan for turning around an Indy high school: add elementary kids

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Charter Schools USA is proposing expanding Howe High School to add elementary grades.

Five years after taking over management of three failing Indianapolis schools, Charter Schools USA is doubling down on an unusual strategy for improving student outcomes — adding younger students to the school.

The for-profit charter management company’s latest proposal for revamping Howe High School, which has been under state control due to poor performance since 2012, would convert the 7-12th grade school on the Eastside into a K-12 school serving children as young as five.

The same management company made a similar change at Emma Donnan Middle School this year, saying the approach makes it easier for schools to reach kids before they fall too far behind.

“Students are coming in to us at seventh grade below grade level and so the question becomes, what do we need to do to make sure that the intervention that is in place is successful?” said Sherry Hage, chief academic officer for Charter Schools USA.

The idea is not without precedent. KIPP, a national charter network that operates middle and elementary schools in Indianapolis has made similar changes to schools in Indianapolis and around the country but the plan for Howe could face resistance. The Indiana State Board of Education, which oversees the school, has ruled in the past that state law does not permit adding grades to schools in takeover.

Plus, there’s little research on whether adding earlier grades improves outcomes for students.

“I can make intuitive arguments for it,” said Ron Zimmer, a researcher at Vanderbilt University who studies charter schools and middle school grade configuration. “I’m just not sure if there’s any evidence to support those arguments.”

It’s fairly common for charter schools to add upper grades as students progress, enrolling kids initially in kindergarten or first grade and then adding new grades until eventually becoming K-12 schools, Zimmer said. Expanding schools downward from high school is rare.

KIPP made the unusual move with the Indy College Prep Middle school it opened in 2003. After a decade, the charter network decided in 2014 to add an elementary school, Indy Unite Elementary, at the same location.

The idea is to “build out a full K-12 feeder system here in Indianapolis,” KIPP leader Emily Pelino wrote in an email, adding that the school realized there was demand for an elementary school and leaders wanted to improve results.

At a school with a distinctive educational program or discipline strategy, it can make sense to try to capture students earlier, Zimmer said. But he was not aware of any research into whether adding grades or creating K-12 schools like the one Charter Schools USA is proposing at Howe improves student test results.

“I don’t know any urban, traditional public schools that are K-12,” Zimmer said. “It’s fairly unique to the charter dimension.”

Expanding into lower grades could be a cost effective move for Howe. With just 548 students, the school is serving less than half the 1377 teens it educated just ten years ago. In part that’s because enrollment dropped precipitously when the failing IPS high school was taken over by the state in 2012. With such low enrollment, the building is expensive to maintain. Charter Schools USA told the Indiana State Board of Education that it costs $1 million just to pay for utilities at the school.

“The building right now has a lot of capacity,” Hage said. “Our conversations are about how are we being efficient and how are we being effective with the resources that we have?”

At a public hearing on the status at Howe and other takeover schools last week, Charter Schools USA — which proposed the expansion at a Indiana State Board of Education meeting in March — pitched the idea of adding elementary students to Howe. But there is no timeline for making a decision.

Charter Schools USA expanded the grade configuration at Emma Donnan Middle School to include lower grades this year by forming a separate elementary school within the IPS “innovation network.” The company continues to manage Emma Donnan, but IPS now gets credit for the school’s scores on state tests.

Charter Schools USA  could use a similar partnership to create an elementary school at Howe but so far Superintendent Lewis Ferebee has been noncommittal about the possibility for another agreement.

“We also want a better understanding of what the logistics would be for a K-12 campus, how we would ensure safety and those types of things,” Ferebee said. “Whether we will partner at Howe or not remains to be determined.”

The idea faces some criticism from educators who spoke out against Charter Schools USA management of Howe at last week’s hearing. Tasha Jones, who said she taught English at Howe before leaving amid conflict with the administration last year, said that the school is already struggling with discipline problems because middle school students share the building with high schoolers, and it should not expand to include an elementary school.

“We don’t have a stable facility or a stable place for seventh-graders and 12th-graders to remain,” Jones said. “I don’t necessarily know that I should invite my babies for that.”

But Paige Pittman, an instructional coach at the school, said that getting students earlier could help students catch them up or prevent them from falling behind. The challenge for Howe is winning over families, she said.

“When it first became a takeover school, people were scared of that and left,” Pittman said. “Now it’s saying, ‘this is not a bad thing,’ and we are successful and we are growing.”

Correction: April 12, 2016: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of researcher Ron Zimmer.

hurdle cleared

Indiana’s federally required education plan wins approval

PHOTO: Courtesy of the Indiana Department of Education
State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick greets elementary school students in Decatur Township.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has signed off on Indiana’s federally required education plan, ushering in another era of changes — although not exactly major ones — to the state’s public school system.

The U.S Department of Education announced the plan’s approval on Friday. Like other states, Indiana went through an extensive process to craft a blueprint to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which was signed into law in 2015.

