Future of Schools

Indianapolis innovation schools must follow a new policy after one lost its nonprofit status

PHOTO: Photo by Shaina Cavazos/Chalkbeat
Kindergarten students at Global Prep Academy, an innovation school in IPS.

As principals in Indianapolis Public Schools take on more responsibility, they are tasked with new administrative duties — and sometimes things may fall through the cracks.

The issue was crystallized last month at a school board meeting, when it was revealed that Global Preparatory Academy at School 44 lost its tax exempt status because leaders had failed to file paperwork to maintain it.

As one of eight Indianapolis Public Schools campuses that have converted to innovation status over the past three years, Global Prep is a new kind of school. It is under the umbrella of the district, but the school also has a charter, and its leader has administrative responsibilities that would not typically fall to a district principal.

Maintaining the school’s 501(c)(3) status is one of those new responsibilities, said founder and principal Mariama Carson, who previously led a neighborhood school in Pike Township for seven years. Under Indiana law, only nonprofit organizations may receive charters.

“The fact that we missed the filing, yes, that’s a big deal,” Carson said. But, she added, “it was totally unrelated to the operational runnings of the school, and I think that’s what parents care most about.”

The consequences of the mistake are relatively negligible, Carson said. The school’s nonprofit status was revoked last May, and Carson learned about it during the school’s annual audit. The school reapplied for tax-exempt status in February, she said, and if the request is approved by the Internal Revenue Service, the decision will be retroactive. The school did have to pay several thousand dollars for an accountant to prepare the new application, she said.

The revelation that Global Prep had failed to maintain tax-exempt status was especially notable because it often wins praise from advocates for innovation schools. It is led by an experienced principal, saw a jump in test scores during its first year, and has growing enrollment.

The issue came to light when MaryAnn Schlegel Ruegger, a community advocate and critic of innovations schools, shared the audit with the Indianapolis Public Schools board in February.

“I want to know why no due diligence is being done,” she said to the board. She added that the school is expected to be overseen by the district and the Office of Mayor Joe Hogsett, which granted its charter. The founder also got funding and support from The Mind Trust, a nonprofit that has played a central role in the creation of innovation schools.

“How can no one find this?” she asked.

Indianapolis Public Schools leaders did not learn about the problem until February because the school had not notified them previously. That violates the school’s contract with the district, which requires the school to give notice if it loses tax exempt status, and the district sent the school a written reprimand.

Aleesia Johnson, who oversees innovation schools for Indianapolis Public Schools, said that the district also changed its process in response to the issue. Now, schools are required to submit proof of nonprofit status every year. Previously the district would only get that information when it received the annual audit.

“It certainly has made us look back at our reporting requirements from our partner schools, making sure that we have dotted all I’s and crossed all T’s, and that we have all the information that we need to have,” Johnson said.

The flexibility afforded to innovation schools comes along with new responsibility for operational issues such as human resources, contracts with vendors, and school technology. This year, Global Prep hired a director of operations to take on some of those duties.

Johnson said that all district principals need to think about similar administrative and operational issues, “but certainly the scope and the spectrum at which an innovation principal needs to be thinking about them is broader.”

Carson sees the issue as a one-off problem. The school became a nonprofit as part of the charter application process before it opened its doors, and she did not realize regular forms were necessary to maintain nonprofit status, said Carson. Now, she has a team of people she relies on to deal with financial and administrative issues, but it was not on their radar because she handled the initial application, she added.

“As a neighborhood principal, I didn’t have those challenges,” Carson said. “But now there are systems that have to be in place for anybody that’s running an innovation school, different than just running a school for the district.”

Update:  March 31, 2018: This story has been updated to clarify MaryAnn Schlegel Ruegger’s quote.

Follow the ratings

Illinois education officials laud their school ratings — but critics say they don’t go far enough

Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State education officials publicly lauded their new school rating system Friday, even as a new, nationwide analysis of school improvement plans criticized Illinois’ approach as too hands-off.  

While the state developed a clear rating system as the federal government requires, Illinois falls short in follow-through, according to the report from the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit advocacy group, and HCM Strategies, a policy analysis group.  

“The state is taking too limited a role in leading or supporting school improvement efforts,” said the report, which examined how 17 states are implementing school improvement plans under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which was passed in 2015 and replaced the No Child Left Behind Act.

Both those federal laws task states with identifying and helping improve underperforming schools and with creating criteria to judge which schools are doing well. Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State officials disagree with the criticism.

