Future of Schools

KIPP Indy is working to stop kids from disappearing over the summer. It’s a challenge many schools face

PHOTO: Hafsa Razi

Every summer, each teacher in KIPP Indy Public Schools gets a roster, about 20 student names long, to call before the start of the new school year.

It won’t be the only time students hear from the school before classes resume, either.

Over the course of the summer, every student gets a letter introducing them to their new teacher, a phone call to address any questions, and, if they’re new to KIPP Indy or don’t show up for orientation, additional phone calls or home visits. Administrators look at academic performance, attendance data, and behavioral issues, among other factors, to identify students in need of extra outreach.

The goal? Keeping in touch with students and making sure they’re ready to come back to KIPP Indy in the fall.

“Relationships with families are incredibly important. Staying in contact with them and making sure they know what they need to get to school ready on day one, whether that be transportation, or knowing about registration events — it’s just really important,” said Emily Pelino, executive director of KIPP Indy, an independent charter school network that oversees about 600 students.

Fewer families have left the school during the summer since KIPP Indy started these outreach efforts, according to Nick Perry, principal of KIPP Indy College Prep Middle. “There’s no silver bullet for it, but the biggest factor is we’re strengthening systems and culture and making families see this school as a good choice for their kids,” he said.

When students move from school to school, they tend to suffer academically. Nationally, most students change schools at least once during K-12, said Russell Rumberger, professor emeritus of education at University of California Santa Barbara.

A one-time switch that is planned, perhaps because a family has moved or is seeking a stronger academic program, usually won’t lead to long-lasting negative effects, Rumberger said.

But when a student moves frequently, or when those moves are unexpected — such as when a school closes, a family is evicted, or other sudden changes — the effects can be worse.

A 2010 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that students who moved four or more times during their K-12 years were more likely to come from poor families and live in single-parent households than students who moved less often. They were also more likely to be African American.

Students who change schools often are less likely to graduate, and tend to score lower on state tests, according to a National Education Policy Center report. Rumberger, who wrote the report, said this is especially true when a move is just one aspect of instability in a student’s life.

Getting kids to come back in the fall also benefits KIPP Indy and other Indiana schools themselves — their state funding is based on the number of students who enroll each year.

Pelino said reducing the number of students who leave KIPP Indy schools is a major goal for the charter network, though they try to focus on reaching students who are leaving because they are dissatisfied, or aren’t getting what they need from the school.

“If a family is moving because of something that is in our control, we always want to get that feedback,” Perry added.

But it’s also important to let families know what their options are, Pelino said. KIPP Indy works with Indianapolis Public Schools to bus students to school, but some families who are moving might not know that KIPP Indy will provide bus service as long as they live somewhere in the IPS district.

Transportation is a big obstacle to keeping students in place — under the federal McKinney-Vento Act, districts are required to offer transportation for homeless students to their original school, regardless of where they are staying. But that often doesn’t happen for students who change residence between districts, or even within districts.

Summer outreach programs at other schools in the Indianapolis area usually aren’t as comprehensive as KIPP Indy’s, though some keep up with most of their students through summer camps or enrichment programs. But student mobility is a year-round concern — and indeed, the students in most need of support are often those who move mid-year.

Paul Kaiser, superintendent of Beech Grove City Schools, attributed student movement to the fact that many families in his district rent their homes. (According to 2015 census data, 46 percent of Beech Grove district residents live on rental property).

“People come and go. That’s what happens when you have a high poverty rate. People just kind of move in and out,” Kaiser said.

But, Kaiser said, many families who move out of the district continue to enroll their students in their old schools. Because the Beech Grove district is small, he said, it’s easier for each building’s “home-school advisers” to hear about a student’s potential move, and connect them with social services or housing subsidies to help them stay.

In Warren Township, outreach efforts likewise occur at the school level, said deputy superintendent Tim Hanson. Particularly in the higher grades where there are more counselors and social workers available, school staff work to identify and offer help to students in unstable situations and connect families to community resources.

“Teachers and principals are on front lines and would know of those situations. We do what we can to try to keep those situations stable…if there’s a situation where they’re not able to pay rent or pay bills, there are resources,” he said.

Students’ family backgrounds aside, in Indianapolis, school openings and closings and the availability of charters and vouchers have also contributed to moving students from school to school.

“There’s more deliberative choices and there’s more poorly informed choices,” Rumberger said. But, he added, “As long as parents have the opportunity to choose carefully, then that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

Future of Schools

Mike Feinberg, KIPP co-founder, fired after misconduct investigation

PHOTO: Photo by Neville Elder/Corbis via Getty Images

Mike Feinberg, the co-founder of the KIPP charter network, has been fired after an investigation into sexual misconduct, its leaders announced Thursday.

KIPP found “credible evidence” connected to allegations that Feinberg abused a student in the late 1990s, according to a letter sent to students and staff. Feinberg denies the allegations.

“We recognize this news will come as a shock to many in the KIPP Team and Family as we struggle to reconcile Mr. Feinberg’s 24 years of significant contributions with the findings of this investigation,” the letter says.

It’s a stunning move at one of the country’s best-known charter school organizations — and one where Feinberg has been in a leadership role for more than two decades. Feinberg started KIPP along with Dave Levin in Houston in 1994, and Levin brought the model to New York City the next year. The network became known for its “no excuses” model of strict discipline and attention to academic performance.

