new funding

Indiana schools have 48 hours if they want grant money to help push kids toward college

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

Just two days before the deadline, only a tiny fraction of Indiana schools have claimed state funds for helping poor students get college scholarships.

More than 700 high schools have seniors who are working to finish the 21st Century Scholars program, which gives scholarships to students who complete college preparatory activities. But only 29 have applied to get the $25 per student that the state would give them for each scholar — and the deadline is Friday.

“The dollars are … to reward work schools are already doing,” Stephanie Wilson, spokeswoman for the Commission for Higher Education, said in an email. “Schools that don’t apply are just leaving money on the table.”

It might not sound like much, but it could mean hundreds or thousands of dollars in funding for schools. In Indianapolis Public Schools, 156 scholars are in the class of 2017 — that’s a total of $3,900 that could go to support students if the district’s high schools apply for the grant. Countywide, 3,611 students are enrolled in the scholars program, and if they complete required online activities, it could bring their schools $90,275 in extra funds.

So far in Marion County, just a handful of high schools have applied: Northwest High School in IPS, Ben Davis High School in Wayne Township, and Charles A. Tindley Accelerated charter school.

The scholarships are open to kids from families who meet certain income levels. For example, a family of four must earn less than $44,863 annually, as well as meet other criteria.

Chalkbeat reported in May that just 20 percent of Indiana students in the class of 2017 who entered the program in eighth grade had completed requirements so far for the program. That meant more than 14,000 needy students were behind. In Marion County prospects were even grimmer: Only 13 percent of students had completed program requirements.

The problem stemmed from changes to the 26-year-old program that were mandated in 2011 when the Indiana General Assembly heaped on extra requirements and raised the GPA threshold from 2.0 to 2.5. Lawmakers wanted to ensure that students awarded the scholarships were prepared for college. This year’s high school seniors are the first graduating class that will be held to the new standards, which also include a checklist of activities during their four years of high school.

But since then, students have made some progress. Now, about one-third of seniors are on-track to earn scholarships. Countywide, it’s up to 25 percent.

According to state data, students who complete the program and go on to college are less likely to need remediation — 21 percent of scholars vs. 34 percent of low-income students not in the program. They’re also more likely to stay after the first year and complete college on time.

Schools can apply for grants here.

charter closure

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

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Roiled by unsustainable debts, a disintegrating school board, and violations of state requirements, Indiana College Preparatory School lost its charter and will close at the end of the school year.

Families were also complaining about frequent teacher turnover, discipline issues, and a lack of services for students with disabilities, according to Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett’s office.

The future seemed uncertain, too, for I CAN Schools, the nonprofit company contracted to run the school, after some of its struggling schools in Ohio were absorbed by another company.

The mayor’s office, which authorized Indiana College Preparatory School’s charter, said it tried to work with the school for nearly two years to improve its finances and governance. But it revoked the charter Tuesday after the school’s entire board resigned.

The shutdown in June will leave about 240 students looking for new schools.

The mayor’s office decided not to shutter the school immediately to try to minimize disruptions for students, who begin ISTEP testing next week, said Brian Dickey, interim director of the mayor’s charter school office.

School leaders did not return calls or an email seeking comment.

Indiana College Preparatory School, which serves grades K-8, opened in the 2015-16 school year. It had replaced a closed charter school, Andrew Academy, near 38th Street and Sherman Drive, and many of the students stayed to enroll at Indiana College Preparatory School.

It was put on probation last year.

“We’d started seeing red flags on the financial side,” Dickey said.

The school seemed unable to pay its bills in the short-term, and accumulating debt raised concerns about long-term financial health, he said.

It ended its first year with only four days’ worth of cash on hand, according to city documents. At one point, the school was running a deficit of about $780,000.

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis, which owns the school building, reached out to the mayor’s office when Indiana College Preparatory Academy didn’t pay its rent.

An audit filed in February 2017 showed Indiana College Preparatory School was not in compliance with the state’s guidelines for charter school accounting, highlighting questions about the schools’ internal controls.

Indiana College Preparatory School was receiving more than $2 million from the state for its students, the audit showed. The school had also received a $174,000 federal charter school grant, according to city documents, and it took out a $500,000 loan from the state’s Common School Fund.

Dickey and Deputy Mayor of Community Development Jeff Bennett said some of the school’s financial problems stemmed from an unexpected drop in enrollment.

“New charter schools are start-up organizations, and they are very sensitive to enrollment,” Dickey said. “And if that enrollment isn’t maintained, particularly in the early onset, it can really complicate things on the finance side.”

In the school’s second year, it lost about one-quarter of its students by the spring, the mayor’s office said.

Considering that Indiana College Preparatory School offered transportation, Bennett said, “for 25 percent to vote with their feet not to come back is just a red flag. For whatever reason, we don’t know. But it’s beyond the norm of any school to drop that much.”

Last year, the mayor’s office found out that I CAN Schools, the nonprofit organization that managed Indiana College Preparatory School, had transferred seven Ohio schools to another company, in part because of financial deficits.

The mayor’s office was already concerned that the Ohio operator was unfamiliar with Indiana policies. But now, Dickey said, he questioned if I CAN’s educational offerings would be diminished without a broader network to rely on.

I CAN said it intended to rebrand itself, but never did, Dickey said.

Indiana College Preparatory School’s board tried to address the city’s concerns about governance and teacher hiring, but Dickey said the mayor’s office was unsatisfied with the response.

Academically, the school was receiving low ratings from the state. Its students weren’t showing much growth. The school was hiring many substitute teachers, city documents show, failing to employ enough teachers licensed in their subject areas to meet state requirements.

