Big changes

One group changes its name, and another celebrates a big birthday

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
CEO Robert Enlow announces the Friedman Foundation's name change to EdChoice.

The Indianapolis-based group that is the nation’s foremost advocate for publicly funded private school tuition vouchers has a new name: EdChoice.

That transition, announced Friday as part of a ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of the founding of what had been known as the Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, is one of two big milestones reached over the weekend by influential Indianapolis organizations that have pushed for vouchers, charter schools and other educational changes.

On Sunday, the Mind Trust reached its 10th anniversary. That group was founded by former Mayor Bart Peterson and his top education adviser David Harris to continue their work to support growth of charter schools in the city, more autonomy for schools in Indianapolis Public Schools and broader educational changes.

Here’s more on the two organizations and the what they are saying about the changes:

EdChoice

At its start in 1996, the foundation was created to advocate for Milton Friedman’s vision of universal school choice, primarily through private school tuition vouchers.

The Nobel Prize-winning economist famous for popularizing market-based solutions to a variety of policy problems, had first proposed the idea of vouchers in a famous 1955 paper that said parents should all be given the state subsidy set aside for a public education for their children and allowed to apply it to any school, public or private. He argued the competition among schools would spur innovations and higher quality offerings.

Gov. Mike Pence poses with students from Indianapolis' St Therese Little Flower Catholic School at an annual school choice rally sponsored by the Friedman Foundation in 2015.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Gov. Mike Pence poses with students from Indianapolis’ St Therese Little Flower Catholic School at an annual school choice rally sponsored by the Friedman Foundation in 2015.

Nothing like Friedman’s original idea of universal vouchers has ever been tried. But more than 30 states have some sort of voucher program today. Indiana’s voucher program for general education students is the largest of its kind with more than 30,000 participants.

The push for vouchers has sparked a backlash from teachers unions and advocates of traditional public schools, who argue they drain away money needed to assure public schools can provide high quality programs.

They also question whether public funds should go to religious schools — the top destination for Indiana parents using vouchers.

The backlash has turned the issue into one of the most divisive in American education. Even many advocates of charter schools and critics of teachers unions oppose vouchers.

Dropping the Friedman name gives the organization a chance to build a new brand. On Friday, David Friedman said his late parents worried that the foundation’s fidelity to their original vision could fade over time, so they stipulated that after 20 years it either shut down or change its name.

“I came here tonight is to make it clear this is not a matter of rejection my parents but doing what they wanted done,” he said.

The organization’s CEO, Robert Enlow, said the revamped foundation would aim for an even stronger push on its advocacy in Indiana, and seek out new partners across the political spectrum.

“We will reach out and work with anyone and everyone to advance educational choice for all,” he said.

(EdChoice also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

The Mind Trust

Over the last decade, The Mind Trust both became perhaps the most influential private sector force for educational change in Indianapolis and also emerged as a national model for non-profits that aim to influence decision making in education in cities across the country.

“Systemic education change — while an arduous, time-intensive and sometimes disappointing process — is possible, and it is thriving today in Indianapolis,” Harris said of the organization’s efforts.

STEMNASIUM’s founder, Tariq Al-Nasir and Ivy McCottry, a senior marketing product manager at At&T who advises the program, pitch their ultimately winning idea for a new charter school to a panel of judges today at a Mind Trust competition at the Indiana Landmarks Center in Indianapolis.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
STEMNASIUM’s founder, Tariq Al-Nasir and Ivy McCottry, a senior marketing product manager at AT&T who advises the program, pitch their ultimately winning idea for a new charter school to a panel of judges at a Mind Trust competition.

In its early years, the organization aimed to support the fledgling charter school movement started by Peterson, who had persuaded the legislature to make him the only mayor in the country with the power to award charters, and pressure Indianapolis Public Schools to make changes. Since its founding, the Mind Trust has invited education entrepreneurs to try their ideas in Indianapolis by offering thousands of dollars of support for planning and seeded organizations with education reform at the center of their missions.

For example, the group’s support helped Teach For America launch an Indiana region, placing recent college graduates as teachers in high poverty Indianapolis schools.

Critics of the group say the Mind Trust pushes an agenda that undermines teachers unions and traditional public schools. They argue that it has become too influential, particularly when it comes to decisions at IPS. Six of the seven current school board members received support from Mind Trust-connected individuals or organizations in the last two elections, including from the lobbying arm of the parent advocacy group Stand For Children, which The Mind Trust helped bring to Indiana.

