Struggling schools

Most Indianapolis charter schools scored below the Indianapolis Public Schools average on ISTEP

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Then-Mayor Greg Ballard helps cut the ribbon for the opening of Vision Academy in 2014. Like many new charter schools, it had low test scores in its first year.

Many Indiana schools saw rock-bottom passing rates on last year’s tougher ISTEP exam but in a city where public and charter schools compete for students, it’s worth noting that a majority of charter schools in the city had passing rates below the district’s average.

Just 29.1 percent of Indianapolis Public Schools students passed the 2015 ISTEP. That’s far below the statewide average of 52.5 percent but many charters posted even lower scores. Three of the charter schools that had the lowest scores in the city have since closed.

Chalkbeat in recent weeks highlighted the top 10 IPS schools that beat odds on the 2015 exam, the 10 IPS schools that ranked lowest for percent passing ISTEP and the top 10 charter schools in the city when it came to passing the test. In the coming weeks, stories on the top and bottom ranked township and small city schools in Indianapolis will follow.

Here’s a look at the lowest-ranking charters:

Indiana Math & Science Academy

The first of what is now three ISMA campuses in Indianapolis, the K-8 school located just south of downtown saw just 20 percent of its students pass ISTEP in 2015. That’s down about 21 percentage points from the prior year — a steeper drop than the average Indiana school where passing rates fell by 19 percentage points.

The original Indiana Math and Science Academy now has two sister schools as part of its network.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
The original Indiana Math and Science Academy now has two sister schools as part of its network.

The original Indiana Math and Science Academy now has two sister schools as part of its network.

The 530-student school, which is sponsored by the mayor’s office, has struggled over the past two years after five straight years of improving test scores. The test is given to kids in grades 3-8.

The ISMA schools are managed by Illinois-based charter school company Concept Schools, which in recent years has been probed by the FBI but no action has yet been taken against the company. Concept is connected to the Turkish Gulen movement in the United States.

About 80 percent of the school’s students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. To qualify, a family of four must earn less than $44,863.

About 60 percent of the school’s students are black, 31 percent are Hispanic and 5 percent are white.

By comparison, at the average IPS school, 71 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for meal assistance.

About 22 percent of students were learning English as a new language in 2014-15, the last year for which data is available. About 11 percent were in special education.

Vision Academy

The Vision Academy, a K-7 school on the Northwest edge of downtown, is the sister school to Avondale Meadows Academy.

Vision Academy is a mayor-sponsored charter school affiliated with the Challenge Foundation.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Vision Academy is a mayor-sponsored charter school affiliated with the Challenge Foundation.

The school, which opened in 2014, reported ISTEP scores for the first time in 2015 but just 20 percent of its students passed the test.

The 372-student school, sponsored by the mayor’s office, is locally managed.

About 91 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

About 16 percent of students were in special education in 2014-15, the last year for which data is available. About 2 percent were English language learners.

Andrew J. Brown Academy

The Andrew J. Brown Academy on the city’s East side, saw a dramatic 30 percentage point drop in its ISTEP passing rate last year. Just 19 percent of the school’s students passed the 2015 test.

Andrew J. Brown Academy is run by National Heritage Academies, one of the country's biggest charter school companies.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Andrew J. Brown Academy is run by National Heritage Academies, one of the country’s biggest charter school companies.

Andrew J. Brown Academy is run by National Heritage Academies, one of the country’s biggest charter school companies.

The K to 8 school, which serves 641 students, is managed by the Michigan-based National Heritage Academies, one of the largest charter school companies in the country, and is sponsored by the mayor’s office.

About 97 percent of the school’s students come from families that qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

The school is 57 percent black, 37 percent Hispanic and 1 percent white.

About 28 percent of the school’s students were learning English as a new language in 2014-15, the last year for which data is available. About 10 percent were in special education.

Indiana Math & Science Academy South

IMSA’s south campus, which serves 282 students in grades K to 8, is the newest of three Indiana Math and Science Academies in Indianapolis.

Run by Illinois-based Concept Schools, Indiana Math and Science Academy South is one of three sister schools in the city.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Run by Illinois-based Concept Schools, Indiana Math and Science Academy South is one of three sister schools in the city.

About 16 percent of students who took the exam passed ISTEP last year. That’s down 25 percentage points from 2014.

Like its sister schools, ISMA south is run by Illinois-based Concept schools and sponsored by the mayor’s office.

The south campus serves almost entirely students from families who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch at 95 percent.

About 57 percent of the school’s students are black, 24 percent are white and 9 percent are Hispanic.

Very few of the school’s students were learning English as a new language in 2014-15, the last year for which data is available, at less than 1 percent. About 15 percent were in special education.

