Future of Schools

Ousted from Detroit and Newark, turnaround operator Matchbook could get a fresh start in Indianapolis

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Michigan Technical Academy was managed by Matchbook before it closed last year.

When it comes to turning around troubled schools, Matchbook Learning has a troubled history — two schools it took over were closed soon after. But Sajan George, founder of the management group, thinks Indianapolis is his chance to succeed.

Indianapolis Public Schools leaders have recommended Matchbook as a partner to restart School 63, a school with chronically low test scores. The nonprofit operator has been through layers of vetting from the district and its partners. But the network’s past troubles raise significant questions about whether it is likely to succeed in Indianapolis and highlight the limited pool of partners with the interest and experience in restarting failing schools.

If the Indianapolis Public Schools Board approves the plan, School 63 would be the latest school to become an innovation school managed by an outside partner but still considered part of the district. Matchbook would be the first operator that is not yet established in Indianapolis to restart a struggling school. But over the last year, George has moved his family to Indianapolis from New York. He also has spent time building relationships in the community, reaching out to local groups, and meeting with parents.

That’s one reason Aleesia Johnson, who leads innovation schools for the Indianapolis Public Schools, believes the group would be a good fit for the district.

“They have done good work other places,” she said. “But really … the most compelling piece is that connection to Indianapolis and really grounding themselves here.”

George got his start as a consultant working on corporate turnaround, before he began focusing on working with troubled school districts, and eventually founded Matchbook to restart schools. Now, George says Matchbook is solely dedicated to turning around School 63. But his long-term vision is sweeping and ambitious: He wants to upend education by developing a model that will help schools make dramatic test score gains.

At the center of that plan is Spark, a software tool that aims to help ordinary teachers achieve the same results as extraordinary ones by keeping track of how students are doing and what they need to learn, George said.

“We know when you have an extraordinary teacher in the classroom, you get extraordinary results,” he said. “We can’t replicate those extraordinary teachers to every single classroom.”

When Matchbook started, the group partnered with three schools in Detroit for short contracts. Most recently, Matchbook was brought in to turn around two charter schools, one in Detroit and one in Newark, that were eventually shut down for academic and financial problems. (Matchbook also faced criticism because teachers at both schools were not fully paid when they closed due to financial issues. The group eventually paid the teachers in Detroit.)

In George’s view, the schools were stymied by politics. But in Indianapolis, where turnaround operators are given lots of time and support, he believes his model will be able to prove itself.

The state test data from the schools where Matchbook has operated is generally positive. Students often started with dismal passing rates. But test scores went up at most of the schools the group worked with, and in some years, passing rates on state tests rose significantly.

Educators who worked for Matchbook in Detroit and Newark shared George’s belief that the schools could have turned around with more time. But they told Chalkbeat that the company’s focus on using the software was initially a hindrance. The schools started seeing greater success when they spent less time on Spark and more time using traditional teaching methods, they said.

When Matchbook began managing the school in Detroit, students spent most of their time on computers, said Anna Skinner, who taught second and third grade. Eventually, she said, teachers were given more flexibility. They stopped asking young students to watch several videos, for example, and instead spent more time teaching phonics, she said.

“They needed an adult, not a computer,” Skinner said.

Phillip Price, the veteran principal who was hired by Matchbook to lead the school, echoed some of Skinner’s concerns. The software was particularly difficult for students who struggled to read, Price said. “If you can’t read, trying to use a computer or watching a video, you are not going to know what the next steps are,” he added.

Ronald Harvey, the principal from the charter school the group ran in Newark, said he enjoyed working with Matchbook and Spark was a helpful tool for tracking student data. Because the program was new, the school was essentially piloting it, and Spark was updated based on their experience, he said. The program worked best, he said, when the school starting spending less time using Spark and more time on direct instruction.

“That first year, it did not feel very blended. It felt technology-heavy,” he said. “That second year, it started to become more of a blended learning type of model.”

