Sorting the Students

Will Indianapolis change its magnet admission rules to keep siblings together?

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Indianapolis Public Schools students learn at CFI 27.

With two daughters enrolled, Jennifer Anderson and her husband knew they loved the community at School 27. But when it came time to enroll the couple’s youngest daughter in kindergarten, they got painful news: She had not won a seat in the first enrollment lottery because district policy prioritized other students.

“It’s incredibly important to my husband and I that all of our children attend the same school,” Anderson told the Indianapolis Public Schools Board last week as she pled for them to make an exception for her daughter. “I refuse to break the hearts of my children due to misplaced priorities.”

Anderson was among a handful of parents whose children had not won seats at the highly sought after Center for Inquiry schools their siblings attended. But now, the board is considering changing its rules to give siblings a better chance at winning seats.

The situation reflects a broader challenge facing Indianapolis’ largest school district. In recent years, the district has replicated popular programs and made them more accessible for children from low-income families. But nearly every move to expand access to sought-after schools has been met with resistance from families who are worried about how the change might affect their children.

Indianapolis Public Schools has not explicitly modified its magnet admission rules this year. But this is the first year of Enroll Indy, a new common enrollment system that is changing the process for families, making admissions rules clearer, and ensuring they are applied consistently.

As cities across the country move to common enrollment, they encounter similar issues, said Betheny Gross, a researcher with the Center for Reinventing Public Education. Parents who knew how to play by the rules of the previous system can feel like they are losing control, she said.

“They can’t walk into the school and really give a convincing case to the principal and get their kid into the school,” she said. “Parents, for all good reasons, are very protective of their children.”

Common enrollment systems, which allow students to apply for district and charter schools in a single location, have been embraced in several cities in recent years, including New Orleans, Denver and Washington, D.C. Enroll Indy, which will run three lotteries throughout the year, sent parents results from the first application cycle Feb. 15.

The problem facing Indianapolis Public Schools now is complaints from families because eight children who live in the district did not win seats at the schools their siblings attend. When children already have a sibling enrolled at a magnet school, they have a leg up in the admission lottery. But students who are zoned to attend a particular campus also get priority, and they are admitted before siblings.

The Andersons’ daughter did not win a spot at School 27 because although she has siblings at the school, the family does not live in the right zone, Jennifer Anderson said.

Those zones exist because when the district has several schools offering the same program, such as Montessori or the Centers for Inquiry, it divides the map into zones. If families want to attend one of those schools, the district provides transportation only to the campus in their zone, said Patrick Herrel, enrollment director for the district.

Having different enrollment areas for schools offering the same program helps balance the number of children eligible for each school and reduce transportation costs, Herrel said. The rules give priority to families in the zones because the district does not provide busing to families outside the zones.

If families get priority but not transportation, Herrel said, “we are essentially pretending to give access to families when in fact only some of those families will be able to take advantage of it.”

A family’s zone could change during the course of their children’s education, however, if they move or the district redraws the boundaries. The results can seem unfair to families who face the prospect that their children may not be admitted to a school their sibling attends. And at least two members of the school board seemed to agree with their argument.

During a meeting Thursday, board member Kelly Bentley apologized to families in the community for failing to ensure that the sibling preference was given more weight when the board reviewed the admission rules.

“We should never, ever split families up,” she added. “I can’t think of anything more inequitable than splitting families up.”

One way of solving the challenge would be providing transportation to families who are no longer in the same zone as their school. But busing students from across the district could come at a substantial cost.

Because of past board decisions, the district is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars busing students from across the district. Next year, it will also offer busing to some students who live out of the zone for School 60, a decision the board made in the face of parent uproar over the new boundaries.

The steep price tag of busing students to different magnet schools is especially significant for the district now because it is in the midst of appealing to taxpayers for more money. In order to reduce the amount it is seeking, the administration said it would need to curtail plans to expand transportation.

“My recommendation to commissioners is to take some time and give this some thought,” said Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. “There are tremendous financial implications should we go that route.”

In the long term, it’s likely that Indianapolis’ largest school district will continue to encounter resistance from families until there are more seats available in the most sought-after schools, said Gross, the common enrollment researcher.

“It comes down to supply,” she said. “When we just don’t have enough seats in the places that kids want to go to, you are going to always end up with these disappointments.”

The aim of Enroll Indy, the new common enrollment system, is to make sure families know what school options exist and how to enroll in them, said founder Caitlin Hannon. If they succeed, they will reach families who were not previously applying to the most popular schools — or were missing the deadline. But as more parents apply for schools that are already filling up, others will have a harder time gaining admission, she said.