Andrew Academy (now closed)

After a big drop in test scores in 2014, the school made the decision to surrender its charter after conversations with then-Mayor Greg Ballard’s office. School officials said the Andrew Academy had failed to achieve its goals, prompting the decision to close.

In its final year, Andrew Academy saw just 13.6 percent of its students pass ISTEP. That was down 40 percentage points from 2014.

Imagine Life Science Academy West

Imagine Life Science Academy West continues to be one of the lowest scoring charter schools in the city.

Imagine Life Sciences Academy West in in Indianapolis is a charter school on the city's West side.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Imagine Life Sciences Academy West in in Indianapolis is a charter school on the city’s West side.

Run by the Virginia-based for-profit company Imagine Schools, Life Science Academy West saw just 13 percent of students pass ISTEP last year. That was down 28 percentage points from the prior year.

Three other Imagine schools have closed down in Indiana. Imagine West’s charter was not renewed by Ball State University in 2013, but it was granted a new charter by Trine University, which allowed the school to continue operating.

Imagine West’s enrollment is down by more than 100 students to 479 in grades K-8 this year. It is located on the city’s Northwest side, right next to IPS School 79, which ranks among the district’s top 10 with 48 percent passing ISTEP.

About 93 percent of Imagine West’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch The school is 63 percent black, 32 percent Hispanic and 3 percent white.

A large number of students were English-language learners at about 24 percent in 2014-15, the last year for which data is available, and 14 percent were in special education.

Fall Creek Academy and University Heights Preparatory Academy (both now closed)

These sister schools struggled with low test scores dating back to when University Heights was known as Fountain Square Academy.

Challenge Foundation rescued the two schools after then-Mayor Greg Ballard’s office declined to renew their charters for low test scores and other problems. But the new arrangement did not produce significantly better results.

The new sponsor, Ball State University, made the decision last year to close the two schools, which shut down last summer. In their final tries at ISTEP, just 12.3 percent of Fall Creek students passed the test, while the passing rate at University Heights was 11.1 percent.

Damar Charter Academy

Damar Charter Academy’s unique design means passing ISTEP is an even greater challenge. The school enrolls almost entirely students who need special education services. It is affiliated with Damar Services Inc., a local organization that helps children and adults with autism, intellectual disabilities, developmental disabilities and behavioral challenges to live more independent lives.

Damar Charter Academy serves students who need special education services.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Damar Charter Academy serves students who need special education services.

The idea when the school was founded was to help children who receive services from Damar with learning. It is locally managed and sponsored by the mayor’s office. Most of the school’s 163 students in grades K-12 take an alternative exam tailored to children with disabilities, leaving very few to take ISTEP.

But those that do take ISTEP have struggled to pass.

In 2015, 3.6 percent of the 27 Damar students who took ISTEP passed.

Located on the city’s Southwest side, about 81 percent of the school’s students come from families that qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

The school is about 66 percent white, 26 percent black and 1 percent Hispanic. Less than 1 percent were English-language learners in 2014-15, the last year for which data was available. More than 96 percent were in special education.

Indianapolis Academy of Excellence

The first year of ISTEP scores didn’t go so well for the tiny Indianapolis Academy of Excellence.

Indianapolis Academy of Excellence is located just North of downtown in the former Indianapolis Project School building.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Indianapolis Academy of Excellence is located just North of downtown in the former Indianapolis Project School building.

The new charter school has only 85 students in grades K-4 and just 15 were old enough to take ISTEP last year. None of them passed.

Indianapolis Academy of Excellence is affiliated with the Challenge Foundation and sponsored by the Indiana State Charter School Board. The school is located just east of downtown.

The school has a very high percentage of students in poverty. About 99 percent of students are from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. About 89 percent of the school’s students are black, 6 percent are Hispanic and 1 percent are white.

About 10 percent of students were in special education and 4 percent were English language learners in 2014-15, the last year for which data was available.

Five other charter schools fell below the IPS district average, including:

  • Carpe Diem – Meridian: In 2014, the school ranked among the top 10 charter schools. But with 27.7 percent passing in 2015, the school slipped below the IPS average and fell 35 percentage points from the prior year.
  • Indianapolis Lighthouse Charter School: The school’s passing rate fell 22 percentage points from 2014 to 27.4 percent, but that slide was not as steep as many other charter schools. That helped lift Indianapolis Lighthouse above the bottom 10, where it ranked last year.
  • Indiana Math & Science Academy North: Like Carpe Diem, ISMA North was ranked among the top 10 charter schools in 2014. But in 2015, its passing rate fell 34 percentage points to 27.4 percent, coming in below the IPS average this time.
  • Enlace Academy: The school’s 25 percent passing rate put it below the IPS average, but there was good news. While the average school in Indiana saw its passing rate drop by 19 percentage points on the harder 2015 exam, Enlace’s passing rate dropped just 3.6 percentage points, one of the smallest declines in the state.
  • Padua Academy (now closed): Just 22.4 percent of students passed ISTEP in the last year for this school.
  • KIPP Indianapolis College Preparatory Academy: The roller coaster ride continues for KIPP when it comes to its ISTEP passing rate. About 21 percent passed in 2015. That was below the IPS average but kept the school off the bottom 10 list, which it was on last year. Its passing rate dropped 17 percentage points from last year, a drop that was better than the average Indiana school, which fell by 19 points.