“Today is a great day for Indiana,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement. “Our ESSA plan reflects the input and perspective of many stakeholders in communities across our state. From the beginning, we set out to build a plan that responded to the needs of Hoosier students. From our clear accountability system to our innovative, locally-driven approach to school improvement, our ESSA plan was designed to support student success.”

The federal government highlighted two aspects of Indiana’s plan. One is a pledge to close achievement gaps separating certain groups of students, such as racial and ethnic groups, from their peers by 50 percent by 2023.

Another is a staple of other states’ plans, as well: adding new ways for measuring how ready students are for attending college or starting their careers. Indiana education officials and lawmakers have made this a priority over the past several years, culminating in a new set of graduation requirements the Indiana State Board of Education approved late last year.

Under Indiana’s plan, high schoolers’ readiness will be measured not just by tests but also by performance in advanced courses and earning dual credits or industry certifications. Elementary school students will be measured in part by student attendance and growth in student attendance over time. Test scores and test score improvement still play a major role in how all schools are rated using state A-F letter grades.

In all, 35 states’ ESSA plans have won federal approval.

Advocates hope the law will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

Indiana officials struggled to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, such as graduation requirements and diplomas.

Under the state’s ESSA plan, A-F grades would include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and, in the case of chronic absenteeism, attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

Because the Indiana State Board of Education passed its own draft A-F rules earlier this month — rules that deviate from the state ESSA plan — it’s possible Hoosier schools could get two sets of letter grades going forward, muddying the initial intent of the simple A-F grade concept parents and community members are familiar with.

The state board’s A-F changes include other measures, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan. The state board plan also gets rid of the test score improvement measure for high-schoolers.

While that A-F proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

The state can still make changes to its ESSA plan, and the state board’s A-F draft is also expected to see revisions after public comment. But the fact that they conflict now could create difficulties moving forward, and it has led to tension during state board meetings. Already, the state expected schools would see two years of A-F grades in 2018. If both plans move forward as is, that could continue beyond next year.

Read: Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Find more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.


Aurora recommends interventions in one elementary school, while another gets more time

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Aurora school district officials on Tuesday will recommend turning over management of some operations at one of their elementary schools to an outside management company.

The school, Lyn Knoll Elementary, is located in northwest Aurora near 2nd Avenue and Peoria Street and serves a high number of students from low-income families, with 4 percent of students identified as homeless. The school was one of three Aurora schools that earned the lowest rating from the state in 2017.

That rating automatically flags the school under a district process for school interventions. The process directs district officials to consider a number of possible improvement plans, including closure or turning the school over to a charter school.

Lyn Knoll has had good rankings in recent years before slipping dramatically in the past year, a change that put it on the turnaround list. The district did not recommend intervening at Paris Elementary, even though that school has been in priority improvement for years and will face state sanctions if it has one more year without improvement.

Annual ratings for Lyn Knoll Elementary

  • 2010: Improvement
  • 2011: Improvement
  • 2012: Performance
  • 2013: Improvement
  • 2014: Priority Improvement
  • 2016: Performance
  • 2017: Turnaround
Colorado Department of Education

The board will discuss the recommendation on Tuesday and vote on the school’s fate next month. In November, four union-backed board members who have been critical of charter schools won a majority role on the district’s school board. This will be their first major decision since taking a seat on the board.

In September, Superintendent Rico Munn had told the school board that among January’s school improvement recommendations, the one for Paris would be “the most high-profile.” A month later the district put out a request for information, seeking ideas to improve Aurora schools.

But in a board presentation released Friday, district officials didn’t give much attention to Paris. Instead, they will let Paris continue its rollout of an innovation plan approved two years ago. Officials have said they are hopeful the school will show improvements.

The recommendation for Lyn Knoll represents more drastic change, and it’s the only one that would require a board vote.

The district recommendation calls for replacing the current principal, drafting a contract for an outside company to help staff with training and instruction, and creating a plan to help recruit more students to the school.

Documents show district officials considered closing Lyn Knoll because it already has low and decreasing enrollment with just 238 current students. Those same documents note that while officials are concerned about the school’s trends, it has not had a long history of low ratings to warrant a closure.

In considering a charter school conversion, documents state that there is already a saturation of charter schools in that part of the city, and the community is interested in “the existence of a neighborhood school.” Two charter networks, however, did indicate interest in managing the school, the documents state.
The district recommendation would also include stripping the school’s current status as a pilot school.

Lyn Knoll and other schools labeled pilot schools in Aurora get some internal district autonomy under a program created more than 10 years ago by district and union officials.

Because Lyn Knoll is a pilot school, a committee that oversees that program also reviewed the school and made its own recommendation, which is different from the district’s.

In their report, committee members explained that while they gave the school low marks, they want the school to maintain pilot status for another year as long as it follows guidance on how to improve.

Among the observations in the committee’s report: The school doesn’t have an intervention program in place for students who need extra help in math, families are not engaged, and there has not been enough training for teachers on the new state standards.

The report also highlights the school’s daily physical education for students and noted that the school’s strength was in the school’s governance model that allowed teachers to feel involved in decision making.

Read the full committee report below.