Building Better Schools

Indianapolis Public Schools leaders stripped a traditional public school of its teachers union — and few saw it coming

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
John Marshall Middle School.

With little public debate, teachers at John Marshall Middle School lost the protection of the district union.  

Indianapolis Public Schools and union leaders disagree about how it happened, but the impact is clear. The principal at Marshall will be able to fire teachers more easily — and pay them thousands of dollars more than teachers at other IPS schools.

District leaders used a little-known provision of state law to remove the union from Marshall as part of a plan to improve the school that was approved by the Indiana State Board of Education in April. The school is one of several in the district’s transformation zone, which offers extra resources and coaching, but it is the only school in the zone without a union.

In recent years, teachers at several IPS schools have lost union protection when schools were converted to innovation status. Those schools are managed by outside nonprofit or charter partners, who employ the teachers directly. Marshall, however, is the first IPS-managed school where the union has been removed.

“You hate to use the word ‘union busting,’ but I mean, that’s kind of what it is,” said Rhondalyn Cornett, president of the Indianapolis Education Association. “You are taking a voice from teachers.”

The move went unnoticed by Cornett when the district got approval from the state to add Marshall to the transformation zone and remove the union. But she learned about it this summer from a teacher who applied for a job at Marshall and was told she would not be represented by the union, Cornett said.

School district leaders said the move is sensible and that they told the union before winning state approval.

IPS Board President Mary Ann Sullivan was surprised that the plan to remove the union from Marshall is not more widely known.

“It’s certainly in the agreement,” Sullivan said. “If you are the representative of the bargaining unit, and you are unaware of something like that happening, I can’t offer an explanation for that. … I don’t see how that’s our fault.”

Nearly everyone agrees that Marshall needs help: The school has struggled for years with dismal test scores and failing grades from the state. In a sign of how little community support Marshall has, a meeting last week about closing the school lasted less than seven minutes. And middle schools are often harder to staff no matter their reputation.

In fact, IPS officials said they wanted to pay teachers more, which is why they did not want to be bound by the district’s negotiated pay scales.

The district is trying to attract teachers to Marshall with the promise of thousands of dollars in extra pay. An email the administration sent educators in May offers math teachers $7,000 and science and English teachers $5,000 to transfer to the school.

That’s one reason IPS school board member Venita Moore, who represents the neighborhood around Marshall, thinks it makes sense for the school to operate without a union. The extra pay is an important incentive to encourage teachers to stay at the school given all of the changes Marshall has been through, she said.

“It is not the direction that the district as a whole is moving towards,” she said.

Moore said that she wants to work with the union so that it can change over time to fit the new, less centralized structure for the district.

Marshall was added to the transformation zone in a bid to improve its chronically low test scores. The transformation zone, which is run by the district with the help of an outside partner, aims to improve schools with an influx of coaching and other resources. IPS began its transformation zone two years ago, and it now includes eight schools.

An often overlooked provision of transformation zone law says that when schools with three years of F grades from the state — such as Marshall — are added to transformation zones, the district can choose whether to allow a union. In its April application to the state, IPS choose to allow unions at every school in the transformation zone except for Marshall.  

“The Transformation Zone model does not require recognition of collective bargaining; however, the district voluntarily agreed to recognize the bargaining unit for most Transformation Zone schools,” Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said in a statement. “Given the scope of the grade reconfiguration and change of leadership at John Marshall, the district did not exercise this option when the school was added to the Transformation Zone model.”

It’s unclear if the provision in the transformation zone law that strips teachers of their union protections has ever been used. Many teachers did not realize it was even in the law.

Tina Ahlgren is a teacher at Arlington High School — another transformation zone school on the far east side — and she has been active in pushing for district policy changes like increased teacher pay. But she had no idea that Marshall wouldn’t be part of the union until Cornett told her earlier this summer.

“I get it. It’s a hard building to staff. It’s an incredibly hard building to staff,” she said. “My concern would be, there are a lot of schools in that position of consecutive F years, so this sets a precedent that could domino to other buildings.”

grant money

Denver charter Compass Academy wins $2.5 million to “reimagine high school”

PHOTO: Courtesy Compass Academy

A Denver charter middle school devoted to bilingualism and founded with help from City Year, an AmeriCorps program that deploys young adults to mentor and tutor at-risk students, has won a $2.5 million grant to help design and launch an innovative high school model.

The money is from the XQ Institute’s Super School Project, an initiative backed by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple’s Steve Jobs. XQ aims to “reimagine high school” by funding novel ideas. Last year, it gave $10 million each to 10 schools across the country.

Compass Academy in southwest Denver applied for one of those big grants. It didn’t win, but XQ gave the school a second look as part of an effort to bring more diversity in geography and school type to its “super schools,” said Monica Martinez, senior school support strategist for the California-based XQ. Compass will receive $2.5 million over the next five years.

“Their idea stood out to us,” Martinez said.

