Innovation

Leaders at IPS arts magnet say becoming an “innovation” school will add even more art to the day

PHOTO: Penny Guthrie
Fifth grader Arael Stigler (left with the microphone) performs the role of Rafinki from the musical The Lion King.

At Edison School of the Arts, elementary students can join a drum ensemble, master drawing or star in a musical. But some educators at the popular magnet school say that’s not enough.

They want math and reading teachers to build the art into their courses. They want the arts filtered into science and social studies.

That’s why the K-8 school is angling to become one of the first Indianapolis Public Schools allowed to adopt a new governance model, free from the mandates that the district imposes on most of its schools.

“Our arts teachers are fantastic and our academic teachers are fantastic,” principal Nathan Tuttle told the Indianapolis Public Schools board at a meeting earlier this month. “But we do not implement full arts integration in the academic classroom as it stands right now, because there’s not a lot of funding to train all of our academic teachers in arts integration.”

The innovation school model, which gives principals many of the flexibilities of charter schools but keeps the school within IPS, was introduced in the district last year.

If Edison’s application to become an innovation school is approved by the board, it would be one of the first higher performing schools to do so.

The school would be following in the footsteps of the Cold Spring School, an environmental science magnet school that became an innovation school earlier this year as a way to give teachers more time to focus on science.

Innovation schools leaders have full control over their funding, so they can make choices like what curriculum to use and what teacher training fits their needs. The teachers are not unionized, however, which is controversial and allows leaders to make decisions like extending the school day without negotiating with a union.

The move would be the latest big change for the arts magnet school, which recently moved from the north side to the southwest side and added middle school grades. At least some teachers and parents are eager for the school to have the freedom that would come with the conversion.

Kathy Gaalema, a second-grade teacher who has worked in the district for 33 years, told the board she supports the plan because it could give teachers more time to focus on art in academic classes and more tailored training.

“Being an innovation school would allow great opportunities for us,” she said.

Candace Kingma, a parent and president of the parent-teacher organization at Edison, also told the board that she trusts the school leadership and supports the change.

“An arts education can enhance a child’s overall learning,” she said. “It’s also my belief that a move to an innovation school will greatly enhance our arts program.”

Edison is looking to convert to innovation status voluntarily beginning next fall. It’s still early in the process, and the board is not expected to make a decision for several months. If the school is converted to innovation status, it would be overseen by a nonprofit board Tuttle is currently assembling. The IPS board would cede day-to-day control, but it would be able to cancel or renew the agreement based on the school’s performance.

Edison would be only the third IPS school to convert to innovation status by choice. Although there are several existing innovation schools in the district, they are largely charter schools that joined the network or failing schools that were restarted with new managers.

Innovation schools are part of a broader vision for the district that aims to give all principals more power over how schools are run. Aleesia Johnson, who oversees innovation schools, said the long-term goal is to create better performing schools across IPS.

“When the people who are most connected and closest to our students and families have the ability to make decisions,” she said, “that will positively impact the experience our students have.”

Future of Schools

Indiana lawmakers are bringing back a plan to expand takeover for Gary and Muncie schools

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

It’s official: Lawmakers are planning to re-introduce a controversial plan to expand state takeover of the Gary and Muncie school districts when they come back May 14 for a one-day special session.

Indiana Republican leaders said they believe the plan, which would give control of Muncie schools to Ball State University and strip power from the Gary school board, creates opportunities for both districts to get on the right track after years of poor decision-making around finances.

“Two state entities year after year ignored requests from the legislature to get their fiscal health in order,” said Senate President David Long. “We understand there’s going to be some politics associated with it.”

But Indiana Democrats strongly oppose the takeovers, and House Minority Leader Terry Goodin, a Democrat from Austin, said bringing back the “heinous” takeover plan is too complicated to be dealt with in one day. Democrats had cheered when the bill unceremoniously died last month after lawmakers ran out of time during the regular session and lambasted Republican for calling for an extension to revisit it.

“This is not a thing that can be idly approved without full consideration,” Goodin said. “Because you are talking about the latest step to take the education of our children out of the hands of local school boards and parents and placing it under the control of Big Brother.”

But lawmakers’ push to expand district takeovers come as the state’s education officials are stepping back from taking control of individual schools. In this case, as with last year’s unprecedented bill that took over Gary schools, finances appear to be the driving motivation behind lawmakers’ actions, not academics. Typically, state takeover of schools has come as a consequence for years of failing state letter grades.