George said that teachers always had flexibility, and the only piece of Spark they were expected to use was its data tracking feature, he said. Ultimately, it is just a tool for teachers, and they become more comfortable using it in the second year, he said.

“Spark is capturing the learning pathways … and the data progress. But it’s not the teacher,” George said. “I think sometimes you have to educate teachers — you are still the teacher. You are still driving the instruction.”

Even with Matchbook’s unproven track record, however, there are compelling reasons why Indianapolis leaders might choose to partner with the group.

Also known as Wendell Phillips, School 63 is in Haughville, and it has such a bad reputation that school board member Diane Arnold said she has steered families away from it. The school received a fifth F grade from the state this year, and if it receives another failing grade, it could be up for state intervention — including takeover or shut down.

Restarting the school as an innovation school in partnership with Matchbook is one way that the Indianapolis Public Schools board could fend off state takeover and maintain control over Wendell Phillips.

That’s why Hakim Moore, a parent of two students at School 63, said he supports the plan for Matchbook to take over. He is happy with the current principal and teachers. But faced with the prospect of the state taking control, he wants to see what Matchbook can do to improve the school.

“My feeling is if they can come in and make it better … that’s better than not trying at all,” Moore said.

There’s another reason why the district might look past Matchbook’s problems: There are not many turnaround operators with proven track records.

Charter networks typically start schools from scratch, and many are not interested in turning around failing schools, an especially difficult challenge. Although four potential partners were interested in restarting schools for the district, Matchbook was the only group to apply to restart School 63, according to the district.

“Across the country, it’s not work that has just an overwhelming number of people signing up to do the work because it’s super hard,” said Johnson.

Since the district began creating innovation schools, it has relied on the potential partners recruited by the Mind Trust, a non-profit that works closely with the district. When the Mind Trust was investigating Matchbook, staff spent more time vetting the network than usual because of the problems it faced in other states, said Brandon Brown, senior vice president of education innovation for the Mind Trust.

That included visiting the Matchbook school in Newark, contacting former authorizers, and reviewing test data. But their concerns were ultimately allayed, and the group offered George and his partner Amy Swann a fellowship worth about $200,000 to plan an innovation school, and another $200,000 in implementation funding to support the school before it begins receiving per-pupil funding.

“We were convinced that they had learned a ton about how to turn around low-performing schools,” Brown said. “When you compare their results against other school operators that want to focus on restarting the most challenging schools in our country, while their results haven’t been perfect, we do think that they stack up very well against others.”

Ron Zimmer, a professor at the University of Kentucky who has studied turnaround in Tennessee, said the approach is so recent that it’s difficult to find charter networks that have evidence of success — yet.

“I don’t think it should be alarming if a school gets taken over by a charter operator and they don’t show positive effects in two years,” Zimmer said. “It takes time.”

breaking

A student is in custody after Noblesville West Middle School shooting that injured another student and teacher

Police asses the scene outside Noblesville High School after a shooting at Noblesville West Middle School on May 25, 2018 (Photo by Kevin Moloney/Getty Images)

A male student shot and injured a teacher and another student at Noblesville West Middle School on Friday morning, police said.

Noblesville police Chief Kevin Jowitt said the shooting suspect asked to leave a class and returned armed with two handguns. The suspect is in custody and has not been identified by police.

News outlets were reporting that a seventh-grade science teacher intervened to stop the shooter, but authorities said they could not confirm that on Friday afternoon.

Police did not release the names of the two victims Friday and did not provide information on their conditions. The adult victim was taken to Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital, and the teen victim was taken to Riley Hospital for Children, both in Indianapolis. Their families have been notified, police said.

The Noblesville Police Department has a full-time school resource officer assigned to the school who responded to the incident, Jowitt said. Local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies also responded to the shooting.

“We do know that the situation resolved extremely quickly,” Jowitt said. “We don’t know what happened in the classroom, so I can’t make any kinds of comments about what [the resource officer’s] involvement was.”

