New ideas

Indy “innovation” school aims to send high schoolers abroad

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Leaders from five proposed schools received fellowships to plan and launch the schools from the Mind Trust today.

Traveling the world to teach and work in Bangladesh and Rwanda was so transformative for Emma Hiza that the Oakland-based educator is determined to find a way to send American teens abroad for school.

That dream is on course to create an unusual new school in Indianapolis that will send every one of its students to another country for five months a year.

Hiza’s Thrival Academy was one of five new “innovation” schools that were awarded fellowships today by the non-profit the Mind Trust, which advocates for educational change. The winning school leaders will receive funding to plan and open new schools in the Indianapolis Public Schools innovation network, which will be part of the district but have charter-like flexibility.

Hiza, who has been working to launch a network of publicly-funded schools that will give teens the chance to travel around the world, plans to open Thrival in Indianapolis as soon as 2018.

Her plan is to open the one-year program to 10th- and 11th-grade students who will prepare for travel, spend five months abroad and complete a capstone project about their experience when they return.

Thrival is also launching a pilot program with 20 students in Oakland next fall.

“We have got to be able to effectively work across cultures and borders,” Hiza said. “This, I think, is the only way that we can really, truly embed those skills in our young people at an early age.”

For affluent families, international travel is a common part of their children’s education — from summer volunteer trips to college study abroad programs. But for low-income families, those experiences are often out of reach.

“Families from wealthier communities, they make it happen,” Hiza said. “It’s one of many ways that our students from underserved communities continue to be left out of our future.”

If the schools in Indianapolis and Oakland are successful, Hiza and her colleagues hope to expand the Thrival network nation-wide. They aim to offer publicly-funded study abroad programs to as many as 50,000 students.

Initially, Hiza expects to spend about $15,000 per student per year. That includes the travel, housing and insurance expenses of sending kids to other countries plus all of the usual teaching and curriculum expenses of typical schools.

Thrival staff are fundraising to make up the difference between the cost of Thrival and the per pupil school funding made available by the state.

If the program can reach a larger group of students, the cost will drop to just under $11,000 per year, Hiza estimates, since the school can save money by, for example, buying plane tickets in bulk.

Thrival is the most surprising idea among the innovation fellowship winners announced by the Mind Trust today. The other awards went largely to educators from established Indianapolis charter schools who are aiming to replicate existing schools or create new schools serving older kids.

Since the Mind Trust started granting fellowships three years ago, the program has attracted increasingly experienced, high quality applicants, said David Harris, chief executive officer of the Mind Trust.

“To build a school from scratch is an enormous undertaking,” Harris said. “We don’t come to any of the work that we do … with a preset idea for what these folks should be proposing.”

The other winning fellows announced today include:

  • Shy-Quon Ely II and Brooke Beavers who helped start Tindley Summit Academy. The pair aim to open an elementary school that incorporates neuroscience, physical health and mental wellness into its curriculum.
  • Tommy Reddicks and Kyle Beauchamp of Paramount School of Excellence. Leaders of the school known for its urban farm, are planning a second elementary school that would share the current school’s focus on science and project-based learning.
  • Earl Martin Phalen, founder of Phalen Leadership Academies, and Nigena Livingston. Phalen currently runs two elementary schools that offer an extended school day and computer-based lessons. The leaders are hoping to open a middle school with a similar program. This is the fourth fellowship that Phalen has won from the Mind Trust.
  • Kelly Herron, principal of Avondale Meadows Academy, and Chrystal Westerhaus-Whorton, a staffer at sister-school Vision Academy at Riverside. The pair plan to start a rigorous college prep middle school, which they say is in high demand from parents.

The latest innovation schools mark a growing partnership among the Mind Trust, the city and IPS. Some of the schools selected will likely be chartered by the mayor’s office, in addition to contracting with the school district. Mayor Joe Hogsett and Superintendent Lewis Ferebee both attended the announcement.

Hogsett said every child in Marion County should have access high quality schools in their neighborhoods.

“This means … that parents don’t have to drive 30 minutes out of their way to get their kids to a high-quality, high-performing school,” Hogsett said. “It means that our kids can walk.”

The IPS school board will review more detailed proposals from the school leaders before approving final contracts for new schools. District leaders are heavily involved in the school selection process, however, so they have already indicated support for the fellowship winners. The board has approved innovation restart contracts with three schools that were incubated with the Mind Trust.