That idea is to pair personalized, community-based learning — dance classes at local studios, science classes at local hospitals — with the type of social and emotional support City Year corps members provide, such as checking in with kids who were absent the day before.

“There’s joy and love in this building,” said executive director Marcia Fulton. Compass students, she said, “feel that somebody understands, and they feel worth.”

Compass also aims to have every student graduate with a seal of biliteracy, a new credential that proves to colleges and employers they can communicate in at least two languages. That goal, Fulton said, was born of a desire expressed by families in the community.

The school opened in 2015 with just sixth grade. When classes begin again next week, Compass will be a full middle school with more than 300 students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades. Last year, 98 percent of students were students of color, 96 percent were eligible for subsidized lunch and 64 percent were English language learners.

Academically, Compass has struggled. Its first year, 14 percent of sixth-graders met or exceeded expectations on state math tests and just 8 percent met that bar in English. The school’s academic growth scores, which measure how much students learned in a year compared to their academic peers, also lagged behind school district averages.

XQ didn’t take the school’s test scores into account, Martinez said. The XQ grants, she said, “are based on a vision and an idea, and Compass was the same way.”

Fulton said the school “did not land where we wanted to land” on the state tests. But she said Compass has made shifts in its scheduling, staffing and approach that she hopes will drive higher academic achievement going forward. The school is currently rated “red,” the lowest category in Denver Public Schools’ color-coded school rating system.

“When you’re lifting up so many powerful components of design, it takes time,” Fulton said. “The funding is about an acknowledgement of the path we’re on. … We are being supported to say, ‘Keep doing what we know is important for all learners in the community.’”

Compass’s charter is for sixth through 12th grade. But Compass does not yet have a building for its high school. The Denver school board voted in 2015 to place Compass’s middle school in underutilized space on the Lincoln High School campus, a controversial decision that drew intense pushback from some Lincoln students, parents and teachers.

Compass has not asked DPS for space for its high school. In fact, Fulton said, the Compass board of directors has not yet decided when the high school will open. She said the board is “committed to identifying and investing in a private facility.”

Earlier this week, 13-year-old student Davonte Ford was at Compass, helping teachers set up their classrooms before the start of school. The rising eighth-grader came to Compass last year from a school where he said he “used to get in a lot of physical altercations.”

“I used to get frustrated sometimes,” he said. “If I got frustrated, I had no one to talk to.”

But at Compass, Ford said, it’s different.

“At this school,” he said, “I have someone to help me.”

mental health matters

Mental health services in Manhattan schools are ‘falling short,’ says report from borough president

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty / © 2013

Mental health services in Manhattan schools provide only a “patchwork” of care that is “falling short” of what students and educators need, according to a report released Wednesday by Borough President Gale Brewer.

Almost 237,000 New York City children under the age of 18 have a diagnosable mental health condition, according to Citizen’s Committee for Children of New York. In schools, mental health services are provided to students in a range of ways, including via school social workers, on-site clinics and mental health consultants.

But too often, the report notes, these services are inadequate.

“Our school mental health system, if you can call it that, is a quilt of mismatched pieces slapped together to do more with less,” Brewer said in an emailed statement.

More than 100 of the borough’s 307 public schools, the report notes, have no mental health services other than consultants provided through ThriveNYC, an initiative started by New York City’s first lady, Chirlane McCray. The consultants are licensed social workers who are supposed help schools assess their mental health needs and connect them with community organizations that can meet those needs.

Yet many counselors and assistant principals interviewed for the report didn’t even know their schools had been assigned a mental health consultant through the program. Others said the training and resources the consultants provided for staff were “a waste of time.”

The city has paid for 100 consultants over the last two years, but these mental health professionals may be stretched too thin, the report notes. Each is assigned to up to 10 campuses and can serve as many as 8,000 students.

“Staff in multiple schools expressed that the mental health consultant’s impact was minimal and that the resources they provided could have easily been found online,” the report notes.

Social workers also face heavy loads. In Manhattan, there is one social worker for every 800 students, the report calculates. Citywide, the ratio is one for every 900 students. But social workers are mostly funded through money set aside for students with special needs and often can’t adequately serve the general school population. In some needy neighborhoods, the education department provides additional counselors through its Single Shepherd initiative.

School-based health clinics, meanwhile, are facing budget cuts due to changes in how they are funded.

In an emailed statement, the education department disputed some of the study’s findings. Spokesman Michael Aciman wrote that evaluations of school sites show that not every campus needs a dedicated mental health clinic, and the current system allows targeted supports where and when they’re necessary.

“Under this administration, we have made unprecedented investments in mental health resources and, for the first time, made mental health supports and services available to every city school,” Aciman wrote. “We know kids can’t learn if they are facing an unaddressed mental health challenge.”

The borough president’s report calls on the city to change the way social workers are funded, waive certain permit fees for school-based health clinics and study the effectiveness of ThriveNYC in schools. At the state level, the report recommends changes in the way clinics are funded and how they bill for services.