Future of Schools

A new program takes 20 Indianapolis high schoolers to Thailand — and far outside their comfort zone

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Macaiah Patterson is one of 20 Arsenal Tech students who will travel to Thailand in January as part of a new study abroad program.

Mikayli Davis was sitting in a math final last spring when she heard an announcement over the loudspeaker: Students would have a chance to go to Thailand for a semester for free.

“I was like, ‘oh my god! That’s a really good offer,’ ” recalled Davis, a junior at Arsenal Technical High School. “It just seemed interesting.”

Now, Davis is one of 20 Indianapolis Public Schools students in the pilot of Thrival Academy, a high school program meant to introduce them to the greater world outside their schools and communities. Housed in Arsenal, Thrival is paid for with funds from the district and the California nonprofit that is extending the program to Indianapolis. It provides students with a year of classes, taught by the teachers who will travel with them, and culminates in a three-month trip to Thailand in January.

Such an opportunity to spend a semester abroad is usually reserved for affluent students. But studies have shown that introductions to other cultures and the ability to leave homelands can have wide-ranging benefits for students, improving their grades, future employability and ability to connect with people from other cultures. There is a growing focus on encouraging study abroad among students who might not otherwise have an opportunity to step outside their lives and get first-hand experience of the world at large.

With Thrival, all the costs, down to the passport fees, are covered by the school. And although an application is required, everyone who applied was admitted.

When they arrive in Thailand, the 20 students will spend time in camps, cities, and villages. They will also stay with local families for several nights.

Over the three months, they will continue to do school work with a focus on subjects that connect to their trip: mining, conservation, farming and migration, and projects such as creating a documentary about a local activist group.

“My goal is for this to be more of an investment,” said India Hui, who runs Thrival in Indianapolis. “It’s not just about taking kids overseas and bringing them back. When we are bringing them back, we are bringing them back leaders.”

PHOTO: Courtesy: Kelly Bentley
A camp where Thrival students from Oakland stayed in Laos.

The chance to see another culture up close, and get outside her comfort zone, is what attracted Macaiah Patterson, who said she has always dreamed about studying abroad. “I want to learn about how other people live and what they go through,” she said.

Thrival began in Oakland and expanded to Indianapolis this year after the founder received a fellowship from the Mind Trust, a non-profit that supports district-charter partnerships. During the pilot year, the district is expected to pay $100,000 for the program, while Thrival pays $265,000, according to a presentation to the school board.

That’s a steep price tag, but Hui said she expects the program to have far lower per-student costs once it enrolls more students. If Indianapolis leaders consider the pilot successful, the program could ultimately become a full-fledged innovation school with 5 teachers educating 100 students.

Innovation schools, which are part of the district but run by charter or nonprofit operators, began less than three years ago. But most of the innovation schools that have opened so far have been fairly similar to other existing charter and magnet schools. Thrival would be one of the first to give families a totally new option.

All of the students in the program this year were already enrolled in Arsenal. Nearly half came from the New Tech High magnet. That’s mostly thanks to Alejandra Castro, who heard about the program from her mother. Once Castro and her boyfriend, Javier Salazar, decided to apply, they began recruiting friends to join them.

“It’s like a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Castro said. “The only place I’ve ever been to is Chicago and Tennessee. … Going to Thailand for free for three months? I was like, I’m down.”

The trip will be a big adjustment for students. Many will face homesickness and culture shock. But first they have to get there. And the flight, out of all the changes they face, has many of the students worried.

“That’s really the only the thing I’m nervous about,” Davis said.

Many other Thrival students share her fear. A poster about the trip on a hallway wall sums up their trepidation. Listing potential problems with the trip, it includes turbulence and different foods. At the bottom is an illustration, drawn in marker: a plane bursting with orange and yellow flames.

“I think they were kind of under the assumption that you are lucky if your plane lands,” Hui said.

