Building Better Schools

Phalen grows network to 10 campuses by taking over charter schools across Indiana and Detroit

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students at the new Phalen Leadership Academy middle school.

Indianapolis charter school leader Earl Phalen has found his niche: Taking over struggling schools in Indianapolis and beyond.

Just four years after Phalen Leadership Academies started with a single Indianapolis charter school, the network has grown to 10 campuses across Indiana and Detroit, primarily struggling schools that it has taken over from other operators. That means they’re tasked with managing more students than ever — many of them at schools that have struggled for a long time.

The network includes an eclectic mix of school types. In addition to its first charter school, PLA took over charter schools in Gary, Fort Wayne and Detroit. PLA is also central to the Indianapolis Public Schools plan to partner with charter operators. Its two eastside elementary schools — Schools 103 and 93 — were among the first schools restarted as innovation schools. Those schools are managed by Phalen, but still considered part of the district when it comes to state accountability.

PLA was even part of a proposal to take over management of the entire Gary school district, though their team did not win the contract.

Phalen also opened its second start-from-scratch charter school this year, a middle school for students from Schools 103 and 93. Unlike those elementary schools, the middle school is not an innovation partnership.

Chalkbeat stopped by the new PLA middle school to chat with the network’s founder about his organization’s focus and plans for the future. Below are some highlights from our conversation, condensed and edited for brevity and clarity.

Chalkbeat: What is your long-term vision for PLA?

Earl Phalen: When we started, we were approved for 10 charter schools here in Indiana. And when we launched our first charter, we came to realize pretty quickly that we’re not charter operators, we are educators. We are agnostic to the governance form but rather focused on, where is there need?

When the innovation school legislation went through, and we could run a district school, when that opportunity came, even though they were public schools, we said, well, the children are there, there’s real high need and we believe that we can make a difference.

Why are you going into the niche of, a charter school had an operator leave and you fill that gap?

A few things. I am not convinced that the solution for our children is more buildings. And the number of children has not increased but the number of buildings is significantly increasing. In Indianapolis, what does that mean? There’s becoming a saturation. So as opposed to being better for children, we are actually doing this game of, “Hey, come here. Hey, come here. Hey, come here.”

That doesn’t solve the fact that many children, and in some city’s most children, are still in schools that we are not proud of — we would not ever send our children to.

(Before launching a charter network, Phalen founded Summer Advantage, a free program to help kids catch up or jump ahead during the break.)

It would almost be like a pop-up school. You would go in with an entirely new staff, and you’d meet children. All of sudden you had to get the culture right right away, because it’s only a six-week summer program. You’d have to get the culture right with a whole new staff, and you’d have to have an educational model, and push for fidelity towards that model.

Because we had done that, and we’d done that for over 100,000 children around the country, we kind of said, the only downside of turnaround is, can you get the culture right? Which we felt like we could do. And then the second thing of turnaround is, are you willing to start with only 5 percent of your kids passing the test? You numbers don’t look as pretty. And we said yes.

Knowing we can change culture, knowing that there’s an oversaturation in many communities — there are too many schools and not enough good schools — and knowing that we have a model that can turn around failing schools into successful schools, we felt like it was the perfect place for us to go.

Do you have any fears about growing too quickly?

I think you’d be foolish not to assess risks and to assess organizational capacity, or lack thereof, in doing this well. We spend a lot of time really trying to think through, what do we need to do this with the level of excellence that our children deserve?

I also have a fear, when I look around and see where our children would’ve been but for my team, our partners’ efforts.

You can look at both fears. We kind of say, we are called to serve, our children deserve the best that they can have. If we believe that with a lot of hard work, a couple prayers and a lot of the right partners, that we can do something special for children, we are going to do it.

It’s not fair what we are doing to children right now. And somebody’s got to get a sense of urgency around that.

good news bad news

New York City is sending fewer latecomer students to Renewal schools, but questions remain

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
John Adams High School in Queens, a Renewal school.

New York City is sending significantly fewer latecomer students — typically among the most difficult to serve — to schools in its flagship turnaround program.

Over the past three years, the number of students sent to schools in the city’s Renewal program outside the normal admissions process has declined 19 percent, according to new data from the education department, outpacing a 10 percent decrease in schools citywide over the same period.

The reduction suggests that schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has stuck to her promise to stem the tide of latecomer students — often newly arriving immigrants, students with special needs, and those who struggle with homelessness — to some of the city’s most struggling schools.

But it’s unclear if that policy change is making a significant difference on the ground.

For one thing, since Renewal schools have been losing students, the proportion of latecomer students has essentially gone unchanged. Even though the city has sent a smaller number of latecomer students to these schools, roughly one in five students at Renewal schools were over-the-counter last year, just slightly less than three years ago.

“It’s a good start,” said Norm Fruchter, a researcher at New York University who authored a report that found the city disproportionately sends those students to low-performing high schools. But “one out of every five is a tough challenge for schools that are already challenged,” Fruchter added. “I would have hoped for a reduction in the percentage.”

Every year, thousands of students enter city schools outside the normal admissions process, students who are generally harder to serve and can disrupt school schedules mid-year. But since New York City’s middle and high school admissions process is largely based on a choice process, less desirable and lower-performing schools tend to have more open seats for latecomers.