Gary schools have struggled for decades to deal with declining enrollment, poor financial management and poor academic performance. Although the Muncie district hasn’t seen the same kind of academic problems, it has been sharply criticized for mishandling a $10 million bond issue.

“All I had to hear is that a $10 million capital bond was used for operating expenses,” House Speaker Brian Bosma said, since those funds are intended to make improvements to buildings. “Fiscal irresponsibility is paramount, but also fiscal irresponsibility translates to educational irresponsibility as well.”

Bosma said that Ball State and Gary officials were on board with resurrecting House Bill 1315. Another part of the bill would develop an early warning system to identify districts in financial trouble.

The provisions in the bill would only apply to public school districts, but other types of schools, including online charter schools and private schools accepting taxpayer-funded vouchers, have had recent financial situations that have raised serious questions and even led to closure.

Bosma said those schools have their own fiscal accountability systems in place, but recent attempts to close gaps in state charter law and have private schools with voucher students submit annual reports to the state have gone mostly nowhere.

Both Bosma and Long said their plan to reconsider five bills during the special session, including House Bill 1315, had passed muster withGov. Eric Holcomb. But district takeover was not mentioned in Friday’s statement from Holcomb, nor did he say it was one of the urgent issues lawmakers should take up when he spoke to reporters in mid-March.

Instead, he reiterated his support for getting a $12 million loan from the state’s Common School Fund for Muncie schools and directing $10 million over the next two years to the state’s Secured School Fund. The money would allow districts to request dollars for new and improved school safety equipment and building improvements.

discipline paradox

Do charter schools suspend students more? It depends on how you look at the data.

PHOTO: Chris Hondros/Getty Images
A student reads on a dotted carpet where students often sit for class at Harlem Success Academy.

A few weeks ago, a government watchdog agency released an extensive report on discipline in U.S. schools. It drew headlines for underscoring how black students, boys, and students with disabilities are much more likely to be suspended.

But there was one question that the report helped answer that didn’t get much attention: are charter schools more or less likely to suspend their students?

It’s a fraught topic, particularly as so-called “no-excuses” charter schools across the country have been criticized for what some see as overly harsh discipline. And the answer turns out to be complicated.

Here’s the latest national snapshot, which comes from 2013-14 data. Overall, charter schools have a somewhat higher out-of-school suspension rate — meaning the percent of students who were suspended at least once — than traditional public schools. But when you break down suspensions by students’ race, charters actually post slightly lower rates in each major group.

Source: GAO analysis of Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection Graphic: Sam Park

How can that be? It happens because charters and traditional public schools don’t have the same share of students in each student group. Charters serve a greater share of black students, for one, and those students are much more likely to be suspended than other groups in both sectors. (Statistics teachers, you can use this as a real-world example of what’s known as Simpson’s paradox.)

These findings highlight how complicated it is to fairly compare suspension rates across schools, and suggest that charter schools may have have similar — even lower — suspension rates than traditional schools, depending on how the data is sliced.

At the same time, some of the most-praised charters, particularly those in the “no-excuses” camp, really have been shown to post high suspension rates, even accounting for differences in student populations.

A 2013 study showed that attending a Boston charter school, often lauded for high test scores, substantially increased the amount of time students were suspended.

And to be clear, the GAO data show that black students at charter schools — and all kinds of schools in the report — still get suspended at a far higher rate than other charter students. Moreover, the report shows that charter schools are more likely to suspend students with disabilities than traditional public schools (12.9 percent vs. 11.6 percent).

Charters reported lower overall rates of in-school suspensions, referrals to law enforcement, expulsions, corporal punishment, and school-related arrests than traditional public schools.

All of this data describes what is happening, but it doesn’t explain why. And the report doesn’t look at other characteristics — like students’ motivation or academic performance — that may be related to their likelihood of being suspended.

Keep in mind that although the data that GAO relies on, the 2013–14 Civil Rights Data Collection out of the U.S. Department of Education, is widely cited, it has important limitations. In particular, some have found evidence in past data collections that schools, including charters, misreported discipline rates.

(The author of the GAO report noted in an email that the department had made efforts to catch data problems by flagging large districts that report zero suspensions. But since charters are usually relatively small, these checks may be less likely to catch errors among charter schools.)

Charter schools are also more likely to deliver instruction entirely through virtual programs, and those cyber charters may be unlikely to suspend students. A more appropriate comparison might be be between brick-and-mortar charters and brick-and-mortar traditional schools, but the data isn’t broken down that way.

This data is notable, in other words, but should be interpreted with caution.