The trip, now just weeks away, seemed unreal for Davis, who compared it to going to the moon.

“You can’t imagine yourself being on the moon,” she said. “It’s kind of like that. I can’t imagine myself being in Thailand.”

charter talks

Hopson weighs charters as school turnaround tool for Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson leads Shelby County Schools in Memphis, home to Tennessee's highest concentration of low-performing schools.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has opened a crack in the door to charter school partnerships that might help his district avoid losing more schools to Tennessee’s turnaround district.

Hopson emailed his principals this week to clarify his recent comments to the editorial board of The Commercial Appeal about possibly recruiting charter organizations for turnaround work. The report’s original headline read: “Hopson says he’s willing to hand schools over to charters, if they have a plan for improvement.”

The superintendent quickly turned to Twitter to label the headline “misleading and inaccurate” and, as he sought to regain control of dialogue on the thorny matter, dispatched an email to his school principals.

“…It is my top priority to ensure all of our schools have the necessary resources to provide students with the high-quality education they deserve,” he wrote on Tuesday. “If the Tennessee Department of Education offers us the opportunity to select a charter operator that is willing to collaborate closely with District leaders to improve a school instead of losing it to the (Achievement School District), then I believe it is our responsibility to explore the option.”

Hopson’s comments hint at a potentially significant shift for a district that has battled openly with the charter sector over students being absorbed by the state’s 6-year-old turnaround initiative known as the ASD.

They also point to the tough spot that the superintendent is in.

On the one hand, the growth of the city’s charter turnaround sector has been a thorn in the side of local school leaders since 2012 when the state-run district began taking control of low-performing schools and assigning them to charter operators. Now with 29 Memphis schools, the ASD has siphoned off thousands of students and millions of dollars in an already under-enrolled and under-funded school environment — and made mostly anemic academic gains. (The local district also oversees about 50 charter schools that it’s authorized.)

On the other hand, Shelby County Schools has its hands full trying to improve a substantial number of struggling schools. It’s made some important headway through its Innovation Zone, which adds resources, extends the school day, and pays more to top principals and teachers who are willing to do some of the toughest education work in America. But the iZone is an expensive model, and few of its schools have exited the state’s priority school list.

In addition, some education reform advocates are lobbying to shift Memphis to a “portfolio model,” in which districts actively turn over schools to charter operators and manage them more like stocks in a portfolio. In other words, successful ones are expanded and failing ones are closed. Indianapolis has a robust portfolio model and, last fall, the philanthropic group known as the Memphis Education Fund took several Memphis school board members there for a tour. (The Memphis Education Fund receives support from several local philanthropies, including The Pyramid Peak Foundation and the Hyde Foundation. Chalkbeat also receives support from Hyde; read about our funding here.)

In his email to principals, Hopson said the school board ultimately would decide whether to authorize charter schools for the district’s turnaround work, and that he expects to discuss the matter with members in the coming weeks.

“All that said, I want to be very clear that my preference would always be to keep schools under the governance of (Shelby County Schools),” the superintendent added.

Hopson has been in discussions with the state Department of Education about several school improvement avenues available in Tennessee’s education plan under a new federal law. Among them is an option for Shelby County Schools to voluntarily convert priority schools to a charter, according to department spokeswoman Sara Gast.

One school board member told Chalkbeat he needs more information from the district and state before he would support any move forward. Chris Caldwell added that he thinks the board isn’t up to speed on options under the state’s new education plan.

“At this point, there’s so little information that I’ve been given,” Caldwell said. “I don’t want to conjecture what (a charter conversion) would actually will be like, but I have reservations with any kind of collaboration with the state.”

What would it take for such a shift to be successful?

One Memphis charter advocate says the ground rules are already in place because of a charter compact developed in recent years to address turf issues such as facilities, funding, and accountability.

“In order for a charter to manage a district school that’s underperforming and for it to be successful, that charter needs to have supports from the district to be successful,” said Luther Mercer, the Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center.