“Illinois is being held up as a model for other states to follow,” said Ralph Grimm, chief education officer of Illinois, speaking at the monthly state board of education meeting on Friday. “The entire (state) team has to be commended for providing useful information.”

Illinois’ rating system places every public school in the state into one of four categories based in part on scores on the annual PARCC standardized tests (click here to see how Chicago schools ranked).

Only about a third of Illinois students scored proficient or higher on PARCC tests administered last spring. In reading, 37 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 met that benchmark, while in math 31 percent did. Despite that, the state awarded 80 percent of its schools a “commendable” or “exemplary” rating. 

The state labeled 20 percent of schools “underperforming” or “low performing,” the only designations that could trigger state action. Intervention measures include improvement plans, visits from specialists, and additional funding.

The state released its ratings just days after Chicago released its own batch of school ratings, which take into account a different set of metrics and a different standardized test.

Grimm said the next step will be asking the state’s lowest-performing schools to draft improvement plans and then connecting them with experts to implement their changes.

The state ratings pay particular attention to how schools educate certain groups of students — such as children of color and English language learners. Improvement plans will focus on ways to raise their achievement levels.

Under the latest state rankings, nearly half of Chicago schools failed to meet the state’s threshold for performance, with a disproportionate number of high schools on the low-performance list. Nearly all of under- and low-performing Chicago high schools are on the South Side and sit in or border on the city’s poorest census tracts.

The state could grant underperforming schools $15,000, and  the lowest performers can apply for $100,000 under its IL-Empower program — which helped schools improve by funneling federal funds to them. Advocates have welcomed the change to a carrot to help schools pull themselves up, after years of sticks that overhauled and cut funding for low-performing schools.

Nationally, the Collaborative for Student Success report applauded Colorado for its streamlined application system, and Nevada for asking districts to directly address equity.

The collaborative criticized Illinois for failing to involve parents and community members in its plan. The group also said the state needs to give districts more guidance on putting together school improvement plans. 

carry on

These 16 Denver charter schools won renewal from the school board

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Sebastian Cruz waves to Rev. Leon Kelly as he works with children in a classroom during his after-school program at Wyatt Academy in September 2018.

The Denver school board on Thursday night unanimously renewed agreements with 16 of the district’s charter schools. The lengths of those renewals, however, varied from one year to five years — and signaled the board’s confidence in the schools to deliver a quality education.

The board also accepted Roots Elementary’s decision to close and surrender its charter at the end of this school year. The Park Hill school is facing low enrollment and high costs.

Denver Public Schools is a charter-friendly school district that has for years shared tax revenue and school buildings with its 60 publicly funded, independently operated charter schools. The schools are controversial, though, with opponents viewing them as privatizing public education.

Every charter school in Denver has an agreement with the district that spells out how long it’s allowed to operate. To continue running after that time period, the charter school must seek renewal. The arrangement is part of the deal for charters: They get the flexibility to operate independently, but they must periodically prove to the district that they’re doing a good job.

The school board relies on one set of recommendations from Denver Public Schools staff and a second set of recommendations from a districtwide parent committee in deciding how long a leash to give each charter school. The district staff and the parents on the committee consider factors such as test scores, school culture, financial viability, and the strength of a school’s leaders when making their recommendations.

They also consider a school’s rating on Denver Public Schools’ color-coded scale based largely on academic factors. The School Performance Framework, or SPF, labels schools either blue, green, yellow, orange, or red. Blue means a school has a distinguished academic record, while red means a school is not meeting the district’s expectations.

The staff recommended the school board renew the charters of all 16 schools that applied. Two other charter schools — DSST: Cole Middle School and Compass Academy — are also up for renewal this year. But because they earned the district’s lowest rating, they must go through a separate process in which they will present a detailed improvement plan. Their renewals will depend on the strength of their plans, which is why they weren’t included in this batch.

The board approved the 16 renewals Thursday without discussion. All of the new terms begin next school year. Here’s the rundown:

STRIVE Prep Federal, a middle school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2006
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

Rocky Mountain Prep Creekside, an elementary school in southeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: College View High School, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Green
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Blue
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Elementary School, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, an elementary school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Wyatt Academy, an elementary school in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2003
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Middle School, a middle school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2013
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Denver Justice High School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in central Denver
Year opened: 2009
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

REACH Charter School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

Monarch Montessori, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

STRIVE Prep SMART, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

Academy of Urban Learning, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northwest Denver
Year opened: 2005
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year, with a possible one-year extension

Rise Up Community School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year