“If 1,000 more families know about a popular school and apply, haven’t we been successful, because they are applying for a seat that they didn’t even know they could have or existed?” she said.

school support

When students miss school, they fall behind. Here’s how one group is curbing absenteeism.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Two of Agape's staff members work with students on reading at Whitney Achievement Elementary School. The staff members, though employed by the Memphis nonprofit, are integrated into school life.

When Crystal Bullard moved to Memphis from the Bahamas last year, she was looking for a new life and a better education for her three young children.

What she found was an overwhelming school system that was hard to navigate, and an environment where her children felt like outsiders.

Her children, ages 4, 7 and 9, were initially bullied at Whitney Achievement Elementary School, the North Memphis school she chose because it was closest to her home. The bullying meant her kids didn’t want to go to school. For Bullard, missing a day or two was a common problem at the beginning of last school year.

“When I came here, I didn’t know nothing. I had nothing,” Bullard said. “I came to this school because it was the first I found. But it was so hard to get the kids up and here every day. We struggled with that for many weeks.”

Bullard is not alone in her daily battle to get the kids to school. Almost a fifth of Memphis students are considered chronically absent, which means they missed at least 18 days during the school year. Research has shown chronic absenteeism is linked to negative outcomes for students, including lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and even a greater risk of entering the criminal justice system.

Absenteeism has such a large impact on learning, districts are under pressure from new national legislation to include chronic absenteeism data in how they evaluate schools.

In Memphis, a local nonprofit is working to improve attendance numbers. Agape Child & Family Services places its employees in schools throughout Memphis to help with attendance, behavior, and academic issues.

Bullard said her life began to change when her family joined the Agape program. The three full-time Agape workers at Whitney walked Bullard through why it was crucial for her kids to come to school every day. They provided her with school supplies and uniforms, and tutored her children. Agape also provided counseling for Bullard and her children through another part of its organization.

“My kids have too many friends now,” Bullard said. “They aren’t afraid, they’re excited to come to school. My kids are 100 percent better now than when we came. We still have issues to work out, but we feel welcome.”

For schools like Whitney Elementary, days of missed instruction can quickly put students behind academically. Whitney was taken over in 2012 by the state’s Achievement School District, which is trying to turn around Tennessee’s worst-performing schools. Every day of instruction matters in their efforts to boost student achievement, Whitney principal LaSandra Young said.

“Our attendance is low at the start of the year because students have transferred or moved,” said Young. The school currently enrolls 263 kids — Agape helps the school track students down.

Agape, Whitney Elementary, Memphis
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Crystal Bullard’s children started preschool and elementary school at Whitney last year.

“Sometimes it’s as simple as they don’t have school supplies yet or are struggling with transportation,” Young said. “The extra support they provide is crucial because every day of attendance really does matter.”

Charity Ellis, one of Agape’s staff members at Whitney, said her job can look very different day-to-day, but working closely with students is consistent. Some days Agape pulls students out of class to work intensely on reading or math skills. Or if students are struggling with behavior in class, Agape staff members will pull the students into the hallway to speak with them and calm them down.

Agape staff also try to stay in constant communication with parents, especially if their kids are missing school, Ellis said.

If parents are running late, they might decide to keep their student at home rather than bring them for a half day, Ellis said. “But when we communicate with them how important every hour of learning is, they get that. Sometimes all it takes is one conversation and how deeply we care about their kids.”

Agape worked with 82 kids at Whitney Elementary last year, who were chosen by the school, including Bullard’s three children. About 90 percent of those students are now attending at least 90 percent of the school year, said David Jordan, CEO of Agape.

The program has grown every year from when it began in 2013 with 113 students. Now, more than 550 students are a part of Agape programs in 16 schools throughout the Frayser, Raleigh, Hickory Hill, and Whitehaven neighborhoods — and they are all now at school for at least 85 percent of the school year. This is just shy of their goal for Agape students to attend more than 90 percent of the year.

For comparison, 57 percent of all students in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District attend school for more than 90 percent of the year, Jordan said.

Jordan emphasized that keeping kids in school goes beyond daily attendance — the program also helps students with academics and behavior, so they don’t miss school because of suspensions. Agape helps out parents, too.

Agape, Whitney Elementary, Memphis
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Whitney Principal LaSandra Young (right) hugs a student who is pulled out of class to work with Agape.

“A lot of our parents are underemployed and dealing with trauma,” Jordan said. “We provide family therapy, but also job coaching and help. We see this as a two-generation approach, the parents and their children are in this together.”

