Struggling schools

Bottom ranked township schools saw big drops on ISTEP exam

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Township schools face many of the same challenges often associated primarily with inner-city schools, such as high poverty and other learning barriers.

Students at the lowest scoring township and small city schools in Marion County struggled mightily with the tough new ISTEP exam.

The merged city of Indianapolis and Marion County includes 11 separate school districts — Indianapolis Public Schools, eight township school districts and the small cities of Speedway and Beech Grove.

In those districts, are many schools where students posted top scores on the state’s ISTEP exam. Chalkbeat last week listed the ten township schools that had the highest percentage of students passing ISTEP last year. The ranking was part of a series of stories that have revealed the top 10 IPS schools, the bottom 10 IPS schools,  the top-ten charter schools in the city, lowest-scoring charter schools and top-rated township or small city schools.

This week, we’re listing the ten township or small city schools that had the lowest percentage of students who passed the exam.

These schools weren’t alone in seeing dramatic drops in scores between 2014 and 2015. The average Indiana school saw its passing score drop by 19 percentage points. But the ten schools at the bottom of the township and small school list saw their scores go down by much more than the state average drop.

All of them had passing rates well below the state average of 52.6 percent, and in several cases their passing rates were about half the state average.

As in past years, schools with high poverty and students with other barriers to learning struggled on standardized state tests.

All of the bottom 10 schools had more than the state average of 47.2 percent of students who come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. To qualify, a family of four cannot earn more than $44,863 annually.

Several of the lowest-scoring schools also had larger shares than the state averages of students in special education and or who were English language learners. The state averages in 2014-15 were 15 percent and 5 percent. Here’s the list:

Guion Creek Middle School

Guion Creek Middle School in Pike Township was on this list last year, and returned after its passing percentage on ISTEP dropped 24 percentage points to 30.7, ending three years of improved ISTEP passing rates.

Pike Township's Guion Creek Middle School ISTEP passing rate landed it among the county's bottom 10.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Pike Township’s Guion Creek Middle School ISTEP passing rate landed it among the county’s bottom 10.

The school serves about 902 students in grades 6 to 8. Of them, 57 percent are black, 35 percent are Hispanic and 4 percent are white.

About 25 percent of students were English language learners and 14 percent were in special education in 2015-16, the last year for which data was available.

About 76 percent of students who attend Guion Creek come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, meaning their families earn less than $44,863 in income annually for a family of four.

Brook Park Elementary School, Lawrence Township

Brook Park Elementary School almost got off this list in 2015. The prior year, the Lawrence Township school had the lowest passing rate outside of IPS of any traditional elementary school in Marion County.

Brook Park Elementary ranks among the lowest ISTEP passing rates in Marion County.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Brook Park Elementary ranks among the lowest ISTEP passing rates in Marion County.

Brook Park moved up the ranking slightly in 2015 because it held steady on the new, tougher ISTEP. About 31 percent of its students passed the test, down 19 points from last year. That was the same drop as the average Indiana school while other township schools showed larger declines.

The school serves about 650 students in grades 1-6. The school had seen three years of improving test scores before the the 2015 test changes.

About 85 percent of students come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. About 61 percent of students are black, 19 percent  are Hispanic and 14 are percent  white. About 14 percent of students who took the exam were English-language learners and 13 percent were in special education in 2014-15, the last year for which data is available.

Rhoades Elementary School, Wayne Township

An enormous drop of 33 percentage points — much larger than that of the average Indiana school — landed Rhoades Elementary School a place on the bottom 10 list last year.

Wayne Township's Rhoades Elementary School saw a big drop in test scores in 2015.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Wayne Township’s Rhoades Elementary School saw a big drop in test scores in 2015.

The Wayne Township school has very high percentage of students who live in poverty — 88 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The school is very diverse.

About 38 percent of the 787 students who attend Rhoades Elementary School in grades K-6 are white, 30 percent are black and 23 percent are Hispanic.

About 8 percent of students were in special education and 18 percent were English language learners in 2014-15, the last year for which data is available.

Westlake Elementary School, Wayne Township

The tougher new ISTEP test hit several Wayne Township schools hard, Westlake Elementary School among them.