Students were evacuated to Noblesville High School on Friday morning, where families met them.

Jowitt said an additional threat was made at the high school, but they had “no reason to believe it’s anything other than a communicated threat.”

Police continue to investigate. They said they do not believe there are additional suspects. Noblesville Police spokesman Bruce Barnes could not say how the student acquired the guns, but he said search warrants have been issued.

Noblesville West Middle School enrolls about 1,300 students. Noblesville is a suburb of Indianapolis, about 20 miles north in Hamilton County. The district has about 10,500 students.

The frenzied scenes Friday outside the school have become sadly familiar. Already, there have been 23 school shootings in 2018 that involved someone being injured or killed, according to media tallies.

Just last week, 10 people were killed and 13 others were injured in a shooting at Santa Fe High School outside Houston. A student at the school has been arrested and charged.

In February, 17 people — 14 students and three staff — were shot and killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and a 19-year-old faces multiple charges.  The Parkland tragedy set off a wave of student activism across the country — including in Indianapolis — calling for stricter gun control.

“We’ve had these shootings around the country,” said Noblesville Mayor John Ditslear. “You just never think it could happen in Noblesville, Indiana. But it did.”

Noblesville Schools Superintendent Beth Niedermeyer praised the “heroic” efforts of school staff and students, saying they followed their training on how to react to an active shooter situation.

Barnes also hinted at the broader trauma that school shootings can have on students and communities.

“We ask for your prayers for the victims in this case,” he said. “I think that would include a lot of kids, not only ones that were truly the victims in this case, but all these other kids that are trying to make sense of this situation.”

Watch the press conference:


A Chalkbeat reporter is on the scene:

In a pattern that has become routine, Democratic and Republican politicians offered prayers on Twitter.

temporary reprieve

Parents score a temporary victory in slowing the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Protesters gathered at the education department's headquarters to protest a recent set of closure plans.

A judge blocked the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school Thursday — at least for now.

Three families from P.S. 25/the Eubie Blake School filed a lawsuit in March backed by the public interest group Advocates for Justice, arguing the city’s decision to close the school was illegal because the local elected parent council was not consulted.

Brooklyn Supreme Court judge Katherine Levine did not make a final ruling Thursday about whether the closure plan violated the law. But she issued a temporary order to keep the school open while the case moves forward.

It was not immediately clear when the case will be resolved or even if the school will remain open next year. “We are reviewing the stay and will determine an appropriate course of action once the judge makes a final decision on the case,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in a statement.

The education department said the school has hemorrhaged students in recent years and is simply too small to be viable: P.S. 25 currently enrolls just 94 students in grades K-5.

“Because of extremely low enrollment, the school lacks the necessary resources to meet the needs of students,” Holness wrote. The city’s Panel for Educational Policy, a citywide oversight board that must sign off on all school closures, voted in February to close the school.

But the school’s supporters point out that despite low test scores in the past, P.S. 25 now ranks among the city’s top elementary schools, meaning that its closure would force students into lower-performing schools elsewhere.

“Why close a school that’s doing so well?” said Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters and one of the lawsuit’s supporters. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

The lawsuit hinges on a state law that gives local education councils the authority to approve any changes to school zones. Since P.S. 25 is the only zoned elementary school for a swath of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the department’s plans would leave some families with no zoned elementary school dedicated to educating them, forcing students to attend other district schools or enter the admissions lottery for charter schools.

That amounts to “effectively attempting to change zoning lines” and “unlawfully usurping” the local education council’s authority to determine those zones, according to the lawsuit.

But even if the education department loses the lawsuit, the school’s fate would still be uncertain. The closure plan would theoretically be subject to a vote from the local education council, whose president supports shuttering the school.

Still, Haimson hopes the lawsuit ultimately persuades the education department to back away from closing the school in the long run.

“My goal would be to get the chancellor to change his mind,” Haimson said. “I don’t think the future is preordained.”