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.

Enrollment push

‘The pressure is on everyone’ as Detroit’s main district advertises to attract more students

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit school board members stand with the students who will star in the district's summer ad campaign.

Detroit’s main school district has a new look.

Officials announced a new brand for the Detroit Public Schools Community District to real-live fanfare on Thursday, unveiling a new logo and tagline with a student brass band as backdrop.

After the announcement was made at Nolan Elementary School, students streamed out wearing blue tee shirts printed with the new logo, which depicts a rising sun.

“Students rise. We all rise,” reads the tagline, signaling that improvement  is coming to a district that is working to recover from decades of disinvestment and mismanagement.  Officials hope the campaign will bring Detroit families back to a district whose future depends in part on increasing enrollment.

That’s a sign of a new reality in public education, one that public relations professionals recognized around the time that policy shifts nationwide allowed more charter schools to open.

When school competition spread nationally, the phenomenon was especially pronounced in Michigan, where parents can enroll their children in charter schools or suburban schools that will accept them. State law puts few restrictions on where charter schools can be opened and who can open them.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the re-branding effort was inevitable in a state that fosters competition between school districts.  Vitti has criticized Michigan’s charter school laws, but has charged head-on into the battle to enroll students nonetheless.

“I think the pressure is on everyone,” Vitti said. “Students can move from one district to another. It’s incumbent on every school district and every school to go into a marketing mode.”

The district paid $100,000 for the campaign, which was put together by BLVD Content and Real Integrated, marketing and strategy firms that have worked for Ford, the City of Detroit, The Henry Ford, and the Detroit Opera Theater. The non-profit United Way chipped in another $200,000. The brand includes television commercials and a new logo and tagline.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit’s main district has a new logo.

This is not the first time Detroit’s main district has used advertising to attract students. In 2010, the “I’m in” campaign won a top national marketing award. The old Detroit school district, which now exists only to pay off legacy debt, reported that 830 students enrolled as a result.

Nora Carr, former president of the National Association of School Public Relations, says schools are “borrowing a page from the private sector” by investing in brands. “Rarely mentioned a decade ago, branding is becoming part of the educational lexicon,” she wrote in a 2009 article.

While enrollment in Detroit’s main district has declined, it remains the largest in the state. That makes it easier to raise funds, but harder to implement a brand widely enough that it will become ingrained in parents’ perception of the district.

Many charter schools in the city are far smaller. Take The Detroit Achievement Academy, a 200-student charter school on the city’s northwest side. Kyle Smitley, the school’s founder, said in a text that she does the branding herself. “We don’t pay anyone externally,” she added.

District officials say the brand projects “a new beginning for traditional public education in Detroit.” His administration has set lofty academic goals, which it hopes to reach through an overhauled curriculum, but it remains too early to judge whether these efforts will move the district forward.

Boosting enrollment is a crucial piece of the puzzle. A plan unveiled earlier this month called for commercials on television, billboards and buses, part of an effort to bring back some of the roughly 30,000 students who wake up every day in the city and go to school in the suburbs.

The commercials will be based on a promotional video, also released Thursday, in which rapper Big Sean, a graduate of Cass Technical High School, speaks over images of actual Detroit students playing sports and studying. They build on a tradition of commercials that emphasize Detroit’s hard-knock reputation, with the rapper dropping lines like “we are a city that runs on ambition and grit.”

The video and other advertising materials can be seen on the district’s website.

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.