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.”

tie breaker

Sheridan school board discussion heats up as date is set for final vote on new superintendent

Sheridan board member Juanita Camacho was sworn in on April 10, 2018. (Photo courtesy of Sheridan School District)

With a new board member who can cast a tie-breaking vote, the school board of the tiny Sheridan district is set to pick its first new superintendent in 10 years.

Finding a replacement for Michael Clough has been a contentious process, with community members pushing for an outside candidate who might be more responsive to their concerns and bring faster change and with veteran board members favoring a candidate who already works in the district.

At a meeting two weeks ago, Clough shouted at the community and the president of the teachers union. The president, who is also a district teacher, had been standing with community members who rose to express support for the outside candidate, a Denver Public Schools administrator named Antonio Esquibel. Clough and the board president called the display “totally disrespectful.”

On Tuesday, the meeting started in a small room where a staff member stood at the door and turned away members of the public, including a reporter who went in anyway. But there was still shouting, this time between board members frustrated with the process and each other.

One issue in dispute: the role of the newly seated board member.

The Sheridan board is divided between two veteran board members, Bernadette Saleh and Sally Daigle, who want to see the district continue on the path Clough set, and two new members, Daniel Stange and Karla Najera, who are allied with the parents and advocates who want to see a new direction.

The fifth seat had been vacant for more than 10 years before Juanita Camacho put in her application earlier this year. Initially board members wanted to wait to seat her until after they chose a new superintendent, but when it seemed like they were headed for deadlock, she was sworn in.

Tuesday, Saleh, the board’s president, argued that Camacho was not seated to help select a new superintendent, while Stange argued that it did appear that way.

Camacho said she did not think about the superintendent search when she initially applied, and she almost considered backing out of the role when she knew she would be a tie-breaker.

“I’m going to make that deciding vote,” Camacho said. “It’s not going to be an easy thing for me.”

Camacho will have one more week to review the qualifications of the three finalists for the position before the board vote at 5 p.m. on May 1.

Part of the division in the community and on the board centers on the perception of the district’s progress. Many community members and teachers say they want drastic changes to improve the district, while others have said they want to continue the district’s current momentum.

Sheridan, a district serving about 1,400 students just southwest of Denver, has improved enough on state ratings to get off the state’s watchlist for chronic low-performance and avoid state sanctions. But by many measures, including graduation rates, the district is still considered low performing.

“You don’t know what we’ve been through,” Daigle told Stange, who she accused of bad-mouthing the district. “We came out of the turnaround long before we were ever expected to.”

Several teachers and parents have spoken to the board during public comment at multiple meetings, asking them to “listen to the community.” Most of them support Esquibel, the only one of three finalists who is from outside the district.

Saleh and Daigle also argued that if other board members wanted a candidate who was from outside the district, they should have voiced that opinion before they collectively narrowed the candidates to the three finalists announced in March.

While many community members and board member Stange prefer Esquibel, they have said that the other two candidates aren’t bad choices to lead the district, and none of the board members disputed that they agreed on the three as finalists.

Future of Schools

What time does school start? Some IPS parents concerned about coming schedule changes

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post

Dozens of parents filled the Indianapolis Public Schools board room Tuesday afternoon for a last-minute meeting about changing school start times, a sign of how disruptive many believe the changes could be.

Next year, the district is rolling out a new all-choice high school model, where students choose schools by focus area rather than neighborhood. In order to bus students from around the district to those schools without swelling costs, the administration is shifting start and end times for elementary, middle, and high school campuses.

Ultimately, the district says the new schedule will make it more likely that buses will arrive on time.

“With the all choice high school model, there has to be some modification,” Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said ahead of the meeting.

The administration’s recommendation, which was developed after feedback from parents, aims to limit the number of schools with significant changes in start and end times. For about 80 percent of schools, bell times will not change by more than 10 minutes, according to the administration. Under the latest proposal, most middle and high schools will run from 7:20 a.m. to 2:10 p.m. Most elementary schools will run from 9:20 a.m. to 3:55 p.m. The board will vote Thursday on new school start and end times.

The process for developing the plan inspired significant criticism from parents at the transportation meeting.

Dustin Jones, who has two children at the Butler Lab School, said he was particularly concerned that the district was still deciding on the new schedule in April after many parents already made school choices for next year.

“The appearance is the all choice model was ideologically kind of the direction to go, and then that the transportation to support that decision is lagging behind,” Jones said. “That shows a lack of ability and foresight.”

For months, the district has been holding meetings and asking parents for input on the schedule for next year. The administration, however, has struggled to develop a plan that would balance myriad challenges, such as containing costs, limiting disruptions for families, and handling a shortage of bus drivers that is posing significant challenges.

“There’s been an ongoing discussion of the transportation dilemma and challenge,” said board member Mary Ann Sullivan at the board meeting after the discussion. “I think this reflects a very good resolution to most of the concerns. It does not address every concern of every family or every commissioner.”

Initially, leaders were also considering flipping school start times so high schoolers could start at a later time because research shows adolescents benefit from sleeping later. But in the face of practical concerns, such as high school student work schedules, the board abandoned that goal.

That was a disappointment for Molly McPheron, a pediatrician and parent in the district.

“The evidence is really clear that when high schools start later, children have improved health outcomes as well as improved graduation rates, better grades,” McPheron said. “We are going through a lot to make sure high schoolers have choice, have all these options. And then there’s kind of this simple thing that we could do that could potentially substantially improve their lives.”