Future of Schools

Next crop of Indianapolis charter schools could have familiar faces, few newcomers

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Students from Paramount School of Excellence's robotics team show off their skills at the Indiana Afterschool Network's Summit on Out of School Learning at the JW Marriott hotel in Indianapolis.

Indianapolis’ next wave of charter schools could come largely from longtime educators and established networks — a sign that the city’s charter sector might be maturing.

Four schools have indicated to the Indianapolis mayor’s office that they’re interested in applying for charters. Three would replicate existing school models: Paramount School of Excellence, Herron High School, and Purdue Polytechnic High School.

The fourth potential new school, a K-8 school on the southeast-side, comes from Mind Trust fellow Aleicha Ostler, the former principal of Indianapolis Public Schools’ SUPER School 19.

The interested schools bring backgrounds that include track records of success, years of education experience, access to deep resources, and support from politically influential players.

The familiar faces in this crop of charter school applicants suggest that Indiana’s 16-year-old charter scene is evolving, with more proven schools replicating across the city than in the past, when most schools were still new and untested.

The mayor’s office, which authorizes most of the city’s charter schools, appears to be looking increasingly to strong leaders with proven successes and intentionally targeted efforts — many of them already singled out and supported by the Mind Trust — in today’s competitive charter market.  

To be sure, many new ideas are still coming to Indianapolis. This spring, the state charter school board is also considering an application for an arts and vocational charter school from a longtime Indianapolis police detective seeking to help children affected by crime and poverty.

The potential new charter schools would open in fall 2019 at the earliest.

For those going through the mayor’s office, the schools would still have to submit full applications for approval, a process that started last month with their letters of intent and continues through June with interviews and public hearings.

Replicating Herron and Purdue Polytechnic would expand public high school offerings following IPS’ move to close and consolidate district high schools next year. Their existing schools fall under the district’s umbrella as innovation schools, but it’s too early to know whether any potential new schools could follow suit.

Purdue Polytechnic, run in partnership with Purdue University, has been planning to open a network of schools, and head of school Scott Bess said this is the first step to start expansion plans. He hopes to open a second school on the north side of the county, to eventually enroll up to 600 students.

Purdue Polytechnic opened its first school last fall with 150 freshman students, with more demand than it was able to accommodate, Bess said. The high school uses a new project-based curriculum focused on science and math skills, with a goal of serving low-income students and students of color.

The first high school plans to move into the former P.R. Mallory factory on the eastside if costly renovations can be worked out. Paramount could propose to open a middle school at the same location as a feeder to the first Purdue Polytechnic High School.

The project-based, hands-on philosophies of both Paramount and Purdue Polytechnic would make it “a natural fit,” Bess said.

“We felt there was strong synergy between their approach to STEM and our approach to STEM, so we thought the two models would serve each other well,” said Tommy Reddicks, Paramount’s executive director.

The existing eastside elementary Paramount School of Excellence uses a data-driven approach and is known for its urban farm. Paramount is working on opening a second school this fall, Reddicks said, also on the eastside.

The highly sought-after Herron High School, one of the city’s older charter schools, might seek to open its third high school focused on liberal arts with a classical education approach. Its second school, Riverside High School, opened last fall with 140 freshmen students and plans to move to the former Heslar Naval Armory on the banks of the White River.

Herron did not list a potential location for a third high school, which could open in 2020 and eventually enroll up to 500 students, according to the letter of intent submitted to the city. Herron officials did not return messages seeking comment.

The Mind Trust, a local charter school incubator and education nonprofit, has previously provided support to school leaders in all three of the networks seeking to replicate, in addition to Ostler as a current fellow.

The K-8 school that Ostler is interested in starting would open in the southeast-side neighborhood of Twin Aire. She wants to build off her experience at the nearby SUPER School 19, a magnet school incorporating physical movement into education.

She is using her two-year fellowship to develop a pitch for a school that would focus on design thinking, personalized learning, and postsecondary planning. Her concept comes from a concern that schools prepare students for tests, not careers in the real world.

“I don’t think as schools we’re really assisting with that problem,” Ostler said.

She noticed many students on the southeast-side were the first in their family to graduate from high school or go to college. For postsecondary planning, Invent Learning Hub will show students career options throughout the city, connect their passions and skills with careers, talk about how families can support students’ pathways, and follow up with students after they graduate from the K-8 school.

She also wants to dedicate a block of each day to design thinking, just like math and reading.

The Indiana Charter School Board is also considering a proposal from the HIM by HER Foundation, started by Indianapolis homicide detective Harry C. Dunn III. The nonprofit’s name stands for Helping Improve Mankind by Healing Every Race, and it began as an effort to address the vocational, educational, and mentoring needs that Dunn saw young black men facing in particular.

The HIM By HER Collegiate School for the Arts would be run by Wanda Riesz, a former school principal and Indianapolis Public Schools administrator, according to the school’s application. It would look to fill the void left by the closure of the Broad Ripple High School’s performing arts magnet program at the end of this year. It also would look to provide alternative education to fit the individual needs of at-risk students such as those who might be pregnant, expelled from other schools, or going through juvenile court.

The school would leverage community partnerships and teach Spanish to all students.

Riesz did not immediately return a message seeking comment. The school will undergo interviews and public hearings before the board decides in May whether to approve it.

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

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Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.