internet improvements

Indiana promises to shore up school internet access — and it shouldn’t cost districts much at all

PHOTO: Courtesy of the Indiana Department of Education
State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick greets elementary school students in Decatur Township.

Indiana officials announced a new partnership on Tuesday with the nonprofit EducationSuperHighway aimed at improving high-speed internet access in public school classrooms.

“To be ready for the jobs of the future, today’s students need the exposure and opportunity provided by quality digital learning experiences,” said Gov. Eric Holcomb, who was at the announcement today in Decatur Township.

As Indiana continues its work developing a new computer-based state test, the ability for schools to have reliable connectivity is particularly important. Test researchers have pushed lawmakers and policymakers for years to expand computer-based testing, which is cheaper and allows for types of tests that could better measure student learning. But internet access has been a sticking point.

Rural schools, in particular, have said they struggled to connect. In 2016, about 80 percent of Indiana students took tests online, according to the state department of education.

And while 98 percent of Indiana classrooms meet federal minimum recommendations for bandwidth, 38,500 students are still without enough internet support in their classrooms. Additionally, there are still 30 schools without high-speed fiber connections, and 88 percent of districts don’t meet national standards for affordable broadband.

The partnership with EducationSuperHighway is meant to fill in the gaps. The organization, founded in 2012, supports states and school districts in their efforts to connect classrooms to high-speed internet services.

Evan Maxwell, EducationSuperHighway’s CEO, said the arrangement with Indiana should come at low or no cost to schools themselves. More than $47 million in federal funds has been earmarked for Indiana and $2 million in state contributions were set aside in the state’s most recent budget.

“We’re looking forward to working with state leaders, school districts and service providers across the state to ensure that every Hoosier student has equal access to high-speed connectivity and the education opportunity that it allows,” he said.

Marwell said the organization will work with school districts to figure out what internet problems exist and how to fix them. They’ll also work with local internet service providers to offer more options to schools. In all of these projects, the federal and state money will be used to shore up existing internet service or install WiFi for the first time.

Marwell said work will begin this school year and over next summer, with the hopes of getting all schools up to speed in about two years. That won’t quite be in time for spring of 2019, when Indiana is planning to give its new computer-based state test, the ILEARN test, for the first time.

The state in the past has been hesitant about moving toward a test that depends heavily on computers. In meetings of the state commission charged with replacing ISTEP last year, Sen. Dennis Kruse, a Republican from Auburn and head of the Senate Education Committee, said scaling back the paper test option could be costly because it would force the state to address technology and internet needs in rural or outdated schools — or shift that burden to cash-strapped districts themselves.

“If we move to all computerized testing, we’ll have to make a significant investment,” Kruse said during an ISTEP meeting last fall. The EducationSuperHighway partnership should eliminate that hurdle.

ILEARN will likely be “computer-adaptive,” which means students get questions that get easier or harder based on their answers. While these kinds of tests can be translated on paper, it’s not ideal. A couple of years ago, Indiana studies of online vs. paper tests have shown that paper tests, in certain subjects, could be easier than online tests. Scores had to be adjusted at the time to make up for that difference.

Overall, the partnership will help close a major gap for schools across the entire state, said state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick

“We have to have capacity in our districts to get it done,” McCormick said. “With curriculum, with instruction, with assessment, the demands are huge.”

Big money

Chunk of $55 million AbbVie gift will go toward more counselors in schools

PHOTO: Courtesy of Communities in Schools
Counselors in Schools site coordinator Artesha Williams and student Nasje Adams at the King Academy of Social Justice in Chicago

Sixteen more Chicago schools will add full-time counselors charged with reducing dropouts and helping students with critical mental health issues, thanks to a chunk of a $55 million donation gift from a North Chicago pharmaceutical giant.

The AbbVie donation, announced Friday, will be split among three nonprofit groups with a Chicago presence, though not all the money will be spent here. Communities in Schools will receive $30 million for its national efforts to broker relationships between community organizations and schools; the University of Chicago’s Education Lab, which focuses on dropout prevention and college persistence, will receive $15 million; and City Year, which places AmeriCorps tutors and mentors in schools, will receive $10 million.