When the city designated an original 94 Renewal schools as low performing enough to merit an influx of extra resources, some school staffers wondered how they were supposed to stoke “fast and intense” improvements while the city continued to send them high-need students mid-year. That’s partly why Fariña announced two years ago those schools would receive fewer latecomers.

But sending fewer students to struggling schools can also create problems, and has sparked concern among some school leaders. Most Renewal schools have been shedding students for years, so limiting the number of latecomers may contribute to enrollment problems that can result in less funding or potentially even closure.

At Harlem’s Coalition School for Social Change, for instance, enrollment has dropped 44 percent over the past three years, a main reason principal Geralda Valcin is planning to ask the city to send more students over the counter — not fewer.

“Will it be harder with these kids coming on board? Absolutely,” Valcin said. “But with less kids I get less money” for teachers.

Education department officials emphasized that they work individually with schools, superintendents and families to find appropriate placements for latecomers, and said that enrollment declines at Renewal schools have started to level off.

“We’ve worked to support steady turnaround at Renewal schools by helping schools balance the need to grow enrollment with their ability to serve [over-the-counter] students,” Michael Aciman, a department spokesman, wrote in an email. He added that as Renewal schools see improvements, it might make sense to send them more latecomers.

Figuring out how to equitably place latecomer students has been a consistent challenge across administrations. Under Mayor Bloomberg, the city often clustered students who arrived mid-year at struggling schools and those the city was in the process of closing. Some of those problems have not completely gone away: As Chalkbeat reported earlier this year, the city sent some latecomer students to Renewal schools it planned to close, and Renewal schools still enroll more latecomers than the 15 percent city average.

The statistics education officials provided for this story does not include school-level breakdowns, making it difficult to tell if the city is still clustering lots of latecomers at certain Renewal schools, or whether struggling schools outside the Renewal program have received fewer latecomers.

City officials did not respond to a question about whether they see the current distribution of late-arriving students as a problem. But at least one Renewal school leader said it’s important for the city to pay attention to how those students are distributed system-wide — not just whether one segment of struggling schools are seeing fewer of them.

“I think all schools should be receiving students over the counter in equal and fair ways,” said one Renewal school leader. “Renewal schools should not be treated differently than others.”

Rhode rage

New study deepens nation’s school turnaround mystery, finding little success in Rhode Island

PHOTO: Anjelika Deo / Creative Commons

The country’s smallest state tried to accomplish a big task in 2012: improve its struggling schools without firing principals or making other dramatic changes.

Instead, Rhode Island gave schools the option to do things like add common planning time for teachers, institute culturally appropriate instruction for students, and expand outreach to families.

A new study on those efforts says they didn’t help — and in some cases may have even hurt — student achievement.

It’s the latest in a string of research painting a grim picture of school turnaround efforts under the No Child Left Behind waivers the Obama administration granted to states. Recent studies show that those turnaround plans did not improve student achievement in Louisiana or Michigan, though they did have a positive effect in Kentucky.

The analysis, published in the peer-reviewed journal Educational Policy, leaves states in a tough spot. Under the new federal education law, ESSA, they are still required to identify and intervene in the lowest performing 5 percent of schools. What to do, though, has perplexed education policymakers for years.

The Rhode Island study suggests one option that may not be effective, at least at raising test scores: simply letting struggling schools choose from a menu of broad changes.

The researchers, Shaun Dougherty and Jennie Weiner of the University of Connecticut, looked at two tiers of struggling schools in the state: “warning” and “focus” schools. Schools in both categories had to choose four changes to make. Focus schools, the lower-performing group, had to select from a prescribed list, while warning schools could also could come up with their own strategies.

“Almost none of the schools chose the most severe options because of none of them had to,” said Dougherty.

Based on two years of data, the results were largely discouraging. Turnaround schools did not boost reading or math scores more than comparable schools that didn’t have to make any changes. And the focus schools, which had to make even more changes, actually seemed to do worse than the turnaround schools that made fewer.

“More interventions might not always be better and may have unintended consequences that impact a school’s long term ability to improve,” write Dougherty and Weiner.

An important caveat for the studies in Rhode Island, Michigan, and Louisiana, which all used a similar method, is that it’s impossible to know how the accountability system affected schools that narrowly avoided being labeled low-performing and served as the comparison group for the turnaround schools. If those schools made extensive improvements for fear of facing turnaround in future years, that might mask gains in the turnaround schools.

Still, the latest research adds to the pile of studies showing the challenges of improving long-struggling schools.

Another Obama-era federal school turnaround program — School Improvement Grants — also showed disappointing results. Schools receiving those grants also had to implement a broad array of strategies, but had less power to choose which changes to make. The grants also came with additional federal money and in most cases required firing the principal.

There is some evidence that providing additional money and support, paired with a requirement that schools replace a significant share of staff, is a more promising approach. But this is challenging to implement in areas where teachers are scarce and can prompt fierce political and community pushback.

In fact, back in 2010, the Obama administration faced one of its first major rifts with national teachers unions after it backed the large-scale firing — consistent with federal turnaround rules — of teachers at a Central Falls, Rhode Island high school.

Few schools ended up implementing such a drastic approach, though. In Central Falls, the district ultimately agreed to rehire all of the fired teachers.