The next school board work session is scheduled for Jan. 23.

School and church partnership

Detroit district aims for faith-based partnerships for every school to support student needs

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti surrounded by religious and district leaders wearing new "Got Faith?" shirts.

Each Detroit public school might soon have its own church, synagogue, mosque, temple, chapel, or parish as a partner.

The district on Thursday announced an initiative to connect every district school with a faith-based community partner to help with academic support, student basic needs, and personal and career development, among other services.

The district is now trying to determine which schools have a defined partnership with a religious institution, but estimates that 25 to 30 percent of schools already do. Sharlonda Buckman, senior executive director of family and community engagement, said that the district hopes that, by the end of the year, every one of its 106 schools “has a religious partner working with them in tandem toward the goal of helping our children achieve.”

The program was announced at a press conference at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Midtown, attended by educators, school board members, and invited guests.

“It doesn’t surprise me when I look around the room and see our religious leaders, because you guys, for a long time, have been investing in our children and our people, and it’s been an informal effort,” Buckman said. “You’ve worked with a number of our schools across the district, so today we recognize that we don’t need to do it informally anymore — we need to make this a formal part of how we move this district forward.”

The district is not unique in its approach: church-school partnerships are common across the country and in the state. The national partnering organization Kids Hope USA is based near Holland, Michigan. Supporters believe that stronger faith-school ties will not only improve local support for schools, but also help provide vital services for children and a more stable personal and family foundation upon which learning could take place.

District leaders “cannot lift our children up to their full potential by themselves,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said at the press conference. “We need help in that work.”

The district is looking to the faith-based partners to provide services such as tutoring, coaching, chaperoning; deliver before and after school support; donate uniforms and other goods; and highlight teachers at their institutions through announcements and bulletins.

R. Khari Brown, a professor of sociology at Wayne State, said the faith community is already deeply ingrained in Detroit in a variety of ways.

“There are a lot of community centers that closed down over the years in the city, and most churches in the city provide some sort of programming,” he said. “They provide backpacks and school supplies, so [the partnership] makes sense.”

Religion is also a large part of the culture of many African Americans, he said, and a significant force in a district where 81 percent of the students were black in 2016-2017.

“Most African Americans want their churches to be involved on the ills that disproportionately affect black people.” he said.

While other communities might balk at such intermingling of church and state, Brown said he believes that it is a “non issue” in this case because the religious institutions are not receiving money from the district.

The ACLU of Michigan said it had no comment at this time but that the organization hopes to “continue to learn more” about the district’s initiative.

Vitti said a more explicit district-faith community partnership could provide both protection and support for Detroit’s children.

“What I’m talking about is developing a stronger safety net to ensure that what students are not receiving in homes, what students are not receiving in school, can be addressed through the faith-based community,” Vitti said. “When we go back to when the city was at its peak, we worked together as a team to lift children up. When children fell through the cracks, there was a safety net to catch them and lift them back up. That happened through the school system, through the churches, the synagogues.”

Vitti said the initiative is part of his larger effort to align schools and the community more closely. Since starting in his position as superintendent in May of last year, he has been pressing programs like the parent academy.

The academy will provide parents with lessons on subjects like what to ask during parent-teacher conferences, how to create stronger readers, how to fill out FAFSA paperwork, and even how to print a resume. Vitti said most of all, it would empower parents to pursue educational goals for their children, even if they weren’t the best students themselves.

“Every parent knows education is important, but parents don’t know how to navigate the system often, and they feel hypocritical when they push their children when they know they didn’t do well in school,” he said.  

Vitti said he envisions a time when faith-based institutions could house some of the parent services.

He said he also sees the faith community working side by side with the district’s 5,000 role models initiative. The program is recruiting volunteers to work with middle and high school African American and Hispanic students, and plans to have sponsors in each school to work with students daily, taking them on field trips and providing an open line of communication.