KIPP says it first heard the allegation last spring. The network eventually hired the law firm WilmerHale to conduct an external investigation, which found evidence that Feinberg had sexually harassed two adults, both alums of the school who were then employed by KIPP in Houston, the network said.

“In light of the nature of the allegations and the passage of time, critical facts about these events may never be conclusively determined. What is clear, however, is that, at a minimum, Mr. Feinberg put himself into situations where his conduct could be seriously misconstrued,” KIPP wrote in the letter, signed by CEO Richard Barth and KIPP’s Houston leader, Sehba Ali.

Feinberg’s lawyer, Chris Tritico, told the Houston Chronicle that Feinberg had not been fully informed about the allegations against him.

“The treatment he received today from the board that he put in place is wrong, and it’s not what someone who has made the contributions he’s made deserves,” Tritico said.

Read KIPP’s full letter here.

Knock knock

House call: One struggling Aurora high school has moved parent-teacher conferences to family homes

A social studies teacher gives a class to freshman at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

When Aurora Central High School held traditional parent-teacher conference nights, fewer than 75 parents showed up.

This year, by taking the conferences to students’ homes, principal Gerardo De La Garza says the school has already logged more than 400 meetings with parents.

“This is something a lot of our families wanted,” De La Garza said. “We decided we wanted to add home visits as a way to build relationships with our community. The attendance at the traditional conferences was not where we wanted it to be.”

The home visits aren’t meant to reach every single student, though — the school has more than 2,000 enrolled this year. Instead, teams of teachers serving the same grade of students work together to identify students who need additional help or are having some issues. On Fridays, when the school lets out early, teachers are to go out and meet with those families. In some cases, they also schedule visits during other times.

Some parents and students say they weren’t made aware about the change and questioned if it was a good idea, while others welcomed the different approach.

“I felt when we go home that’s kind of our space, so I wasn’t comfortable with it,” said Akolda Redgebol, a senior at Aurora Central. Her family hasn’t had a home visit. “My parents, they thought it was a little odd, too.”

A father of another Aurora Central senior spoke to the school board about the change at a meeting earlier this month.

“There’s been a lot of changes over all these years, but one thing we could always count on was the opportunity to sit down with our child’s teachers during parent teacher conferences,” he said. “I hope this new program works, I really do, but why stop holding parent teacher conference nights at the high school? I haven’t had a single meeting. I haven’t met any of his teachers this year. Also why weren’t the parents told? I got two text messages, an email, and a phone call to let me know about a coffee meeting, but not a single notice about cancelling parent teacher conferences.”

Research examining the value of parent-teacher conferences is limited, but researchers do say that increased parent engagement can help lift student achievement. This year, the struggling Commerce City-based school district of Adams 14 also eliminated traditional parent-teacher conference nights from their calendar as a way to make more use of time. But after significant pushback from parents and teachers, the district announced it will return to the traditional approach next year.

Aurora Central High School is one of five in Aurora Public Schools’ “innovation zone,” one of Superintendent Rico Munn’s signature strategies for turning around struggling schools.

The school reached a limit of low performance ratings from the state and last year was put on a state-ordered improvement plan. That plan allowed the school to press on with its innovation plan, which was approved in 2016 and grants it some autonomy for decisions on its budget, school calendar, and school model.

As part of the school’s engagement with parents, the school in the last few years has hired a family liaison, though there’s been some turnover with that position. The school also hosts monthly parent coffee nights, as has become common across many Aurora schools.

As part of the innovation plan, school and community leaders also included plans to increase home visits.

Home visits have also become popular across many school districts as another way to better connect with families. Often, teachers are taught to use the visit as a time to build relationships, not to discuss academic performance or student behavior issues.

That’s not the case at Aurora Central. Principal De La Garza said it is just about taking the parent-teacher conference to the parent’s home. And teachers have been trained on how to have those conversations, he said.

The innovation plan didn’t mention removing conference nights, however.

De La Garza said that’s because parent-teacher conferences are still an option. If parents want to request a conference, or drop by on Fridays to talk to teachers, they still can.

Those Fridays when students end classes early are also the days teachers are expected to make house calls to contact families.

Teachers are expected to reach a certain number of families each Friday, though school and district staff could not provide that exact number.

Bruce Wilcox, the president of the Aurora teachers union, said that it’s important to better engage families, but that balance is needed so not all of the responsibility is put on teachers who are already busy.

Wilcox said he would also worry about teachers having less access to resources, such as translators, during home meetings.

Maria Chavez, a mother of a freshman at Aurora Central, just had a home visit last week. She learned about the school’s strategy when she was called about setting up the visit.

Another, older daughter, was the interpreter during the home meeting with three teachers.

“For me, it was a nice experience,” Chavez said. “As parents, and even the kids, we feel more trust with the teachers.”

Chavez said she goes to parent-teacher conferences with her elementary-aged daughter, but doesn’t always have time for conferences with her high-school-aged daughter, so the home visit was convenient. Chavez also said she was able to ask questions, and said the teachers were able to answer her concerns.

“Maybe I wouldn’t say this should be how every conference happens,” she said, “but it is a good idea.”