Westlake Elementary School is one of three Wayne Township schools that ranked in the county's bottom 10 on ISTEP.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Westlake Elementary School is one of three Wayne Township schools that ranked in the county’s bottom 10 on ISTEP.

About 29 percent of students passed the 2015 test, down 32 percentage points from the prior year.

Westlake’s enrollment includes about 75 percent of students who come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

The school which has about 795 students in grades K-6, also serves a diverse population. About 37 percent of students are Hispanic, 34 percent are black and 23 percent are white.

About 12 percent of students were in special education and a huge 31 percent were English language learners in 2014-15, the last year for which data is available.

North Wayne Elementary School, Wayne Township

A 34 percentage point slide in the percentage of student passing ISTEP dropped North Wayne Elementary School into the bottom 10.

Low test scores dropped North Wayne Elementary into the county's bottom 10 when it came to passing ISTEP in 2015.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Low test scores dropped North Wayne Elementary into the county’s bottom 10 when it came to passing ISTEP in 2015.

About 29 percent of students passed the test in 2015, down from 63 percent the prior year.

A large school, North Wayne serves 936 students in grades K-6. Schoolwide, roughly 75 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

About 57 percent of students are black, 31 percent are Hispanic and and 6 percent are white.

About 9 percent of students were in special education and 26 percent were learning English as a new language in 2014-15, the last year for which data were available.

Decatur Township School of Excellence

The Decatur Township School of Excellence was designed to tailor learning to individual middle and high school students as an alternative for those who feel like they didn’t fit well in traditional schools. But the district-run school in Decatur Township struggled on the new ISTEP.

Decatur Township School Of Excellence creates unique learning plans for students in grades 7-12/
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Decatur Township School Of Excellence creates unique learning plans for students in grades 7-12/

Its 29 percent passing rate for students in seventh and eighth grade was down 31 percentage points from the prior year, placing the school in the bottom 10.

The school serves about 166 students in grades 7-12. About 63 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

About 85 percent of the school’s students are white, 7 percent are black and 5 percent are Hispanic.

About 19 percent were in special education and 3 percent were learning English as a new language in 2014-15, the last year for which data was available.

Stonybrook Intermediate Academy, Warren Township

Warren township’s Stonybrook Intermediate Academy continued to struggle on ISTEP in 2015, keeping it on the bottom 10 list.

Warren Township's Stonybrook Middle School struggled on ISTEP in 2015.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Warren Township’s Stonybrook Middle School struggled on ISTEP in 2015.

About 28 percent of its students passed the tougher ISTEP, down 29 percentage point from the prior year. The school has struggled on ISTEP for several years.

Serving 576 students in grades 5 and 6, the school emphasizes hands-on learning and using technology in lessons.

About 83 percent of the school’s students come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.  The school is about 65 percent black, 15 percent Hispanic and 12 percent white.

Students in special education made up about 19 percent of students while about 8 percent of students were English-language learners in 2014-15, the last year for which data was available.

Sunny Heights Elementary School, Warren Township

A bigger than average drop in its ISTEP passing rate put Sunny Heights Elementary School back on the list of lowest-scoring township and small city schools in 2015.

Once an A school, Sunny Heights Elementary School is now struggling to get students to pass ISTEP.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Once an A school, Sunny Heights Elementary School is now struggling to get students to pass ISTEP.

About 28 percent passed, down 26 percentage points from the prior year. It continued a long test performance slide for the Warren Township school, which was rated an A by the state in 2011 and featured by the Indianapolis Star as one of “five schools that beat the odds.”

About 478 students in grades K-4 attend the school. About 65 percent of students are black, 17 percent are Hispanic and 7 percent are white. About 75 percent of students come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

About 15 percent were English-language learners, triple the state average and about 8 percent were in special education in 2014-15, the last year for which data was available.

The district last year began a new effort to improve the school, including a new principal.

Lincoln Middle School, Pike Township

Another school with a bigger than average drop on its ISTEP passing rate in 2015 was Lincoln Middle School in Pike Township.

Lincoln Middle School in Pike Township was again ranked in the county's bottom 10.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Lincoln Middle School in Pike Township was again ranked in the county’s bottom 10.

About 26 percent of the school’s 841 students in grades 6-8 passed the test, down 26 percentage points from the prior year.

