Best and brightest

These ‘life-changing’ Indianapolis teachers and principals were awarded $25,000

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
The Hubbard Awards honors "life-changing" Indianapolis Public Schools teachers and principals.

When Raquel Perez needed a safe place to stay, she turned to her teacher, Marleen Signer.

Signer brought Perez, now a senior, into her own home and helped her find a permanent place to live. That was just one of the ways that Signer’s help has been transformative for Perez and countless other students.

Signer, who has taught children with special needs for 39 years, was honored at the Hubbard Life-Changing Teacher Awards tonight. As a teacher in the Indianapolis Public Schools McFarland School, she not only helps students master academic skills like reading and writing, but also helps them learn to navigate the world — from riding the bus to getting a job.

“When I graduate this May, I will be the first person in my family to finish high school,” wrote Perez in a nomination for Signer. “I was going to drop out at 14 before I met my teacher. I didn’t like coming to school and I didn’t know how to read. She has made me a completely different person.”

Signer was one of four teachers and, for the first year, two principals who received the $25,000 award in a ceremony tonight at the Eiteljorg Museum. They were selected from 10 finalists for the teacher award and four finalists for the principal prize. The honors are funded by Indianapolis philanthropists Al and Kathy Hubbard, who were inspired to create the award after reading a newspaper column about a life-changing IPS teacher.

“Exceptional teachers — the ones who elevate their students and their profession — are the single most important factor in the effort to improve education,” said Ann Murtlow, President of United Way of Central Indiana.

Other winners tonight included:

Stella Vandivier, who works with children who have committed serious crimes at the Marion County Jail School.

Vandivier’s students often have emotional and mental issues, and they can be years behind academically. But despite these challenges, she consistently brings joy to her work, according to students who nominated her.

“It’s very easy for us all to get depressed,” Vandivier said. “But … We are always going to put on that act of being happy.”

Antonia Powell, a sixth grade teacher at School 99, who uses a “tough love” approach with her students to push them toward success.

“She is able to guide and nurture students to become the best they can be,” wrote Daniel Kriech, who works with Powell. “Not only does she believe they can, she backs it up with a never ending daily effort to make sure success is always within their reach.”

Outside the classroom, Powell has transformed the lives of her three nieces who she took in when they were in need of care.

Daphne Draa, a visual art teacher at Center for Inquiry II, helps students take risks and find joy in art. She mentors students, offering academic and emotional support.

“The biggest lesson I’ve learned from my students is about resilience and perseverance,” Draa said. “That just gives me so much joy and hope for the future.”

Draa encourages her students to use art to advocate for their beliefs.

“Thanks to this teacher, my daughter Elizabeth takes risks, sets goals and believes that her voice matters,” wrote parent Judith Cebula in a nominating letter for Draa.

Winning principals included:

Julie Bakehorn, the former principal of School 54, who now leads Arsenal Technical High School, helped the School 54 dramatically improve student performance. The school went from an F to an A on the state accountability scale by holding to student to high standards and focusing on data-driven instruction.

“It’s more than just academics at this school. Ms. Bakehorn pushes for student involvement in extracurricular activities,” wrote Judith Carlile, a data coach who worked with Bakehorn at School 54 and followed her to Arsenal. “Her philosophy is ‘You want students to do well in the classroom? Well, get them involved in activities outside your classroom!’”

Margi Higgs, principal of School 91, is retiring this year but she is leaving behind a changed school. When she arrived, it was a struggling school, but she has refocused the Montessori school, creating a welcoming and collaborative environment, according to parents and teachers who nominated her.

“This principal has made a success story out of my son, who has developmental disabilities,” wrote parent Leesa Hertz. “She treated him as a regular student, helped him make academic gains, set an example of acceptance for him, and had a vision for his success right from Day One.”

Teacher nominees:
Carter Bell, Rousseau McClellan School 91
Maggie Brown, Project SITE
Cassie Davis-Woodall, Key Learning
Para Lee Gale, Charles Fairbanks, School 105
La Meca Perkins-Knight, Theodore Potter School 74
Rebecca Pfaffenberger, Rousseau McClellan School 91

Principal nominees:
Ami Anderson, ROOTS
Christine Collier, CFI 84

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”