And the school’s financial situation, Dickey said, only grew worse.

When the mayor’s office put the school under “threat of potential revocation” last month, three out of four board members resigned. Unable to operate with a sole board member, the last remaining one resigned this week.

“Anytime a school has to close, I don’t know that that’s ever a good thing,” said Jamyce Curtis Banks, the former board president. She declined to answer questions about the school’s challenges, saying they should be directed to the school or I CAN instead.

Other former board members did not return messages.

A parent who recently pulled her children out of Indiana College Preparatory School said the school needed to be shut down.

La’Key Eldridge said her second-grade son did not have a special education teacher, and she felt the school wasn’t equipped to handle his disorders.

“I knew that my son needed special education help, because he wasn’t picking up on certain vocabulary words,” she said.

Eldridge transferred her two sons to another charter school, and she said her son with special education needs will have to repeat the second grade.

She also raised concerns over how the school handled an incident in the fall reported by Fox59, when two students at the school tested positive for cocaine after eating what they thought was candy.

The last time the mayor’s office revoked a charter was in 2014, because of allegations of systemic cheating on standardized tests at Flanner House Elementary Charter School. That school closed immediately, leaving families scrambling to find new schools after the academic year had already started.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that I CAN Schools is a for-profit company. It is a nonprofit company.

Making Montssori

A popular new Montessori program in Detroit’s main district may expand into its own separate schools

PHOTO: Nick Hagen

Detroit’s main district is considering expanding its popular Montessori program, including possibly creating free-standing Montessori schools designed to draw students from around the city.

The possible changes could represent a major shift for the two-year-old program, which now operates in 14 classrooms in six schools.

Montessori parents have been on high alert in recent weeks. Told that changes are coming to the program, they’ve been worried that new Montessori schools would mean an end to existing programs.

“My son keeps asking ‘where am I going to school next year?’” parent Maria Koliantz told Chalkbeat last week.

Koliantz, who has two children in the Montessori program at Maybury Elementary School in Southwest Detroit, said a sense of brewing change has been affecting parents and teachers.

“I just keep trying to assure him,” she said of her son. “But … I hate that the uncertainty has affected him.”

But Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says there are no plans to move existing programs. Questioned by Koliantz at a school board community meeting Tuesday night, Vitti assured her the district would only add new programs, not close existing ones.

“We have no intention of discontinuing that program,” he said. “It’s a vehicle to recruit parents to the school system. I don’t think you’re going to see anything but expansion.”

Since his arrival in Detroit last spring, Vitti has talked about the need to give every school in the district a distinct identity, with some schools focusing on math and technology and others perhaps developing a focus on creative writing.

Vitti revealed Tuesday morning that the district is considering eventually creating three arts schools for children who’ve been identified as gifted or talented.

New Montessori schools are also on the table, he said. “The new schools will be announced by the end of March as we work towards ensuring that every school has a identifiable and distinct program to improve performance and enrollment.”

Freestanding Montessori schools could represent a new chapter for a program that was launched in Detroit two years ago as a hybrid system, with Montessori classrooms operating next to traditional classrooms in a handful schools.  

The program, which allows children to learn at their own pace in mixed-age classrooms, started in 2016 with classrooms serving pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students, as well as some students in grades 1-3 at Spain, Maybury and Edison elementary schools. The program more than doubled in size in 2017, adding classrooms in the first three schools and expanding into three more — Chrysler, Palmer Park and Vernor elementary schools.

But while the current structure at the six schools has been popular with some parents, it has also created some difficulties.

The Montessori program is run by a director, Nicola Turner, who hires teachers for the program, oversees their training, and supports them as they implement the Montessori curriculum. But those teachers also work for their school principals — a dynamic that can create complications.

In some schools, there has been tension between parents and teachers affiliated with the Montessori program and those connected to traditional classrooms. Since the Montessori programs tend to have more teachers and fewer students than traditional classrooms, that’s raised issues of fairness and equity.

The current setup has also created challenges aligning the Montessori curriculum with the structure and schedules of a traditional school. In an ideal Montessori classroom, for example, students would have an uninterrupted three-hour block to work on their core lessons, but that isn’t always possible in a school where many factors determine when students can have lunch, go to recess or take art and music classes.

Freestanding Montessori schools could avoid some of those problems — and potentially offer some advantages.

“We could do after-school programs that were Montessori-specific,” said Yolanda King, who has a son in the program at Spain Elementary and a younger child she hopes to enroll next year. Special classes like art, music and gym “could be more aligned to Montessori” in a freestanding school, she said, suggesting “yoga programs and whole food programs.”

Turner, the Montessori program director, declined to comment about the possible changes but an email she sent to parents this month indicates they were fairly divided about the prospect of freestanding schools.

Nearly half — 48 percent — said they preferred keeping Montessori classrooms in their current schools while 37 percent liked the idea of a Montessori school. About 15 percent did not indicate a preference.

Dan Yowell is among parents who’ve raised concerns that freestanding schools might feel removed from the rest of the district.

“We liked the fact that [Montessori] is accessible to people all over the city,” said Yowell, whose son is in the program at Spain.

A freestanding Montessori school “has a feeling that it’s more exclusive,” Yowell said. “I don’t want it to be perceived as something that only certain people can access.”  

Spain, in Detroit’s midtown neighborhood, is one of two schools with Montessori classrooms that has enough space to dramatically expand the program. The other one is the Palmer Park Academy, which is in northwest Detroit.