Future of Schools

One website, no waitlists: Indianapolis rolls out one application for district and charter schools

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In the coming weeks, about two dozen Enroll Indy staff members will fan out across Indianapolis, canvassing neighborhoods and setting up shop at community events with an ambitious goal: changing how families choose schools.

Enroll Indy is a nonprofit dedicated to giving parents a single place to learn about and apply for charter and district schools. When its new tool, OneMatch, launches Wednesday, families will be able to apply for more than 50 charter and Indianapolis Public School district schools through the same website or enrollment office.

The system, which is similar to common enrollment approaches being used in urban districts across the country, has lofty aims. It is supposed make school choice easier for families by creating a single application process and deadline. Advocates have suggested that making the application process more transparent could help schools become more diverse and give low-income students a better chance of admission to the city’s most sought-after programs, which have historically had earlier application deadlines.

At the same time, a common application process could make it easier for schools to plan enrollment and for school policymakers to roll out more of the types of schools that are most sought-after, advocates said.

But in the first year of OneMatch, one of the biggest challenges will be simply getting out the word to families that there’s a new way of applying for school, and a new application deadline, instead of the widely varying deadlines that schools have had in the past. There are three admissions rounds, but the group is pushing to get parents to apply by Jan. 15.

“The wonderful thing about all this is we will have constant data,” said Caitlin Hannon, founder of Enroll Indy. “We can look at it by zip codes and say, ‘We’ve got to go canvass in those neighborhoods that we’re not hearing from.’ ”

Parents applying through OneMatch will make a list of their top choice schools in order of preference. Once the application window closes, seats will be awarded by lottery, and students will get a single offer based on their preference and lottery results. Schools will no longer have waitlists. Instead, they will estimate how many admitted students will ultimately enroll.

Patrick Herrel, who heads IPS enrollment, told the school board that the approach helps schools and families plan for the next year.

“This allows us to say, ‘This is your offer. This is the best offer you are going to get. What do you think?’ ” he said.

The approach is becoming increasingly popular in cities where parents choose from many charter and traditional public school options. Denver, New Orleans and Washington, D.C., all use common enrollment websites. Enroll Indy was started with funding from the Mind Trust, which supports charter schools and district-charter partnerships, and common enrollment systems are often supported by advocates who want to bring order to school choice.

It can be politically complicated, however, to entice schools and districts to give up control over their admissions. A similar system in Detroit fell apart because more than three quarters of the city’s schools did not participate. And in Indianapolis there were murmurs of discontent last year when some IPS school board members thought OneMatch was being hastily rolled out. Those concerns dissipated once the launch date was pushed back, and the board voted to join OneMatch, as well as lease space to Enroll Indy in the district headquarters.

Although the system has been criticized by skeptics of school choice, there has not be an organized campaign to block OneMatch. Several charter schools and networks are not participating, but the vast majority of Indianapolis charter schools will use the system for admissions, as well as all of the IPS magnet and innovation schools. Parents will be able to register for neighborhood schools on the website, but they won’t go through the lottery since seats in those schools are guaranteed.

Earl Phalen, who founded Phalen Leadership Academies, said that the network chose not to use the system for its two Indianapolis charter schools because they want applicants to connect with the schools or talk with current families before applying. (The network also runs two IPS innovation schools which will use OneMatch.)

PLA might join OneMatch after it has been running for a few years and the drawbacks and benefits are clearer, said Phalen, but for now, the charter network’s admission process is working.

“We spent so much time figuring out how to build our own process … it doesn’t seem like the right move right away,” he said.

The first year will be something of a test for OneMatch, as school leaders, parents and policymakers watch to see how the system plays out. But ultimately, Hannon hopes that common enrollment will help reshape the school landscape in the city for years to come. When local leaders have more information on what schools are in especially high demand, Hannon said, they can plan schools that fill those gaps.

“Overtime, as people who create schools respond to the demand of families, we should start to have more people getting their first and second choices,” Hannon said.

'rigorous and realistic'

Some struggling New York City schools can lose ground and still hit performance targets

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio at Brooklyn Generation School — part of the Renewal program

Despite Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious promise to transform struggling schools, some of New York City’s bottom-ranked schools can backslide this year and still hit new goals that the city has set for them.

For the first time, the city has told schools in its $582 million “Renewal” program to aim for test scores, graduation rates, or attendance rates that fall within a certain range, rather than hit a specific target. But some ranges include goals that are below the schools’ current levels.

For instance, Bronx Collegiate Academy posted a 67 percent graduation rate last year. This year, its city-issued goal is to land between 63.6 and 81.9 percent — meaning its graduation rate can go down and still fall within its target range.

At the Bronx’s J.H.S. 123, the goal is for students to earn an average score on the state English tests of between 2.3 and 2.45 — despite already achieving a 2.42 average last year. (Students must earn a 3 or higher on the 4-point scale to be considered proficient.)

