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.”

High emotions

Denver superintendent sheds light on school closure recommendations, what happens next

PHOTO: Eric Gorski
Parents pick up their children at Amesse Elementary Friday.

While the criteria for Denver school closure recommendations is clearer than ever before, that hasn’t made this week’s emotional conversations at the three low-performing elementary schools facing that fate any easier, Superintendent Tom Boasberg said Friday.

“For school leaders and teachers, they care incredibly deeply about their schools and their kids and they’re very, very committed to them,” Boasberg told Chalkbeat.

“People have respected that there is a clear and transparent process at the intellectual level — and at the emotional level, they’re still very concerned about the changes.”

Denver Public Schools is recommending that Amesse Elementary, Greenlee Elementary and Gilpin Montessori close due to poor school ratings, lagging academic growth and a lack of enough evidence to prove the schools are on a path toward improvement.

The school board is scheduled to vote Thursday on the recommendations, which were made under a new district policy adopted last year and put into effect for the first time this fall.

If the board approves the closures, Amesse and Greenlee would stay open through the end of this school year, 2016-17, and the next school year, 2017-18, Boasberg said.

Each school would be replaced by a new model the following year, 2018-19, he said. The board would choose those models in June 2017 and then give the leaders an entire year to plan — a “year zero” — before asking them to take over in the fall of 2018. Boasberg said the current leaders of Amesse and Greenlee would be welcome to submit plans to reinvent the schools.

The principals at the three schools either declined or did not respond to interview requests.

Walking her second-grader, Clifford, out of Amesse on Friday, parent Sheila Epps voiced her frustration with the district’s closure recommendation. She said in her experience, Amesse is a good school, helping her son get to grade level in reading, writing and math.

She scoffed at what she called DPS’s intense focus on “test scores, test scores, test scores,” saying the district should “stop worrying about rankings” and focus on educating each child.

“As a parent, you feel like there’s nothing you can do,” Epps said. “It’s all up to the district. It’s almost not even worth talking about. It’s like, ‘Now what?’”

The district is recommending a different path for Gilpin. Because of low enrollment projections, Gilpin would close at the end of this school year and not be replaced, Boasberg said.

Students would be guaranteed a seat at one of four neighborhood schools next year: Cole Arts and Science Academy, Whittier ECE-8, University Prep or the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, said Brian Eschbacher, the district’s director of planning and enrollment services. The district would also work with its other Montessori elementary schools to give priority to Gilpin students wishing to continue a Montessori education, he said.

Gilpin’s enrollment is down 30 percent this year from 2013, which is in line with an overall trend in the Five Points neighborhood in northeast Denver, where Gilpin is located, Eschbacher said.

Neighborhood birth rates are also down, meaning there isn’t a big group of infants and toddlers waiting in the wings, and DPS already has 1,000 empty seats in the area, he added.

Said Boasberg: “Even if Gilpin had not been designated under (the policy), we would have either this year or next year … been in a situation where one of the elementary schools in that area would have had to close because of the decline of school-aged kids.”

At 202 students this year, Gilpin is the second-smallest elementary school in the district, Boasberg said. That causes a financial crunch because schools are funded on a per-pupil basis. He said the district is providing Gilpin with an extra $600,000 this year to ensure it’s able to provide smaller class sizes, more teacher aides in the classroom, more staff members to support students’ mental health and a broader array of arts and music offerings.

“We always want to see our schools succeed and we’ve worked hard to provide supports and resources in these cases,” Boasberg said, referring to all three schools recommended for closure. “But while there have been improvements in the schools, we’re not seeing — and haven’t seen now for some time — the kind of growth the kids in the schools need.”

Monica Lubbert lives across the street from Gilpin and sent her third-grade daughter there for several years before pulling her out last year after spring break. Her daughter had fallen behind academically and Lubbert said she didn’t feel the struggling school was capable of catching her up — a shortcoming for which she believes the school district and community share the blame.

“This is not the teachers that did anything wrong. This is not the kids that did anything wrong,” Lubbert said. Instead, she said the district didn’t follow best practices years ago when it converted Gilpin to a Montessori school. “This was the complete … mismanagement of DPS.”

Lubbert also partly attributed the school’s troubles to the fact that many kids who live in the neighborhood go to school elsewhere, as is allowed under the district’s school choice policy. District statistics show 64 percent of children who live in the school’s boundary choiced out this year. Lubbert’s own daughter is attending a private Montessori school.

“This community has gone above and beyond to make every single home in the neighborhood a historically designated home,” she said. But no one seems to care about the school, she added. “How does the community grow and thrive without a school for the kids?”

Boasberg admitted that the district learned some hard lessons over the years about how best to restart low-performing schools, which is what happened at Gilpin. But he said the new policy in effect this year represents a better way to do things.

As for what will happen to the centrally located Gilpin building if the board closes the school, Boasberg said DPS would like for it to remain a school. While the neighborhood doesn’t need any more elementaries, he said the preliminary thinking is to convert it into a secondary school that could draw students from across the city, as Denver School of the Arts, Denver Center for International Studies and Girls Athletic Leadership Academy currently do.

Chalkbeat’s Eric Gorski contributed information to this report.

in contempt

This lawmaker was jailed after trying to get his child out of a state test. Will he remain on the House education committee?

PHOTO: Denver Post File

One of the newest Republican members of the House Education Committee was sent to a Jefferson County jail on Friday for violating the terms of his divorce by attempting to opt out one of his children from the state’s English and math tests.

A spokesman for House Republicans told Chalkbeat Friday after the news of State Rep. Tim Leonard’s 14-day jail sentence that party leadership has not discussed stripping Leonard of his seat on the committee that vets proposed education legislation.  

House Democrats did not hesitate to weigh in.  

State Rep. Tim Leonard
PHOTO: Denver Post
State Rep. Tim Leonard

“It is absurd to imagine Rep. Leonard taking a seat on the House Education Committee … and making important decisions for Colorado’s students when a judge has prohibited Rep. Leonard from making educational decisions regarding his own children,” Speaker of the House Dickey Lee Hullinghorst said in a statement.

Leonard, a Republican from Evergreen, was ordered Friday to spend two weeks in jail after being found in contempt of court for attempting to make decisions for his children — something that is prohibited in his divorce.  

The Colorado Independent first reported Leonard’s sentence.

Leonard was found in contempt in September on two counts:

One charge concerned his attempt to opt a child out of a federal standardized test. He had previously been found in contempt for attempting to opt another child out of another test in 2014. The magistrate said she found it “mind-blowing” that Leonard would think he could try again because it was a different child and a different test.

The second charge was related to his refusal to allow one of his children to use an iPad at school, though all students in that class were issued tablets. Leonard said he was concerned about the amount of screen time his kids experienced.

Incoming House Minority Leader Patrick Neville issued the following statement to 7News after learning about Leonard’s situation:

“This must be a very difficult time for Representative Leonard and his family. I know he cares deeply for his children and my thoughts and prayers are with the Leonard family.”