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.

IPS School Board Race 2018

Indiana teachers union spends big on Indianapolis Public Schools in election

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
IPS board candidate signs

The political arm of Indiana’s largest teachers union is spending big on the Indianapolis Public Schools board. The group donated $68,400 to three candidates vying for seats on the board this November, according to pre-election campaign finance disclosures released Friday.

The three candidates — Susan Collins, Michele Lorbieski, and Taria Slack — have all expressed criticism of the current board and the leadership of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. Although that criticism touches on many issues, one particular bone of contention is the district’s embrace of innovation schools, independent campuses that are run by charter or nonprofit operators but remain under the district’s umbrella. Teachers at those schools are employed by the school operators, so they cannot join the union.

The trio was also endorsed by the IPS Community Coalition, a local group that has received funding from a national teachers union.

It’s not unusual for teachers unions to spend on school board elections. In 2016, the union contributed $15,000 to an unsuccessful at-large candidate for the Indianapolis Public Schools board. But $68,400 dwarfs that contribution. Those disclosures do not capture the full spending on the election. The three candidates endorsed by Stand for Children Indiana — Mary Ann Sullivan, Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, and Evan Hawkins — are likely getting significant unreported benefits.

Stand for Children, which supports innovation schools, typically sends mailers and hires campaign workers to support the candidates it endorses. But it is not required to disclose all of its political activity because it is an independent expenditure committee, also known as a 501(c)(4), for the tax code section that covers it. The group did not immediately respond to a request for information on how much it is spending on this race.

The candidates’ fundraising varied widely in the reporting period, which covered the period from April 14 to Oct. 12, with Taria Slack bringing in $28,950 and Joanna Krumel raising $200. In recent years, candidates have been raising significantly more money than had been common. But one recent candidate managed to win on a shoestring: Elizabeth Gore won an at-large seat in 2016 after raising about $1,200.

Read more: See candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

One part of Stand for Children’s spending became visible this year when it gave directly to tax campaigns. The group contributed $188,842 to the campaign for two tax referendums to raise money for Indianapolis Public Schools. That includes a $100,000 donation that was announced in August and about $88,842 worth of in-kind contributions such as mailers. The group has a team of campaign workers who have been going door-to-door for months.

The district is seeking to persuade voters to support two tax increases. One would raise $220 million for operating funds, such as teacher salaries, over eight years. A second measure would raise $52 million for building improvements. Donations from Stand for Children largely power the Vote Yes for IPS campaign, which raised a total of $201,717. The Indiana teachers union also contributed $5,000.

Here are the details on how much each candidate has raised and some of the notable contributions:

At large

Incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan, a former Democrat state lawmaker, raised $7,054. Her largest contribution came from the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which donated $4,670. She also received $1,000 from Steel House, a metal warehouse run by businessman Reid Litwack. She also received several donations of $250 or less.

Retired Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Susan Collins, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $16,422. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $15,000. She also received several donations of $200 or less.

Ceramics studio owner and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Joanna Krumel raised $200. Her largest contribution, $100, came from James W. Hill.

District 3

Marian University Executive Director of Facilities and Procurement and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Evan Hawkins raised $22,037. His largest contributions from individuals were from businessmen Allan Hubbard, who donated $5,000, and Litwack, who donated $2,500. The Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee contributed $4,670 and web design valued at $330. He also received several donations of $1,000 or less. His donors included IPS board member Venita Moore, retiring IPS board member Kelly Bentley’s campaign, and the CEO of The Mind Trust, Brandon Brown.

Frost Brown Todd trial attorney and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Michele Lorbieski, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $27,345. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $24,900. She also received several contributions of $250 or less.

Pike Township schools Director of Information Services Sherry Shelton raised $1,763, primarily from money she contributed. David Green contributed $116.

District 5

Incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an Indianapolis Public Schools parent, raised $16,006. Her largest contributors include Hubbard, who donated $5,000; the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which gave $4,670 and web design valued at $330; and the MIBOR PAC, which contributed $1,000. She also received several contributions of $500 or less, including from Bentley.

Federal employee and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Taria Slack, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $28,950. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $28,500.

Innovation zone

Two more Denver schools win additional freedom from district rules

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki/Chalkbeat
Alex Magaña, then principal at Grant Beacon Middle School, greeted students as they moved between classes in 2015.

Two more Denver schools this week won more flexibility in how they spend their money and time. The schools will create a new “innovation zone,” bringing the district’s number of quasi-autonomous zones to three.

The Denver school board on Thursday unanimously approved the schools’ application to operate more independently from district rules, starting in January.

The new zone will include Grant Beacon Middle School in south Denver and Kepner Beacon Middle School in southwest Denver. The two schools are high-performing by the district’s standards and follow a model that allows students to learn at their own pace.

With just two schools, the zone will be the district’s smallest, though Beacon leaders have signaled their intent to compete to open a third school in the growing Stapleton neighborhood, where the district has said it will need more capacity. The district’s other two innovation zones have four and five schools each.

Schools in zones are still district schools, but they can opt out of paying for certain district services and instead spend that money on things that meet their specific needs, such as additional teachers or aides. Zones can also form nonprofit organizations with their own boards of directors that provide academic and operational oversight, and help raise extra dollars to support the schools.

The new zone, called the Beacon Schools Network Innovation Zone, will have a five-member board of directors that includes one current parent, two former parents, and two community members whose professional work is related to education.

The zone will also have a teacher council and a parent council that will provide feedback to its board but whose members won’t be able to vote on decisions.

Some Denver school board members questioned the makeup of the zone’s board.

“I’m wondering about what kinds of steps you’re going to take to ensure there is a greater representation of people who live and reside in southwest Denver,” where Kepner Beacon is located, asked school board member Angela Cobián, who represents the region. She also asked about a greater representation of current parents on the board.

Alex Magaña, who serves as executive principal over the Beacon schools and will lead the new zone, said he expects the board to expand to seven members within a year. He also said the parent council will play a key role even if its members can’t vote.

“The parent council is a strong influence,” he said. “If the parent council is not happy, that’s going to be impacting both of the schools. I don’t want to undersell that.”

Other Denver school board members questioned the zone’s finances and how dependent it would be on fundraising. A district summary of the zone’s application notes that the zone’s budget relies on $1.68 million in foundation revenue over the next 5½ years.

Magaña said the zone would eventually seek to expand to four schools, which would make it more financially stable. As for philanthropic dollars, he said the zone would work to ensure any loss of revenue doesn’t hurt the schools’ unique programs or enrichment.

“I can’t emphasize enough that it won’t impact the schools,” he said.

Ultimately, Denver school board members said they have confidence in the Beacon model and look forward to seeing what its leaders do with their increased autonomy.