About 74 percent of the school’s students come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free and reduced-price lunch,

About 62 percent of the students are black, 24 percent are Hispanic and 6 percent are white.

About 18 percent of students were English-language learners and 16 percent were in special education in 2014-15, the last year for which data was available.

Snacks Crossing Elementary School, Pike Township

A huge 47-percentage point drop on its ISTEP passing rate put Snacks Crossing Elementary School at the bottom of this list even though it did not appear among the bottom 10 schools last year.

Snacks Crossing Elementary School saw a large drop in the percentage of students passing ISTEP in 2015.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Snacks Crossing Elementary School saw a large drop in the percentage of students passing ISTEP in 2015.

Just 24.8 percent passed the test in 2015, down from almost 72 percent the prior year.

Snacks Crossing has 569 students enrolled in grades K to 5. About 69 percent of students come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

About 71 percent of the school’s students are black, 20 percent are Hispanic and 4 percent are white.

About 20 percent of students were in special education and 19 percent were learning English as a new language in 2014-15, the last year for which data is available.

Q&A

At this Perry Township school, progress isn’t just about testing, it’s ‘the work we do every single day in our classrooms’

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Principal Star Hardimon, celebrates math progress with fourth-graders at Douglas MacArthur Elementary School in Perry Township.

Chalkbeat is talking with principals across the city at schools that made some of the biggest ISTEP gains in 2017 to explore what was behind their school’s progress and identify possible lessons for other schools.

As Principal Star Hardimon hurried down the hallway of Douglas MacArthur Elementary School, she had her sights set on Tom Stahlhut’s fourth grade classroom, where in just minutes students would be packing up for an assembly.

She carried a gold trophy, which is awarded to the classroom that saw the most improvement on math or English practice tests for that month, part of a new program called Evaluate. Kids were already lining up to leave, but she stepped quickly into the room. One student was already on to her surprise.

“Oh, I know what we win!” he said as he and his classmates gathered closely around Hardimon.

“I actually came to your room today because I brought something along for math Evaluate,” Hardimon said. “Mr. Stahlhut’s class went from a 35 percent to a 49 percent. You are the fourth grade winners!”

The students erupted in cheers, waving their arms and jumping up and down as she presented their trophy. These kinds of celebrations aren’t unusual at MacArthur, Hardimon said, and they were especially significant this year given the gains from last year.

MacArthur, which has 805 students in preschool through fifth grade, moved from a B grade from the state in 2016 to an A in 2017. The school’s test passing rates jumped 10.8 percentage points to 63.3 percent of students passing both English and math exams, higher than the state average. Both figures — passing rates and growth — factor into a school’s letter grade.

Find your school’s 2017 ISTEP scores here.

Almost three-quarters of MacArthur students qualify for subsidized meals, and a little more than one-quarter are learning English as a new language. Many of those English-learners are also refugees from Burma, a trend across the district.

The district as a whole last year was focused on tracking student progress on English and math skills though Evaluate. Students and teachers both track results from tests together each month, using a stoplight model — red, yellow, green — to indicate in their records when a student has mastered, say, dividing fractions, and when they need more practice.

Of the Marion County township elementary schools with the highest ISTEP gains, four were from Perry Township. Every Perry principal who spoke to Chalkbeat this fall mentioned the new data tracking system as key to their improvement.

Below are excerpts from a recent conversation with Hardimon to talk about her school’s progress. The interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

What was your reaction when you learned how much improvement you had made this year?

We fully celebrated. We made a banner and every person, from the custodian, cafeteria — every person that supports kids in our building in any way signed the banner, and every person got a cookie, and we did a cookie with the letter “A” on it. We cheered and had some fun in the lunchroom.

Us earning this A wasn’t about the days we took the test. It was about the work we did every single day in our classrooms, at home, during homework, reading on the weekends — it was everything.

What do you think made the difference?

Well, when we initially got our scores back from the previous year, we were bummed. So we really tried to think about what do we need to do, how do we need to look at this test compared to what we’re doing everyday. And I know it’s a new test and there are some different things, and I don’t want to make excuses, so we just needed to figure out what to do.

Every month I met with grade levels to just talk about the data, talk about what we’re doing, talk about what we look like. And teachers would fill out their data tracking sheets, and everybody was really in tune.