Communities in Schools, which received the largest gift, will spend $6 million of its $30 million on its Chicago chapter, while the City Year money will be split among Chicago and a project in San Jose, California.

Jane Mentzinger, the executive director of Communities in Schools Chicago, said the $6 million is “transformational” and will be spent on a program that assigns full-time, master’s-level counselors to public schools on the South and West sides.

The AbbVie gift will grow a program that currently places full-time counselors in 15 Chicago schools, adding five schools this year and another 11 next fall.

“In each school, they case manage the 50 highest-need students who are at risk of falling behind and dropping out,” said Mentzinger. “They really work with students is to help resolve conflict, regulate emotions, and provide exposure opportunities, from support and mentoring to counseling.”  

The counselor piece helps fill a dire need within Chicago’s schools: mental health and trauma services. Students, educators, parents, and union leaders regularly lament that the district does not staff enough counselors and mental health practitioners, and that recent efforts have been too focused on college and career-readiness — including helping students draft a post-secondary plan. Starting with the Class of 2020, seniors must produce such a plan to graduate, a controversial idea championed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

In July, Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson announced that the district would hire some 250 new social workers and special education case managers for schools.

Mentzinger said the value of sending in counselors who are employed by an outside agency, and not by the district, is that they have fewer administrative duties and so can cast a “wider net” among master’s degree candidates who might have non-traditional degrees such as art therapy or dance. “The level of need of our kids — we need to have more layers, more layers of work.”

A recent Steinmetz High School graduate, Emily Jade Aguilar, told Chalkbeat on Election Day that she was knocking on doors to get out the vote. Aguilar, who identifies as a trans woman, said the biggest issue driving her activism was mental health for students. “We need more mental health resources in our schools,” said Aguilar, whose school had four counselors for 1,200 students last year.

According to federal data from the 2015-16 school year, Chicago had 2.8 guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists for every 1,000 students — fewer than in many other large cities. National guidance counselors and social workers groups recommend having one counselor and one social worker each for every 250 students. In schools with “intensive” needs, that ratio falls to one social worker for every 50 students.

In addition to providing counselors, Communities in Schools brokers relationships between nonprofit organizations and 160 schools to provide art and enrichment, mental health services, health care and college and career readiness programming.

snow fallout

From stalled buses to canceled programs, New York City schools are bearing brunt of snow storm

PHOTO: Guillermo Murcia / Getty Images
A school bus on Dekalb avenue in Fort Greene Brooklyn during a snow storm.

Parents, students, and teachers are dealing with the fallout of Thursday’s snowstorm, which stranded yellow buses for hours, created brutal commutes, and forced teachers to stay late for parent conferences.

Just before 9 a.m. Friday, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza announced all after-school programs would be cancelled, sending families scrambling to make arrangements. And perhaps anticipating yet another wave of yellow-bus related problems, all field trips involving buses were also cancelled.

Some parents and educators took to social media to vent about the city’s response.

Emergency responders were dispatched to free five children with special needs who had been trapped on a school bus for 10 hours, according to City Councilman Ben Kallos. Traveling from Manhattan to the Bronx, students didn’t make it home until “well after midnight,” Kallos said in a statement. The councilman has sponsored legislation to require GPS tracking on yellow buses after the school year began with horror stories about long, circuitous routes. Many riders are children with special needs who travel to programs outside their neighborhoods.

The education department did not immediately respond to questions about the timing of their decision to cancel after-school programs.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city would conduct a”full operational review of what happened,” referring to the city’s response to the storm. “We have to figure out how to make adjustments when we have only a few hours but this was—I hate to use this hackneyed phrase—but this was kind of a perfect storm: late information, right up on rush hour, and then a particularly fast, heavy kind of snow.”

The politics of snow-related closures are challenging, forcing city leaders to balance concerns about safety with the needs of working families, who may struggle to make arrangements for emergency childcare.

Snow-day related cancellations have bedeviled previous chancellors; in one famous incident, former Chancellor Carmen Fariña and de Blasio kept schools open despite a forecast of 10 inches of snow. The next day, Fariña proclaimed it was “a beautiful day.”

Still, the de Blasio administration is much more likely to cancel school in response to snow than his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg.

Christina Veiga contributed.