pencils down

Three things to watch as the release of New York’s test scores draws near

PHOTO: Getty Images

New York’s English and math scores are scheduled to be released this week — at long last. Compared to prior years, the state has delayed their release by a month.

But when the scores arrive, they will come with a big asterisk.

This year, as in the past, the numbers will not be directly comparable to the previous year because of changes to the test itself. Under pressure from teachers, students, and parents who argued that classrooms are too focused on preparing for the exams, the state shortened the tests from three days to two — which means this year’s scores will not allow for an apples-to-apples comparison, state officials said.

By contrast, last year was one of the rare instances in the last decade when the tests did not change, allowing observers to identify trends. New York City posted small gains in reading and math, narrowing the gap with the rest of the state. But with a new test, determining if this pattern has continued will be hard to judge. Here are some questions we’ll be asking as this year’s scores come out.

If the tests aren’t comparable, can they tell us whether students or schools are improving?

The short answer, according to Teachers College professor Aaron Pallas, is not really.

State officials will continue to report the share of students who are considered proficient in reading and math, as in previous years. But because the way the exam is scored must change to account for shorter tests, it will be difficult to know whether the tests reflect real changes in student learning.

If scores improve, “Does that mean they did better, or is that an artifact of the changes in testing?” Pallas said. “The state is probably not going to be able to answer that this week.”

That means it will be difficult to use the scores as an overall barometer of the health of the city’s school system and to see what impact some Mayor Bill de Blasio’s biggest education initiatives are having (or not). This lack of clarity will be especially evident, for example, when trying to gauge improvements among schools in the city’s $750 million Renewal turnaround initiative. The city is making final decisions about the 50 schools that remain in the program this school year.

Still, it’s possible city officials will seize on the results if they show gains. When scores rocketed up 8 points in English and one point in math in 2016, de Blasio said the improvements were “pure hard evidence” that his policies were paying off — even as state officials said the scores, when judged against the previous year, were also not an “apples-to-apples” comparison.

How strong is the opt-out movement?

In recent years, roughly one in five students have opted out of the state tests in protest. But in New York City, that percentage has historically been much smaller: just 4 percent of students sat out at least one exam last year, a slight increase from the year before.

Still, the opt-out rate serves as something of a bellwether of attitudes toward state education policy. The movement grew in response to a series of reform initiatives, including a law that became controversial because one of its provisions tied state test scores to teacher evaluations, an element that is currently on hold, and in reaction to the adoption of the Common Core learning standards. After the state rolled out new tests aligned with the standards, scores plummeted.

This year, partly in response to parent opposition to testing, state officials have taken steps to lessen its role (and the time testing takes) in schools. Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which gives states more leeway than they enjoyed under No Child Left Behind, New York policymakers have shifted some of the focus from standardized exams to other metrics such as chronic absenteeism and have introduced interventions, generally seen as less harsh, at the lowest-performing schools.

Will these changes temper some of the fury that prompted the opt-out movement in the first place? So far it’s unclear. But officials said the opt-out numbers will be released alongside the annual test scores.

What about test-score gaps among different groups of students?

Richard Carranza has repeatedly talked about some of the structural and historical  disadvantages found in the nation’s largest school system since taking its helm, and if history is any guide, this year’s test scores will continue to demonstrate these inequities.

Black and Hispanic students have historically performed far below their white peers, a divide that did not narrow significantly last year. We’ll also be on the lookout for trends among English learners and students with disabilities.

But once again, because of changes to the test, how these disparities are narrowing (or widening) over time may not be clear. Nor will there be a full sense of whether the scores reflect the city’s “Equity and Excellence” agenda, which is largely designed to give schools extra resources, but has drawn criticism for not tackling systemic disparities.

State officials said that the tests should now remain the same for the next two years, meaning this year could serve as a baseline to measure Carranza’s new approach— including his promise to address school segregation — even if the verdict this year remains murky.

listening tour

These parents won’t stop chipping away at literacy and the language barrier in Detroit schools

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Parent groups have already demanded that the Detroit district hire more bilingual staffers. On Tuesday, it was clear that the same problems exist at charter schools.

If you think it’s hard to navigate Detroit’s troubled school system, try doing it when no one speaks your language.

