Less money more problems

Without extra funding, after-school programs can’t serve the kids who need them most

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students at Sidener Academy in Indianapolis Public Schools read or do homework.

Debbie Zipes knows the problem: More than 220,000 Indiana kids go home unsupervised every day after school, putting them potentially at-risk during the highest-crime hours between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.

As president of the Indiana Afterschool Network, she also knows the solution: Get those students involved in after-school programs across the state.

But in a cash-strapped state where advocates struggle to get enough money for needed programs during the school day, it’s hard to get much attention for programs that happen before and after class. A bill to support these so called “out of school time” programs didn’t get funded in the Indiana General Assembly this year, and other efforts to boost the programs can’t do much more than make recommendations.

The result is just 11 percent of Indiana kids are served by before- and after-school programs — not nearly enough, Zipes said. That compares to 18 percent nationally.

“Across the state, funding is very … transient,” Zipes said. “These programs are not in every school, they are not in every community.”

The biggest hurdle to expanding out of school time programs is cost. Legislation in the Indiana General Assembly this year created an advisory board to explore ways to expand the programs, but the bill had its funding stripped out before it could become law.

That leaves many schools to continue charging fees for the sports, arts and enrichment programs offered before and after school, putting them out of reach for low-income families.

It’s another knock against low-income kids who already tend to lag behind their peers in school. If schools are offering extra supports to kids after school, it doesn’t make sense to limit them only to wealthier kids, Zipes said.

“There are kids doing karate and building robots, compared to kids going home alone and watching video games,” Zipes said.

Kids from low-income families get 6,000 to 8,000 fewer hours of enrichment by the time they hit eighth grade, she said.

“We need to have these additional supports recognizing that parents are struggling with a lot of different things that are going to get in the way of what kids need.”

But even if all kids could afford to participate, the other issue in Indiana is that there simply aren’t enough programs to serve all of the kids who are interested.

“Right now many kids are on waiting lists,” Zipes said. “We’re not meeting the need.”

Some programs go out of their way to serve kids who need them most.

The At Your School program offers some of its programs at no cost to families who are poor enough to qualify for school lunch assistance, have a history of low test scores or meet other criteria demonstrating they have a high need for the program.

At Your School charges families with more resources about $60 to $80 a week and offer assistance to those who can’t afford the full price, said Leslie Hankins, the director of development and marketing for the program. The program is at 39 Indiana schools, including Indianapolis Public School’s Sidener Academy.

AYS focuses on making sure kids have time to do their homework and gives them healthy snacks — even seconds and thirds, if they ask.

“We don’t know if the kids are going to be eating once they leave us,” said Marsha Austin, the program director for AYS at Sidener.

Sidener has a mid-sized program, with about 57 total kids enrolled. On an afternoon right after spring break, about 20 kids gathered around tables in the AYS room at Sidener. They raced in once the final bell rang, collected their snack of clementines, celery sticks and peanut butter, and plopped down in their seats.

“Who has homework?” Austin asked. Hands shot up across the room. “Sit at your tables and read quietly so kids with homework can work.”

Every day involves this quiet time, Hankins said, making homework one less thing parents have to worry about when they pick up their kids around 6 p.m., but the program is not all study hall. Kids in the Sidener program dart in and out for school activities, such as karate club, chess club or Girl Scouts. The program organizes visits from artists who lead projects and from speakers who talk about issues like bullying.

“It’s building blocks to things that help as they get older,” Hankins said. “It’s not just babysitting or hanging out in the gym.”

Indiana needs more programs like these — especially for the state’s neediest kids, Zipes said. But, at least this year, the political will wasn’t there.

When Zipes testified before the House Education Committee in February on a bill that would create an advisory board for out-of-school programs and set up a mechanism to fund them in the future, some lawmakers were skeptical.

“We already have existing programs like this,” said Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour. “Are we creating another redundant program that’s just going to stretch the already tight dollar of the taxpayer?”

Lucas, along with other Republican lawmakers, said districts and communities should decide for themselves what programs to fund and how to fund them. Ultimately, Lucas said, it falls to parents to care for children, not the government. Rep. Rhonda Rhoads, R-Corydon, said programs that are too heavily subsidized lead to less parental oversight.

“When you have some skin in the game, you are going to be paying more attention to your children than if you just turn it over to someone else,” Rhoads said.

The bill eventually passed and was signed into law, but the funding component was removed. The remaining legislation calls for a committee of educators, state policymakers, parents and community members to study the state’s existing programs and report back to lawmakers by Nov. 1. Committee members will be chosen by state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and the state Family and Social Services Administration.

As a foster parent, Zipes has seen first-hand how more school involvement has helped change kids. Even though funding is still elusive, she said she’s grateful that the discussion at the capitol has expanded the the conversation around the potential benefits of out-of-school programs.

“I think the power of that advisory committee is going to be really impactful,” Zipes said. “It’s just a huge opportunity to really look at what the state landscape is and really what it will take so that all kids have equal access.”

choosing leaders

Meet one possible successor to departing Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As Denver officials wrestle with how to pick a replacement for longtime superintendent Tom Boasberg, one insider stands out as a likely candidate.

Susana Cordova, the district’s deputy superintendent, already held her boss’s job once before, when Boasberg took an extended leave in 2016. She has a long history with the district, including as a student, graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School, and as a bilingual teacher starting her career more than 20 years ago.

When she was selected to sit in for Boasberg for six months, board members at the time cited her hard work and the many good relationships they saw she had with people. This time around, several community members are saying they want a leader who will listen to teachers and the community.

Cordova, 52, told Chalkbeat she’s waiting to see what the board decides about the selection process, but said she wants to be ready, when they are, to talk about her interest in the position.