The other thing that we really did is in January, we did an all-hands-on-deck, and for third, fourth and fifth grade we pulled our special education, our E.L., our intervention, and our master teachers to pull groups of students out of classrooms so we could work on specific skills during that intervention time. And we also looked at some of the content area time to really home in so kids could get a real 20 minutes of direct instruction on a particular skill. And that’s something that we had not done in that way. And we’re pretty pleased with it.

I really honestly feel that that effort by everyone to really focus in on that bottom 25 percent (of students) regardless of E.L., special education — whatever their needs are — and our general education kids fell into that as well. I think that’s where we earned those points, was with that group.

What is your school community and culture like?

Douglas MacArthur is a very a community-driven school. I have teachers in the building right now who were students here. I have grandparents who always come in and say, “Oh, my kids and now my grandkids go here.” That comes with a lot of pluses and minuses, but the good thing is the people, they believe in this school. They want the best for kids and they’re really willing — they stay for after school activities and they get involved in all our programs.

Our demographic has been changing. Free and reduced lunch numbers since I’ve been here have increased significantly, and this is my fifth year. Just under half of our kids are English-learners, some coming from as part of our refugee community. We have a very small population of African-Americans, however we have more than when I first came, and then the rest are Caucasian. We do have a small population of Hispanic students, and we have the most number of Hispanic students than we did even five years ago. So our community is definitely changing. It used to be Caucasian, mostly.

What is your approach to leadership?

I feel like i’m a very instructional leader. I try and model behavior in almost everything because if I’m not doing it, then I certainly don’t expect a staff member to do it, or a student to do it. So really modeling and holding myself accountable at a very high level. I’m pretty hard on myself. I think that reflection piece needs to be transparent.

I feel like I try really hard to model a professionalism, a pride in something, working hard everyday. That work ethic is important — it’s important for students to see, it’s important for parents to see. They’re trusting us with their babies, and that’s a pretty big deal, so they have to trust me. I think about my own children, and the thoughts I’ve had about administrators that have led their schools, and that has helped me.

Movers & shakers

Former Tennessee Teacher of the Year will lead citywide reading program

PHOTO: Courtesy of Karen Vogelsang
Karen Vogelsang, the 2015 Tennessee Teacher of the Year, will become the executive director of ARISE2Read.

Three years after winning the state’s top award for teaching, Karen Vogelsang is leaving the classroom to lead a citywide early literacy program.

Vogelsang, a fourth grade teacher at Winridge Elementary School, will become the executive director of ARISE2Read, a Christian volunteer organization that matches reading tutors and mentors with struggling second grade readers.

“When we’re presented as teachers with the opportunity to broaden our impact beyond our school, we need to take that seriously,” Vogelsang told Chalkbeat, adding she initially turned the job down a few months ago. “It’s not just the 80 second graders here at Winridge, but the thousands of second graders in Shelby County Schools.”


Tennessee’s 2015 Teacher of the Year on teaching economically disadvantaged students in Memphis


Vogelsang spent 15 years as a banker before switching careers to education in 2003. She became Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year in 2015. And earlier this year, she stepped into a hybrid role on Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s team to interject a teacher’s voice in policy decisions for Shelby County Schools. Since then, the teacher advisory council has grown to 17 teachers across the district, she said.

Though she won’t be with the district anymore, Vogelsang will still be working toward goals set out by Shelby County Schools in her new position. ARISE2Read, which has mentors in 30 Memphis schools, aims to catch up struggling second grade readers by taking them out of the classroom for 30 minutes once a week with a mentor.

Shelby County Schools has a goal of having 90 percent of third graders reading on grade level by 2025. In 2014, it was only 30 percent with a goal of reaching 60 percent by 2020. According to early 2017 results from a nationally standardized test (MAP), about 50 percent of third grade students were proficient.

“We have a lot of work to do and we can’t do it on the manpower of Shelby County Schools alone,” Vogelsang said. “The fact that this was so focused was part of the attraction (to ARISE2Read) and addresses a need we have in the district.”

The organization also has mentors and students in Fayette, Jackson/Madison, Tipton and Gibson counties and has done training in Knoxville and Houston.

Vogelsang’s class will be turned over to a co-teacher who has been in her classroom since taking on the hybrid role, and she will begin at ARISE2Read on Jan. 4.