school turnaround

State board members applaud progress at schools run by for-profit company despite low grades

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
State Superintendent Glenda Ritz and board members David Freitas and B.J. Watts at a 2015 meeting.

Five years after the Indiana State Board of Education took control over three Indianapolis Public Schools and controversially hired a for-profit management company to turn them around, those school have not shown marked improvement on annual state exams.

But when the schools came up for discussion at a board meeting Wednesday, members said they were impressed by progress the schools have made on an interim test that tracks whether students are improving.

“The data presented today by Charter Schools USA is going in the right direction,” said board member David Freitas. “To turn around schools is a very difficult progress. They are making, in my opinion, extraordinary progress toward turning those schools around. They’re not where we want them to be yet, but the data that was presented today is really making inroads into turning those schools around.”

The board heard a presentation from the management company, Florida-based Charter Schools USA, which took over Howe and Manual high schools and Donnan Middle School in 2011 after years of posting rock-bottom test scores.

Sherry Hage, chief academic officer for Charter Schools USA, said students at the three school are still posting test scores that are below national averages on the MAP test, which is designed by the Northwest Evaluation Association and is given several times throughout the school year. But results were ticking up during the last school year, she said.

“We are seeing great growth with our students and getting them to grade level,” Hage said. “Now we are providing more opportunities in terms of after-school tutoring, office hours and online (support).”

More students are now meeting grade level expectations than early 2015, but Howe and Donnan still were rated F’s by the state in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Manual received a D in 2014 and 2015. At all three schools in 2015, between 70 and 89 percent of students couldn’t pass state exams.

Here’s the NWEA MAP data on the number of students achieving at grade level:

  • Manual High School: From fall 2015 to spring 2016, students made a 7 percentage point gain in math (29 percent to 36 percent) and a 5 percentage point gain in reading (36 percent to 41 percent).
  • Howe High School: From fall 2015 to spring 2016, students made a 8 percentage point gain in math (16 percent to 24 percent) and a 22 percentage point gain in reading (17 percent to 39 percent).
  • Emma Donnan Middle School: From fall 2015 to spring 2016, students made an 8 percentage point gain in math (15 percent to 23 percent) and a 22 percentage point gain in reading (13 percent to 35 percent).

Freitas proposed that Charter Schools USA come back to the board at some point with proposals about creating feeder elementary and middle schools that would get kids involved in the charter network’s curriculum even earlier.

“All the education research says you should have these students as early as possible in the system, so that’s what I’m promoting,” Freitas said. “We need to push Charter Schools USA’s influence back as far as possible so that students have an experience, potentially a K-12 experience, with Charter Schools USA. Based on what I’ve seen across the country, if we were to make that happen in Indiana, students would be better served by that model.”

Indianapolis Public Schools officials, however, are less impressed with the charter school network. In August, WFYI reported that IPS board members were troubled by data from an elementary school run by the company that feeds into Donnan that showed students were about one year or more behind in reading and math.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz said the board would talk more in the future about whether to expand Charter Schools USA’s footprint within IPS.

“That’s one of the reasons for Charter Schools USA and IPS to come back for presentations because the board wanted to keep abreast as to what is going on and how it’s looking and what is the data you are using to drive your instruction,” Ritz said. “That will be a continued conversation.”

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.