The latest round of goals continues a pattern of modest targets for schools in de Blasio’s signature school-turnaround program, even as the city loads them with extra social services, extended hours, and bigger budgets. Some experts say the goals are appropriate for schools that started so far behind, and note that school turnaround can take years. But others say the goals set a low bar, and question whether they are designed to make it easier for the de Blasio administration to claim its pricey program was a success.

What’s more, the new goal ranges have created some confusion among school leaders about what they are expected to achieve and what will happen if they don’t.

“If [the goals] really are supposed to be guiding stars and shaping what schools are doing on a day-to-day basis,” said Teachers College professor Aaron Pallas, “fuzzy ranges with unclear accountability consequences is not the way to do it.”

The goals are one of the factors officials consider when deciding whether schools in the Renewal program have made sufficient progress or should instead be closed or merged with other schools.

But if they are meant to provide low-performing schools with clear targets and a sense of urgency, the new ranges have instead created some confusion. The city offered online trainings on the goals, but some school leaders remain unsure of what’s expected of them.

“What we’ve been told is: ‘You need to reach for the upper range of your benchmark,’ said an administrator at a Brooklyn Renewal school, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It’s not a fixed number, so what’s good enough and what isn’t?”

Eric Ashton, the education department’s executive director for accountability, acknowledged that the new goal ranges had left some people confused.

Still, he defended them as “rigorous and realistic,” and said schools are expected to aim for the upper end of the range. The ranges are meant to encourage schools to focus on making progress rather than fixating on a single number, he added

“If you just have one number as a target then it’s all or nothing,” Ashton said. “We don’t want it to be all or nothing.”

The tweaks partially reflect the political dilemma the education department faces when assigning goals to the city’s lowest-performing schools: Overly modest goals could invite criticism that such small gains do not justify the program’s hefty price tag, while overly ambitious goals could set the program up for failure.

Yet despite their caution, officials have fallen into both traps.

Early goals they set for Renewal schools required such slight improvements that a top state official called them “ridiculous.” Still, many schools have failed to meet those goals, providing ammunition to some critics who say the program has been a costly disappointment.

Some schools have made strides, including a group of 21 “Rise” schools that officials say have made enough progress to begin transitioning out of the Renewal program. Pallas, the Teachers College professor, said that officials may have assigned achievable goals to the program’s remaining schools as a way to ease even more out — raising questions about the city’s long-term plans for the program.

“Setting low targets could allow the department to shift more of the schools to the Rise category, which is the declaring-victory category,” he said. “I think we’re all still wondering what the future of this program is going to be.”

hurdle cleared

Indiana’s federally required education plan wins approval

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

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has signed off on Indiana’s federally required education plan, ushering in another era of changes — although not exactly major ones — to the state’s public school system.

The U.S Department of Education announced the plan’s approval on Friday. Like other states, Indiana went through an extensive process to craft a blueprint to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which was signed into law in 2015.

“Today is a great day for Indiana,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement. “Our ESSA plan reflects the input and perspective of many stakeholders in communities across our state. From the beginning, we set out to build a plan that responded to the needs of Hoosier students. From our clear accountability system to our innovative, locally-driven approach to school improvement, our ESSA plan was designed to support student success.”

The federal government highlighted two aspects of Indiana’s plan. One is a pledge to close achievement gaps separating certain groups of students, such as racial and ethnic groups, from their peers by 50 percent by 2023.

Another is a staple of other states’ plans, as well: adding new ways for measuring how ready students are for attending college or starting their careers. Indiana education officials and lawmakers have made this a priority over the past several years, culminating in a new set of graduation requirements the Indiana State Board of Education approved late last year.

Under Indiana’s plan, high schoolers’ readiness will be measured not just by tests but also by performance in advanced courses and earning dual credits or industry certifications. Elementary school students will be measured in part by student attendance and growth in student attendance over time. Test scores and test score improvement still play a major role in how all schools are rated using state A-F letter grades.

In all, 35 states’ ESSA plans have won federal approval.

Advocates hope the law will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

Indiana officials struggled to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, such as graduation requirements and diplomas.

Under the state’s ESSA plan, A-F grades would include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and, in the case of chronic absenteeism, attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

Because the Indiana State Board of Education passed its own draft A-F rules earlier this month — rules that deviate from the state ESSA plan — it’s possible Hoosier schools could get two sets of letter grades going forward, muddying the initial intent of the simple A-F grade concept parents and community members are familiar with.

The state board’s A-F changes include other measures, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan. The state board plan also gets rid of the test score improvement measure for high-schoolers.

While that A-F proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

The state can still make changes to its ESSA plan, and the state board’s A-F draft is also expected to see revisions after public comment. But the fact that they conflict now could create difficulties moving forward, and it has led to tension during state board meetings. Already, the state expected schools would see two years of A-F grades in 2018. If both plans move forward as is, that could continue beyond next year.

Read: Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Find more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.