The latest stop on Chalkbeat Detroit’s listening tour took a parent’s-eye-view of the obstacles facing English language learners, who graduate from high school at lower rates than their English-speaking peers.

One observation: The parents, who play a key role in helping children learn to read, face plenty of obstacles themselves, especially when it comes to communicating across a language barrier.

“You feel that you don’t have value,” said Gloria Vera, describing her interactions with English-speaking school staff. “You feel that you have fewer chances to ask questions. It scares me.”

Several mothers worried about the effects of Michigan’s “read-or-flunk” law, which will hold back third-graders if they aren’t reading on grade level by the end of next year. By one count, 70 percent of English learners in the state could be forced to repeat a grade.

One mom said she wanted to help her daughter learn to read, but worried her English skills were too limited.

Another, Delia Barba, suspects that her daughter has a learning disability, but says her school in mostly Spanish-speaking Southwest Detroit has been slow to investigate because of the language barrier.

Like virtually every parent present, Barba said a few more bilingual staffers would go a long way.

“We don’t know who to talk to,” Barba said, speaking in Spanish. “They don’t speak Spanish.”

At each stop on Chalkbeat Detroit’s listening tour, parents take center stage to tell us the stories we should be covering. (See the results of our last stop here.) This time around, Chalkbeat joined with organizations that work with Detroit parents to hear  from dozens of mostly Spanish-speaking mothers. They traveled through a Tuesday morning rainstorm to the headquarters of Brilliant Detroit, a nonprofit that provides social services like literacy training to families around Detroit.

Some of the parents on hand had already worked with neighborhood organizations like Congress of Communities and the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation to push leaders of Detroit’s main district to provide more access to Spanish-speaking parents, noting their concerns have been brushed off by previous administrations.

“Community residents feel frustrated in 2018, because they have expressed the need for language access repeatedly over the years and a resolution is continually brushed aside,” said Elizabeth Rojas, a community advocate and parent in the district.

round table 2
PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Parents traveled to the headquarters of Brilliant Detroit through a rainstorm Tuesday morning to share their experiences with Detroit schools.

At a meeting last month, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti agreed to establish a Spanish hotline and ensure that every school with Spanish-speaking children has someone in the office who speaks Spanish, among other promises.

After surveying  families in the neighborhood, parents are turning their attention to the issue of safety in schools. They’re hoping that schools will hire more bilingual security guards, and that undocumented parents will be allowed to enter school buildings with an alternative form of ID, such as a Mexican passport, a state ID, or even an ID issued by the district itself.

Parents on hand Tuesday reported similar access issues at charter schools in Southwest Detroit. Angelina Romero, who arrived with her family from Mexico within the last two years, worried that her first-grade son wasn’t picking up English at a neighborhood charter school, and that she had trouble communicating with his teacher.

“I’m hoping that the families who came here realize that it’s not just parents at their school that are concerned and active on this issue,” said Jametta Lilly, CEO of the Detroit Parent Network, which co-sponsored the listening session with Chalkbeat.

For Gloria Vera, the language barrier added to the challenge of navigating a broken special education system. After her daughter was diagnosed with autism, officials at a local school told her they didn’t have enough space.

“They told me, no you can’t enroll your child here,” Vera said, speaking in Spanish.

Staff at the school gave her a phone number to call — presumably to the district’s enrollment center — but Vera worried that it wouldn’t do her any good.

“I didn’t know English,” she said. “I felt lost.”

Looming over the conversation was Michigan’s third-grade reading law, which lends a sense of urgency to the already daunting challenge of helping a child read in a second language.

Yesenia Hernandez said she reads to her second-grade daughter in English, but worries that she can’t pronounce words correctly. In these moments, she said in Spanish, it seems that “she’s learning, but I’m just confusing her.”

Working with a group of five other mothers, Hernandez listed out the ways her school could help her to help her daughter. In another  room, other small groups worked on wish lists of their own, and when they compared results, there were striking similarities: The parents wanted to communicate with their children’s schools in Spanish, and they wanted the tools — like classes in English for adults — to help their children learn. One group gave an approving nod to the “parent room” at Priest Elementary-Middle School, where Spanish-speaking parents gather and share information and resources.

wall list
PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Parents broke off into small groups to discuss their English language learners’ educations.

Even as they hurry to help their children build reading skills, parents are uncertain about how their children might react to flunking a grade when the state’s high stakes reading requirements go into effect next school year.

Delia Barba thought the policy made sense: “What if they keep saying pass, pass, pass, and he doesn’t know how to read?” she asked.

But Gloria Vera wasn’t so sure. In her neighborhood, an estimated 8 in 10 students spoke some Spanish at home. How many would be held back?

“In this part of Detroit, there should be a solution,” she said.