“DPS has played an incredibly important role in every aspect of my life. I’m very committed to making sure that we continue to make progress as an organization,” Cordova said. “I believe I have both the passion and the track record to help move us forward.”

During her career, she has held positions as a teacher, principal, and first became an administrator, starting in 2002, as the district’s literacy director.

Just before taking on the role of acting superintendent in 2016, Cordova talked to Chalkbeat about how her education, at a time of desegregation, shaped her experience and about her long path to connecting with her culture.

“I didn’t grow up bilingual. I learned Spanish after I graduated from college,” Cordova, said at the time. “I grew up at a point in time where I found it more difficult to embrace my Latino culture, academically. There were, I would say, probably some negative messages around what it meant to be Latino at that point of time.”

She said she went through introspection during her senior year of college and realized that many students in her neighborhood bought into the negative messages and had not been successful.

“I didn’t want our schools to be places like that,” she said.

In her time as acting superintendent, she oversaw teacher contract negotiations and preparations for asking voters for a bond that they ultimately approved that fall. Cordova’s deputy superintendent position was created for her after Boasberg returned.

But it’s much of Cordova’s work with students of color that has earned her national recognition.

In December, Education Week, an education publication, named her a “Leader to Learn From,” pointing to her role in the district’s work on equity, specifically with English language learners, and in her advocacy to protect students under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Cordova was also named a Latino Educator Champion of Change by President Barack Obama in 2014. Locally, in 2016, the University of Denver’s Latino Leadership Institute inducted Cordova into its hall of fame.

The Denver school board met Tuesday morning, and again on Wednesday to discuss the superintendent position.

Take a look back at a Q & A Chalkbeat did with Cordova in 2016, and one in 2014.

School Finance

IPS board votes to ask taxpayers for $315 million, reject the chamber’s plan

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indianapolis Public Schools officials voted Tuesday to ask taxpayers for $315 million over eight years to help close its budget gap — an amount that’s less than half the district’s initial proposal but is still high enough to draw skepticism from a local business group.

The school board pledged to continue discussions in the next week with the Indy Chamber, which released an alternative proposal last week calling for massive spending cuts and a significantly smaller tax increase. The school board rejected the proposal as unrealistic and instead voted to add a much larger tax measure to the November ballot.

If the school board and the chamber come to a different agreement before the July 24 meeting, the board can change the request for more taxpayer money before it goes to voters. Some board members, however, were dubious that they would be able to find common ground.

“While I appreciate the fact that we want to continue to negotiate, I’m pretty sure that I’m at rock bottom now,” said school board member Kelly Bentley. “That initial proposal by the chamber is, unfortunately in my mind, it’s insulting. It’s insulting to our children, and to our neighborhoods, and to our families.”

Chamber leaders, whose support is considered important to the referendum passing, were skeptical about the dollar amount. In a press release, the group said the district was “taking another step towards seeking a double-digit tax increase.”

“We’re concerned that our numbers are so divergent,” said chamber president and CEO Michael Huber in the statement. “We need to study the assumptions behind the $318 million request; clearly the tax impact is significant and the task of winning voter support will be challenging.”

During the board meeting, which lasted more than two hours, district leaders discussed why schools need more money and why the chamber report is unrealistic. They also took comments from community members who were largely supportive of the tax increase.

Joe Ignatius, who mentors students through 100 Black Men of Indianapolis, said that he has seen the benefits of more funding from referendums in other communities.

“This should be a no brainer, to invest in our future for the students,” Ignatius said. “Don’t think about the immediate impact of the dollars that may come out of your pocket but more the long-term impact.”

If the district goes forward with its plan, and voters approve the tax increase, the school system would get as much as $39.4 million more per year for eight years. A family with a home at the district’s median value — $75,300 — would pay about $3.90 more per month in property taxes. (Since the initial proposal, the district reduced the median home value used in calculations on the advice of a consultant.)

The district plan comes on the heels of months of uncertainty. After the school board abandoned its initial plan to seek nearly $1 billion for operating expenses and construction, district officials spent weeks working with the Indy Chamber to craft a less costly proposal. Last month, the board approved a separate referendum to ask taxpayers for about $52 million for school renovations, particularly school safety features.

But the groups came to different conclusions about how much money the district needs for operating expenses.

The chamber released an analysis last week that called for $477 million in cuts, including eliminating busing for high school students, reducing the number of teachers, closing schools, and cutting central office staff. The recommendation also included a $100 million tax increase to fund 16 percent raises for teachers.

District officials, however, say the cuts proposed by the chamber are too aggressive and cannot be accomplished as quickly as the group wants. The administration and board members spent nearly an hour of the meeting Tuesday discussing the chamber plan, why they believe it’s methodology is wrong, and the devastating consequences they say it would have on schools.

Even if the $315 million plan proposed by the district passes, it will come with some sacrifices compared to the initial plan. Those cuts could include: reduced transportation for magnet schools, field trips, and after school activities; school closings; increased benefits costs for employees; and smaller pay increases for teachers and employees.

The district did not make a specific commitment to how much teacher pay would increase if the amount asked for in the referendum is approved, but Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the funds would pay for consistent raises.

“We would be at least addressing inflationary increases and cost of living, but we hope that we can be higher than that,” said Ferebee. “It would depend a lot on what we are able to realize in savings.”

The school board’s decision to rebuff the chamber’s recommendation puts the district in a difficult position. The chamber has no official role in determining the amount of the referendum, but it could be a politically powerful ally.

Last week, Al Hubbard, an influential philanthropist and businessman who provided major funding for the chamber analysis, said that if the district seeks more money than the group recommended, he would oppose the referendum.

The total tax increase would vary for each homeowner within district boundaries. The operating increase would raise taxes by up to $0.28 for every $100 of assessed property value, while the construction increase would raise taxes by up to $0.03 per $100 of assessed property value.