McCormick’s wishlist for the Indiana legislature: diploma fixes and mandatory kindergarten

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Jennifer McCormick speaks during a 2016 campaign event.

Indiana schools chief Jennifer McCormick laid out her wishlist for the upcoming year on Tuesday, listing some priorities ahead of the next legislative session that will require the support of the governor and lawmakers.

While a few of McCormick’s 18 goals overlap with ones set by Gov. Eric Holcomb and other advocates, many of them focus on education policy issues that have received far less attention from the state as it gears up for the January legislative session.

Holcomb’s legislative agenda centered around workforce training and helping Hoosiers deal with the current opioid crisis. McCormick focused on three main areas: student learning, improving schools and supporting districts.

“Bottom line for students and for teachers,” McCormick said at a press conference, is that these priorities “show commitment to doing what’s best for students. It also gives opportunities for students. It also sends a message that says that we are here to support the field.”

The list, she said, portrays  “a clear picture of who we are as a department.”

Her plans take up issues that have long been debated in the General Assembly, such as when children should begin school. They also address newer sources of frustration for schools, such as transitioning to yet another state test and trying to manage the effects of new federal rules that could cause graduation rates to plummet for many schools.

It’s not clear how much legislative or state board of education support exists for her plans. During her campaign, McCormick touted her ability to cooperate and work with other state officials, striking a stark contrast to her challenger, Glenda Ritz, who frequently clashed with the state’s Republican majority.

But while McCormick, also a Republican, has avoided some of the public flare-ups that vexed Ritz, her policies have often deviated from those of her party, particularly concerning state-funded vouchers for private school and charter schools. Those differences could affect her ability to have the legislature take up her agenda next year.

McCormick’s plan includes efforts to:

  • Require students to attend school by age 5.  The current compulsory schooling age in Indiana is 7.
  • Unify the state’s four diplomas into one.
  • Appeal to the federal government on the issue of graduation requirements to head off plummeting graduation rates.
  • Carry out Indiana’s new system for struggling schools.
  • Seek more flexibility in teacher licensing to allow current teachers to teach more subjects and prospective teachers to skirt red tape.
  • Provide more training for teachers on the new ILEARN test and potential graduation pathways plans.
  • Develop options for teacher leadership.
  • Find more ways to support schools and districts that are struggling financially.

Details on potential costs and timelines for many of her goals were not provided.

Some priorities cannot move forward without the legislature’s support. For example, lowering  the required school age to 5 would require legislation. Such a bill is regularly introduced in the Indiana General Assembly. While it has repeatedly stalled, McCormick said there is legislative support for it.

“We can still say — one of 26 states that can say — you don’t have to come to us until you’re 7,” she said. “That has created problems for some of our at-risk students … there is too much on the line academically.”

Lawmakers would also likely have to sign off on changes to Indiana’s diplomas, which are being scrutinized by a state committee that is considering overhauling graduation requirements to ensure students are prepared for life after high school.

McCormick has not supported the committee’s enthusiasm for multiple graduation pathways, telling the members that she believes having a single diploma could still meet the needs of students of different ability levels. She thinks a diploma is much better suited to addressing students’ postsecondary plans than the complicated “graduation pathways” proposal being considered.

“We love the idea of pathways, we embrace many of the ideas that are found within those plans, but we think a better vehicle for that would be diplomas,” McCormick said. “We think that is a natural pathway vs. what is coming out of the graduation pathways panel.”

McCormick acknowledged that the governor and the legislature are more focused on producing a better prepared workforce in Indiana. They also must address a recent school funding shortfall by adjusting the state budget.

“I think educators have become a little fatigued in the area of legislative mandates,” McCormick said. “We have plenty to do, but it is almost a relief to see a little bit of calm upstairs in the General Assembly.”

Read more about McCormick’s 2018 priorities here.

School deserts

New study shows just how hard it is to find a decent public school in Detroit — especially in 10 city neighborhoods

An alarming new study shows just how difficult it is to find a quality school in the city of Detroit — especially for families that live in certain neighborhoods.

The study from the nonprofit research organization IFF identified ten city neighborhoods where it’s extremely difficult to find a seat in a quality school.

Those neighborhoods are home to 30,000 children, but had just eight “performing” schools. The study defined them using the color-coded school ratings that state education officials assigned for the 2015-16 school year based primarily on test scores.  

That doesn’t mean Detroit doesn’t have enough schools. In fact, the study found that many of the city’s schools are half empty. The main Detroit district had physical space for more than  80,000 students in the 2015-16 school year but served fewer than 45,000 kids that year.