Ferebee highlighted the experience of the winning educators.

“We have proven leaders in this group who have shown that they know how to move the dial on student achievement,” Ferebee said. “We have the opportunity to give them the keys and get out of the way.”

Not over yet

A firm reprimand — but no penalty yet — for two Tennessee districts that defy deadline to share student data

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

So what will be the consequences for the two Tennessee school districts that missed a state-imposed deadline to share contact information for their students with charter schools? For now, disappointment from the state’s top education official.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen had promised to issue consequences if the two districts, Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools, did not meet the Monday deadline.

But when the end of the day passed — as expected — without any data-sharing, McQueen declined to penalize the districts. Instead, she issued a stern statement.

“We are disappointed that these districts are choosing to withhold information from parents about the options that are available to their students while routinely saying they desire more parental engagement,” she said. “Allowing parents to be informed of their educational options is the epitome of family engagement and should be embraced by every school official.”

McQueen seemed to indicate that firmer consequences could lie ahead. “We must consider all options available in situations where a district actively chooses to ignore the law,” she said in the statement. McQueen told lawmakers in a conference call last month that she was not discussing withholding state funds as a penalty at the time, according to Rep. John Clemmons, who was on the call.

The anticlimactic decision comes after weeks of back-and-forth between the state and its two largest school districts over student contact information — the latest front in the districts’ ongoing enrollment war with charter schools.

Charter schools are pressing the districts to share information about their students, arguing that they need to be able to contact local families to inform them about their school options. District leaders argue that a federal rule about student privacy lets local districts decide who gets that information. (The districts have chosen to distribute student contact information to other entities, including yearbook companies.)

The state’s attorney general sided with charter schools, saying that marketing to families is an acceptable use of student contact information and districts were required to hand it over to charter schools that requested it. Both school boards cite a committee discussion in February when state lawmakers sought to make sure the information could not be used as a “recruiting tool” as evidence that the intent of the law runs counter to the state’s application of it.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

Now, the conflict has potential to head to court. Shelby County Schools already committed last month to writing a letter outlining its arguments to support the Nashville district if it decides to file a lawsuit against the state.

As the deadline drew near, the two school boards teamed up to flesh out their positions and preview what that legal battle might look like. Over the weekend, board chairs Anna Shepherd in Nashville and Chris Caldwell in Memphis penned a letter to USA Today’s Tennessee papers arguing the districts should not be required to hand over student information to a state-run district facing deep financial, operational and academic woes.

They also pointed to a recent $2.2 million settlement between a parents and a Nashville charter network over spam text messages promoting enrollment at its schools as evidence the transaction could lead to invasion of privacy.

Clarification (Sept. 25, 2017): This story has been updated to clarify the source of McQueen’s early comments on penalties she was discussing at the time. 

deja vu

For second straight year, two charter schools denied by Memphis board appeal to the state

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education, listens last May to charter appeals by three operators in Memphis.

For the second year in a row, charter schools seeking to open in Memphis are appealing to the state after being rejected by the local board.

Two proposed all-girls schools, The Academy All Girls Charter School and Rich ED Academy of Leaders, went before the Tennessee Board of Education last week to plead for the right to open. Citing weaknesses in the schools’ planning, the Shelby County Schools board had rejected them, along with nine other charter applicants, last month. It approved three schools, many fewer than in previous years.

After state officials and charter operators complained last year that the Memphis school board didn’t have clear reasons for rejecting schools, the district revamped its charter oversight to make the review process more transparent. Now, five independent evaluators help scrutinize schools’ lengthy applications — a job that until this year had been done by three district officials with many other responsibilities. (The district also doubled the size of its charter schools office.)

The new appeals suggest that at least some charter operators aren’t satisfied by the changes.

District officials said the schools did not have clear goals for their academic programs and relied too heavily on grant funding. The board for Rich Ed Academy of Learners said in its appeal letter the district’s concerns were ambiguous and that the school would provide a unique project-based learning model for girls of color from low-income families.

The other school’s board said in its letter that the district’s decision was not in the best interest of students. A school official declined to elaborate.

The state board blasted Shelby County Schools’ charter revocation and approval processes last year, ultimately approving one appeal. That cleared the way for the first charter school in Memphis overseen by the panel.

The state board will vote on the new appeals at its quarterly meeting Friday, Oct. 20. If the state board approves the appeals, the local board would have 30 days to decide whether to authorize the school or relinquish oversight to the state board.