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

Payment dispute

Disputes with Tennessee testmakers aren’t new. Here’s an update on the state’s lawsuit with Measurement Inc.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

The testing company fired by Tennessee’s education department two years ago may have to wait until 2019 to settle the case, according to documents recently obtained by Chalkbeat.

As the future of the state’s current testing company, Questar, remains uncertain after a series of testing snafus this year, Tennessee continues to build a case against the first company it hired to usher in online testing three years ago.

The $25.3 million lawsuit, filed by Measurement Inc. of North Carolina, says the state owes about a quarter of the company’s five-year, $108 million contract, which Tennessee officials canceled after technical problems roiled the test’s 2016 rollout. So far, the state has paid the company $545,000.

The 2016 test was meant to showcase TNReady, the state’s new, rigorous, online testing program. But the online exam crashed, and the state abandoned it, asking Measurement Inc. to pivot to paper tests. After numerous delays in delivering the paper tests, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen fired the company.

Measurement Inc. filed a lawsuit last June, and the state Department of Education responded in January with a counterclaim saying the company did not fulfill its duties. Now, the state and the company have through spring 2019 to build their cases and call witnesses. (You can view Measurement Inc.’s claims, and the state’s counterclaim below).

The company argues that the state’s decision to cancel online testing and switch to paper was a series of “unrealistic, arbitrary, and changing demands,” and therefore, the state shares blame for the canceled test.

But the state department countered in its January response that Measurement Inc. breached its contract and didn’t communicate truthfully about the status of the online exam.

After Measurement Inc., Tennessee entered into a two-year contract with Minnesota-based Questar to revive the TNReady online exam. In 2017, the state opted to only use paper exams, and testing went smoothly for the most part, outside of delays in returning test results.

But things didn’t go well this spring, when Tennessee tried to return to online testing under Questar. The reasons for the complications are numerous — but different from issues that ruined the online test’s 2016 debut.

Although Tennessee completed its online testing this spring,  it was beset with technological glitches, a reported cyber attack on the testing system, and poor internet connectivity. Many districts are not planning to use the scores in student grading, and teachers can opt out of using the scores in their evaluations.

The state is negotiating with Questar about its $30 million-a-year contract and also is asking Questar’s parent company, Educational Testing Services, to take on the design work of TNReady. McQueen did not offer specifics about either, but any changes must be approved by the legislature’s fiscal review committee.

Questar’s two-year contract ends Nov. 30, and the state either will stick with the company or find its third testing vendor in four years.

You can view Measurement Inc.’s claims, and the state’s counterclaim, in full below:

Measurement Inc.’s June 2017 claim:

The Department of Education’s January response:

Measurement Inc.’s February response:

Future of Schools

Short on students, 3 Indianapolis charter schools are closing. But 6 more will open in the fall

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Three Indianapolis charter schools facing financial struggles will close at the end of this school year, underscoring just how difficult it can be for charter schools to create sustainable operations.

As another sign of charter schools’ cash crunch, particularly in the city’s increasingly competitive school choice market, longtime Indianapolis charter network Tindley will merge its all-boys and all-girls middle schools into a single coeducational location.

Still, even as some schools close and consolidate, six more charter schools are poised to open in Indianapolis for the upcoming 2018-19 school year — including two that will be tasked with “restarting” schools within Indianapolis Public Schools as innovation schools.

In many parts of the city, the proliferation of charter schools is pushing the school choice conversation beyond simply providing more options to focusing on the quality of those options.

According to state data, nearly 17,000 students who live in Marion County — almost 11 percent — attend charter schools, which are publicly funded schools that are privately run. Across the state, charter schools are the fastest-growing school option, though they mostly serve urban areas.

Read more: How are Indiana charter schools doing? 9 things to know from the state’s first study


Among those shuttering schools are two that focused on blended learning. Carpe Diem Northwest, the national chain’s only remaining campus in the city, will shut its doors, the state charter school board said.

According to the Indiana Charter School Board, Carpe Diem’s board voted to close the school in March. The school’s principal and board president did not respond to requests for comment from Chalkbeat.

According to state data, 218 students were enrolled at Carpe Diem Northwest this year in grades 6-12 — an uptick likely due to the chain merging its former three campuses into one location. Consolidation efforts started in 2016, when Carpe Diem closed its Shadeland campus amid low enrollment. The chain’s Meridian Street campus lost its charter last year after struggling with academic problems, low enrollment, and financial instability.


Nexus Academy, which shared a building with the Glendale library branch, will also close this summer after a drawn-out attempt to stay open as curriculum providers pulled out of the school.

The school used blended learning to serve students who sought an alternative school environment, such as students with disabilities, students who didn’t succeed in conventional classroom settings, or students pursuing professional athletics or acting.