Some Detroit families travel long distances — at great personal sacrifice — to find better schools but even families with the means to travel can have difficulty finding a spot in a decent school.

The study found that the vast majority of Detroit children — 70,000 of the 85,000 Detroit children who attend public school in the city — are in schools that don’t meet the state’s criteria for performance.

“This report is not about criticizing our public schools without offering a path forward,” said Chris Uhl, IFF’s executive director in a press release. The purpose, he said, “is to give everyone with a stake in improving Detroit’s education system — the district, charter schools and their authorizers, the city, foundations, and, of course, our families — the neighborhood-by-neighborhood data they need to work together to find shared solutions.”

The study includes an online tool that allows Detroiters to see which neighborhoods have performing schools as well as the conditions of those schools, and the basic demographics of the students who attend them.

Click here to use that tool — and scroll down to read the full report below.

How I Lead

When this Colorado principal learned about a student’s tough home life, she put him to work at school

Karen Shaw, principal of Columbia Elementary School, in Colorado Springs District 11.

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here and pieces in our sister series “How I Teach” here.

After a student’s mother used an expletive to describe her son, Karen Shaw decided to act.

The principal of Colombia Elementary School in Colorado Springs thought that giving the boy “jobs” might help him succeed. So Shaw tapped him to become a daily helper in the library and later in a kindergarten class — being careful to put him around adults he liked and trusted.

Shaw talked to Chalkbeat about how that experience changed her perspective, why teacher evaluations sometimes go awry and how poverty affects the school.

Shaw was the 2016 National Distinguished Principal of the Year for Colorado. The award is sponsored by the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?
My first job in education was teaching second grade in Great Falls, Montana. My interest in education was sparked when I was in high school. I had the opportunity to teach vacation Bible school at our church. I really enjoyed working with the kids in my class. The rest is history.

Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I __________. Why?
Visit every classroom. The success of every student and staff member is my number one priority. At Columbia, “All means all!”

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?
Having been at Columbia for the past eight years really puts me ahead of the game when it comes to getting to know the kids. We have weekly data meetings with either primary or intermediate teachers. I have my own system that I keep up to date with student data, just like the teachers. This helps me track how kids are learning and growing academically. Being visible in classrooms and other areas of the school is another way to get to know students. I supervise the fourth- and fifth-graders daily at lunch as well as work with my own intervention groups.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?
On two occasions, I had teachers who were new to the profession. Both believed they already knew everything. I would show them data that documented kids weren’t learning. We would visit highly effective classrooms highlighting more efficient ways for students to learn and high standards for behavior. I would provide multiple levels of coaching from the building level and district level. These teachers didn’t want to take feedback to improve.

Even after 20- some years in education, I believe none of us have arrived. We can always learn ways to do things better.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?
Five years after being at Columbia we were named one of Colorado’s five 2013 National Blue Ribbon Schools. This was a true team effort. Columbia was recognized based on student achievement growth over that five-year period. I was so proud of our staff, students and families. Being Colorado’s 2016 National Distinguished Principal was pretty awesome as well! I still can’t believe that was me!

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?
I speak to all involved to hear all sides of the story and proceed with an appropriate resolution. My favorite resolution is when there is a natural consequence. I also work hard to build relationships with our students. It is always my hope that when a student has made a mistake that disappointing me is one of the biggest consequences.

What is the hardest part of your job?
The hardest part of my job is working with reluctant staff members. When there isn’t an innate desire to grow and improve, it is very difficult to impact change.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
We have a student who is in his second year with us at Columbia. When our social worker first met his mom she was told by the mom that the boy is a little sh**. Knowing that is what his mom shared with the school, I knew I would have to take a different approach with him. So I quickly “employed” him with a caring adult at our school. Our library technology educator gave him a job in the library. My purpose in doing this is to build a relationship with an adult in our school. The student gets to participate in the job regardless of behavior.

When there is a discipline problem, I have the student’s “supervisor” help me work with the child to reflect on the behavior and talk about different choices. This year I have him “employed” as a kindergarten helper for 15 minutes a day with his favorite person in our school, Ms. Rene. Ms. Rene is always positive with him and happy to work with him. I hope this little intervention will help change his life.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?

Families in poverty. The RJ Montgomery Center for homeless families is in our school boundaries. We assess students the first day that they come to our school and use the data to put students in appropriate math and reading intervention groups. This year we offer yoga classes to all kindergarten through fifth grade students once or twice a week. We use our district funds and federal funds for low-income students in creative ways to have the most impact on our students’ academic and social emotional wellbeing.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
“Wonder” by R.J. Palacio

What’s the best advice you ever received?
“When you know better, you do better”