In 2011, The Mind Trust issued a report calling for radical changes in the way Indianapolis Public Schools are organized and operated. Among their proposals was empowering principals with more decision making control, reduced administrative spending, a new initiative aimed a recruiting talented educators and expanded preschool offerings. At the time, the report was rejected by district leaders.

In 2016, most of those ideas have been endorsed by a reconstituted school board and a new superintendent.
The Mind Trust has expanded its work to supporting similar organizations and educational change strategies in other cities, including Nashville, Cincinnati and Kansas City, all of which have modeled at least parts of the group’s work.

“What’s happened with education reform in Indianapolis has major implications for the way we as a nation approach social challenges,” Harris said.

now hiring

With a new school year underway, hundreds of teaching positions remain unfilled in New York City

PHOTO: Jaclyn Zubrzycki

Hundreds of schools are missing teachers and support staff two weeks into the school year, with many of the openings in high-poverty districts and struggling schools that are typically the hardest to staff, according to postings on a city database in mid-September.

There were almost 1,700 job postings as of Sept. 19, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat. The listings offer a snapshot of the jobs advertised that day — not an official tally of the total citywide staff openings.

Still, they indicate a critical need for special-education teachers and paraprofessionals, teaching assistants who tend to work with young students and those with disabilities. Many of the unfilled positions were in low-income districts in the Bronx and Brooklyn, and dozens were in schools in the city’s Renewal program for low-performing schools.

The vacancies were posted in the city’s Excessed Staff Selection System, which lists jobs available to teachers in the Absent Teacher Reserve — a pool of teachers who lack permanent positions because they face disciplinary or legal issues, or their schools were closed or downsized. The listings hint at where teachers in the ATR pool may land this year, since the city recently announced it will place such teachers in schools that still have vacancies after Oct. 15.

Education department officials said the data “doesn’t provide accurate or precise information on school vacancies.” In particular, they said there could be a lag in updating the postings, or that schools could post positions that are expected to become available but are currently filled.

In addition, schools may list the same job more than once in order to advertise the position to teachers with different certifications, officials said. For example, a posting for a computer science teacher could also appear as openings for math and science teachers.

Still, the postings suggest where the need for teachers may be greatest — and where ATR teachers could likely end up.

Four out of the five districts with the most postings were in the Bronx. They include Districts 7 and 9 in the South Bronx, along with Districts 10 and 12. District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York, also had dozens of listings.

In District 7, where more than 90 percent of students are poor, there were 60 postings for teachers in subjects ranging from Spanish to physical education and music. That includes 26 listings for paraprofessionals, who are often mandated by students’ special-education plans.

Overall, there were more than 600 listings for paraprofessionals, about half of which were needed to work with students who have disabilities. Almost 400 of the postings were for special-education teachers, who are often in short supply.

Devon Eisenberg knows these staffing challenges well. She is co-principal of The Young Women’s Leadership School of the Bronx in District 9. Despite boasting a staff-retention rate of about 90 percent, the school started the year short one teacher. To plug the hole, Eisenberg relied on substitutes and other teachers to cover the class. She was able to find a permanent hire this week, though the pool of qualified candidates was slim.

“This is definitely not fair for our students as they are not receiving consistent and coherent instruction,” she wrote in an email. “It is also stressful for the teachers covering these holes.”

Starting the school year with a substitute teacher can become a barrier to learning. Research has shown that staff turnover leads to lower test scores, even for students who weren’t in the class that lost its teacher.

Turnover tends to be highest in struggling schools, which often serve the neediest students.

Schools in the Renewal program — which includes 78 low-performing schools — posted about 70 openings, according to the data analyzed by Chalkbeat. The greatest shortage was for special-education teachers, for which there were 16 postings. That was followed by math teachers, with nine openings.

At M.S. 391 The Angelo Patri Middle School, a Renewal school in the Bronx, there were two postings for math teachers. Last year, only 8 percent of students passed state math exams at the school, which has a new principal.

Carmen Marrero teaches special education at M.S. 391 and has worked in other Bronx schools that struggle with staffing.

“We tend to deal with a lot of behavior challenges,” she said, referring to schools in the Bronx. “I guess that keeps some of the aspiring teachers or some of the teachers who are already in the field away from this side of town.”

This year, the openings come with an additional consequence: Schools with vacancies could be prime candidates to receive teachers in the ATR.

Though officials say they will work closely with principals, the department could place teachers even over the objections of school leaders. Some principals have threatened to game the hiring system by simply not posting openings in order to avoid having a teacher from the ATR placed at their school.