Nexus Academy had initially announced it would be closing at the end of the last school year, said board president Debra Morgan, when online K-12 management company Connections decided to close all of its Nexus Academy locations across three states.

But local leaders in Indianapolis wanted to keep the school open, so they began searching for a new management company. They were able to arrange a trilateral agreement with Connections and a new provider, California-based iLEAD Schools.

Still, Nexus Academy principal Jamie Brady said, “It was at the 13th hour, and it was too little, too late.”

Students had found other schools, and teachers had found other jobs. Marketing efforts to increase enrollment fell short, Brady said, and the school re-opened late in the year with too few students.

Earlier this spring, state charter officials deferred renewing Nexus Academy’s expiring charter. But before the school could return to make its case again, Brady and Morgan said iLEAD Schools also decided it could not help Nexus Academy, leading the school of about 25 students to close.


A third school, the highly troubled Indiana College Preparatory School, will close after the mayor’s office ordered the school to shut down. The company running the school had stopped communicating with the mayor’s office, and the entire school board had resigned.

Read more: In debt, with too many unlicensed teachers, Indiana College Preparatory School loses charter


Hoosier Academy Virtual Charter School, a statewide full-time virtual charter school that enrolls students from Indianapolis, is also closing after months of scrutiny from the state, dropping enrollment, and poor academic performance.

Read more: After years of failing grades, Hoosier Academy Virtual will close in June


Among Tindley’s local chain of six schools, its two middle schools will drop their single-gender programming to merge into one co-educational school.

Tindley CEO Kelli Marshall said the decision was in part financial, driven by declining enrollment. As charter school competition has increased, she said it was harder to attract students to the all-girls Tindley Collegiate Academy and all-boys Tindley Preparatory Academy.

Families also said the bridge into high school was more difficult for students who went to single-gender middle schools, Marshall said.

The merged middle schools will operate under the Tindley Collegiate name and use Tindley Prep’s building, next door to Tindley Renaissance, its feeder elementary school.


A pair of charter schools will open on Indianapolis’ westside to focus on students in the Haughville area, each school founded by Building Excellent Schools fellows.

Allegiant Preparatory Academy will grow into a K-8 college preparatory school with a particular focus on literacy, led by Indianapolis native Rick Anderson. The first week of school will be devoted to teaching students about Allegiant’s culture and core values. Students will begin making college visits in kindergarten and first grade, and the school will also work with families on how to support students on their paths to college.

Allegiant is built upon the motto that “it takes a village” to ensure students’ successes.

“We’re all saying that we have our hands on the shoulder of this child, and we are going to ensure that they’re safe, that they’re learning, and that they’re also growing as leaders,” Anderson said.

At Vanguard Collegiate of Indianapolis, school founder Rob Marshall — also an Indianapolis native — wants to incorporate the school with the Haughville neighborhood, with students completing service learning and projects based on the needs of the community.

The school, located in the former IPS School 75 building, is specifically seeking to help low-income students who live nearby, and Marshall said his leadership team is intentionally composed of people coming from backgrounds similar to their students.

“We know these students can achieve,” he said. “They just need the right adult that understands the circumstances and is willing to build the relationships.”

Vanguard will be “unapologetically” college prep-focused, Marshall added, with mandatory tutoring at the end of school that helps students with whatever they may have struggled with in that day’s lessons.

Both schools say they expect to ramp up enrollment efforts this summer.


PilotED started as after-school programs in Chicago, and now it’s turning into a new school in Fountain Square, in the former home of Indiana Math and Science Academy South and IPS School 64.

PilotED is focused on social identity, asking both teachers and students to examine difficult questions about power and privilege. The school incorporates social justice and racial equity into academics.

School co-founder and The Mind Trust fellow Jacob Allen said he hopes the model does more than prepare students academically for college — he wants it to position students to persist and graduate, particularly students of color, students from low-income families, and first-generation college students.

Allen also said the school wants to pay attention to teacher development and perks, including providing a mental health stipend, a staff gym, and co-working space.


Paramount School of Excellence is expanding to a second location about two miles away from its flagship eastside campus. Paramount Community Heights will serve students in grades K-4.


Matchbook Learning, a turnaround operator with a troubled history, will restart IPS School 63 on the westside as an innovation school. The charter school uses software to help teachers track students’ progress, a model that Matchbook founder and The Mind Trust fellow Sajan George hopes will lead to dramatic test score gains.

Read more: Ousted from Detroit and Newark, turnaround operator Matchbook could get a fresh start in Indianapolis


URBAN ACT, led by The Mind Trust fellow Nigena Livingston, will restart IPS School 14, a downtown school that has long served many students who are homeless. She plans to use “place-based learning,” a philosophy that incorporates the surrounding community into the projects students pursue at school.

Read more: Homeless students found stability at School 14. Now the school faces a big shake-up