Bullard said the family counseling provided by Agape at Whitney has made a huge difference in her family’s mental health. When they first moved in 2017, Sergio, her oldest child, struggled with his behavior at school and he was sometimes pulled out of class.

“We’ve been through a lot,” Bullard said. “When Sergio first came here, he had a mean spirit in him. A don’t-care attitude. But at our sessions, he opened up and up. He’s still fighting with his sister, but it isn’t the rage it used to be. He’s calmed down a lot.”

Sergio also had a habit of hiding his school work from her, Bullard said. That’s changed, too, and he enjoys showing off what he’s learning to his mom.

“Now he likes to say big words that he knows I don’t know,” Bullard said. “But it’s great. We’ve never had this kind of support before.”

Jordan said that stories like Bullard’s are encouraging but acknowledges there’s still a lot of work to be done. He said he’s hopeful Agape will be able to add more and more students to the program every year.

“We know that keeping kids in school consistently is one of the things that works,” Jordan said. “We also know that students in under-resourced neighborhoods in our city need more support. The schools need more people who can help. We can provide that.”

Here’s the full list of schools Agape is in, broken down by neighborhood:

Sorting the Students

How a diverse Indianapolis Montessori school quadrupled its applications in two years

Spots at School 87 filled up quickly this year.

When Sara Martin and her husband looked at elementary schools for their son three years ago, they were hoping for a spot at one of Indianapolis Public Schools’ most sought-after magnet programs. Instead, they landed at School 87, a Montessori school in a poor neighborhood that is among the magnets that typically have open seats after the district lottery.

The Martins, who had included the school among their choices without even going for a tour, were convinced after visiting the westside school and seeing happy students working independently. “I just kind of fell in love with it,” Sara Martin said.

Since the Martins were placed there, however, School 87 has gone from not quite filling its seats to quickly reaching capacity this fall. Nearly 340 students applied to School 87 this year — about four times the number that applied two years ago, according to district data. Enrollment has also grown slightly, reaching about 370 students this year compared to about 340 students in 2016-17.

And unlike some of the most popular magnet schools that primarily serve families who are middle class or white, School 87’s demographics nearly mirror the rest of the district. Most students are poor enough to get discounted meals, and the student population is racially diverse. The school is also in a poor neighborhood north west of downtown, which is significant because families who live within about a half a mile of a magnet school have priority in admission.

There are lots of reasons why School 87, which is also known as George Washington Carver, could be growing more popular. This year, the prekindergarten-8th grade school likely got a boost from Enroll Indy, a new enrollment system that allows families to apply for Indianapolis Public Schools and many charter school options through a single website. The nonprofit did extensive outreach to families, and more students applied to magnet schools across the district.

But applications were already growing, thanks to recruitment efforts and word of mouth. The school has also performed relatively well on standardized tests, and it has a B grade from the state.

School 87, which began as a school-within-a-school, was given its own campus in 2013, one of three in the district that offer Montessori, which calls for students directing their own learning in structured environments. The model has a reputation for attracting affluent, liberal parents, and it has traditionally been confined to private schools.

Indianapolis Public Schools, however, has offered Montessori education for decades. It is an increasingly common option at public schools across the country, and recent research suggests that it benefits children from low-income families.

Kristin Hancock, a teacher who has been with the program since it started, said that while Montessori schools typically attract affluent parents, School 87 continues to serve students from diverse backgrounds.

“We have kids from the neighborhood, kids that are from our old neighborhood … that we’ve still carried on with those families for a really long time,” she said. “We have pretty much just the same kids that anybody else would.”

One reason Sara Martin, whose father is from El Salvador, was drawn to School 87 is because of its diversity. The family lives outside the district, and they chose Indianapolis Public Schools in part because students come from so many backgrounds, Martin said.

That diversity also shapes the admission campaign at School 87. Because it serves a community with many Spanish speakers, they made sure to have Spanish speaking staff members doing outreach, said Principal Mark Nardo.

The school has not made radical changes to its recruitment methods in recent years, but staff members have gotten better at it, Nardo said. The school enrollment committee, which includes teachers and other staff, used a host of approaches to recruiting new families last year. They visited the nearby community center and Head Start programs, hosted an enrollment event to help parents fill out the application, and updated marketing materials. On the side of the building, which sits beside a highway, a banner advertises the program to passing drivers.

The school also attracts students through word-of-mouth, Nardo said, and they encourage families to tell friends and neighbors about the program. “It’s common sense to sit there and talk to your parents that are here and just say, ‘hey, you are an ambassador, please go out and spread the word.’ ”