Meanwhile, some teachers in the pool dread being assigned to schools whose openings could signal poor leadership or a tough work environment.

Teachers who are in the ATR will not be placed in positions outside of their license areas, which may limit how many of the openings the education department can fill after mid-October.

Critics say the policy will place the least effective teachers in the neediest schools. Education department figures show that only 74 percent of ATR teachers were rated effective, highly effective or satisfactory in 2015-16 — compared to 93 percent of all city teachers.

Education department officials said the city has worked with schools to fill their vacancies well before the start of the school year.

Maria Herrera, principal of Renaissance High School for Musical Theater in the Bronx, said she tries to have all her hires in place by June. That way, she can involve future teachers in end-of-the-year activities that help build a sense of community, and provide training over the summer.

This year, she was able to start school fully staffed. The education department allowed schools to fill positions earlier this year and held numerous job fairs, she said.

“I feel really supported,” she said.

Changes

Denver East High principal Andy Mendelsberg out after investigation into cheerleading scandal

PHOTO: John Leyba / The Denver Post
Denver's East High School.

The principal of Denver’s East High School has retired after an investigation into how school district officials handled complaints about the actions of the school’s cheerleading coach found principal Andy Mendelsberg “did not take the necessary steps to ensure that the physical and emotional health and safety of the students on the cheer team was fully protected,” according to a letter from Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

Former East principal John Youngquist will return to Denver to lead the school, Boasberg announced Friday. Youngquist served for the past four years as a top official in Aurora Public Schools.

East is the most-requested high school in Denver Public Schools. The 2,500-student school is known for its comprehensive academic program, as well as its breadth of sports and extracurricular activities.

Mendelsberg had been on leave since August, when 9News first aired videos that showed East cheerleaders being forced into the splits position while teammates held their arms and legs and former coach Ozell Williams pushed them down.

The parents of at least one cheerleader who was injured by the practice emailed a video to the East High athletic director in mid-June asking “what the administration is going to do about my daughter’s injury and how it happened,” according to emails provided to 9News.

After the 9News story broke two months later, Williams was fired.

Mendelsberg’s exit coincides with the conclusion of an independent investigation by an outside law firm commissioned by DPS. The district on Friday released a report detailing the firm’s findings.

According to Boasberg’s letter, the investigation found that “over multiple months, in response to multiple concerns of a serious nature,” Mendelsberg and East athletic director Lisa Porter failed to keep the students on the cheer team safe.

Specifically, the letter says Mendelsberg and Porter did not “sufficiently address, share or report allegations of abuse and the contents of the videos;” failed to provide the necessary level of oversight for the cheer coach, “especially as concerns mounted;” and failed to take corrective action, including firing Williams.

At a press conference Friday afternoon, Boasberg said that in addition to what was captured on video, concerns about Williams included that he instructed athletes not to tell anyone what happened at practice and required them to friend him on social media “with the express purpose of him monitoring their social media presence.”

Boasberg said that “raises deeper concerns about what was going on here.”

Mendelsberg, Porter, assistant cheer coach Mariah Cladis and district deputy general counsel Michael Hickman were put on leave while the investigation was ongoing. The Denver police also launched an investigation.

Porter resigned her position earlier this week, Boasberg said.

Hickman received corrective action but is being reinstated after the investigation revealed he didn’t know the full extent of what happened, Boasberg said.

Cladis, who was not at practice during the splits incident and whose position was volunteer, is welcome to remain the assistant cheer coach, he said.

Mendelsberg had been principal since 2011. But he’d worked at East much longer as a teacher, softball coach, dean of students, athletic director and assistant principal, according to a story in the Spotlight alumni newsletter published in 2012.

Youngquist preceded Mendelsberg, having served as principal of East from 2007 to 2011. He left the school to take a districtwide position leading the recruitment and development of DPS principals. In 2013, Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn hired him to be that district’s chief academic officer, a job he’s held until now.

Regarding his decision to return to East, Youngquist said, “My heart has drawn me toward supporting this learning community now and well into the future.”

As a parent and school leader, he said he understands the trust that parents put in schools. “I’m committed to strengthening that bond and partnership with our young people, our parents and with our great East staff,” he said.

Munn has already appointed an interim chief academic officer: Andre Wright, who currently serves as a P-20 learning community director. In a statement Friday, Munn said he “will evaluate the role and expectations of the (chief academic officer) position prior to developing a profile for that position moving forward.”

“We thank John Youngquist for his four years of service … and wish him all the best in his next chapter,” Munn said.

Chalkbeat reporter Yesenia Robles contributed information to this report.