Future of Schools

The new ninth grade: As Indianapolis high schools close, Crispus Attucks rethinks freshman year

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Crispus Attucks put freshman teachers on teams as part of a new approach to ninth grade.

Crispus Attucks High School is redesigning its freshman year experience, and the changes could soon be a model for Indianapolis Public Schools.

Attucks will see hundreds of new students next fall as one of the district’s four high schools spared from closure. That change will come a year after the school lost its middle school grades, prompting the administration to rethink its approach to ninth grade and create a program to help students adjust and thrive.

“When kids have a successful ninth grade year, they are going to be successful the rest of their high school years,” said Principal Lauren Franklin. “They are more prone to success and graduation. … We want them to walk across that stage, and we want them to be set up for a successful post-secondary career.”

The linchpin of the effort is a new freshman academy and a focus on monitoring whether ninth graders are on track to graduate, which Indianapolis Public Schools is planning to roll out to the three other district-run high schools next year.

At Attucks, the approach began this year. Freshman students were moved to the third floor of the building, where they were clustered into classes with primarily other freshman and the same teachers. Those teachers are grouped into two teams who have many of the same students in their classes, and teams meet twice each week to discuss how their students are doing.

Those may seem like simple changes, but they have reshaped how teachers think about students, said assistant principal George Sims, who oversees the academy. Instead of focusing on just how students are doing in their classes, teachers are thinking about students’ entire school experience, he said.

When Attucks served middle schoolers as well as high school students, freshmen were already familiar with the school and staff, so the transition was easier, he said. Next year, however, it will be especially important to have teachers who pay close attention to freshmen.

“You’ve got a group of teachers who understand that this is a special group,” Sims said. “They are freshmen. We are still teaching them how to play the game of school.”

Some of the strongest research on the importance of ninth grade comes from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. The consortium has found that students who complete freshman year on track — those who earn enough credits and fail no more than one class — are almost four times more likely to graduate than peers who are off track. And freshman success is not just an early indicator of whether students might drop out. Chicago Public Schools dramatically boosted graduation rates when high schools began a focused effort to improve ninth grade outcomes.

Because of the city’s success using freshman on track programs to boost high school graduation rates, Chicago has become something of a model for other districts. Beginning last year, staff from Indianapolis Public School have been traveling to Chicago for freshman on track trainings through the Network for College Success, a partnership between 15 schools and the University of Chicago.

The trainings were paid for by Stand for Children Indiana, a parent organizing group that’s also active in local education politics. The group paid $12,000 last year to send Indianapolis educators to the trainings, and it expects to spend another $35,000 in 2018. Stand primarily works with parents at elementary schools, but freshman on track drew the interest of executive director Justin Ohlemiller because it has a track record of success, he said.

“We can’t forget about children who may or may not be on a pathway to success in middle and high school,” he said. “There’s still opportunities to provide supports for those children and get them on a successful track.”

At its core, the freshman-on-track program is about using student data on grades, attendance, and behavior to monitor which students are struggling and develop plans to help them do better. Sometimes those plans start when teachers are discussing their students with each other. But they can also come from talking with the students themselves.

Beginning this week, social studies teacher and ninth grade team lead Katie Knutson has been meeting with freshmen to talk about their grades and attendance. To get ready, she hand-wrote about 100 forms. She knows her students pretty well, but there were still some data that surprised her, Knutson said.

“There are students who I was looking at and I was like, ‘oh my gosh, why do they have Cs?’,” she said. “They were still on track, but I’m like, ‘they should not have Cs. I’m having a talk with them because they are an A student.’ ”

Most of Knutson’s meetings with students only take a few minutes. But for some students, the conversation takes longer. One student, she learned during a conversation with him, often plays phone games during class, so she emailed all his other teachers to let them know about the problem and to ask them to “be on crackdown.”

Knutson, who has taught at Attucks for seven years, always paid attention to how students were doing in the classes she taught. And when she handed out report cards, she discussed their failing grades. But sometimes she wouldn’t follow up with them about whether they were doing better.

This year, that’s different. Students who are failing classes show up on a list for the freshman teams to discuss, and teachers will have regular check-ins with students.

The new approach “keeps us accountable for checking in with students, because Post-it notes are going to fly off our desks like crazy, and our to-do lists are a mile long,” Knutson said.

The importance of freshman year is clear to English teacher Tyler Rogers from her own experience. As a freshman in high school, she failed a math class. At the time, none of her teachers discussed the long-term consequences. But when she started thinking about college, she had a lot of ground to make up.

With more attention from teachers who notice problems like bad attendance or failing grades, she hopes it will be different for her students.

“I didn’t take my freshman year seriously at all,” she said. “So when it came to my junior and senior year, I had to work 10 times harder just to bring up my GPA.”

bus breakdown

Facing his first crisis, Carranza fired a top official. But can he fix New York City’s yellow bus system?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza rode a school bus to P.S. 377 in Ozone Park, Queens, on the first day of the 2018-2019 school year.

Just days after responding to the city’s school bus crisis by firing a top official and reassigning another, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza put his staff on notice that when things go wrong they better act quickly — or he will find someone who will.

“When things don’t go right I expect a sense of urgency to serve our community,” Carranza said in an interview with Chalkbeat Monday. “And if we can’t make it happen, then we’ll make sure that there are people in place that will make it happen. It’s really that simple.”

Problems with the city’s school bus services are not unusual, especially at the start of the school year. But since the start of classes, the city’s school transportation hotline has seen a 17 percent increase in calls over the same period last year. And revelations about drivers who were not properly vetted, buses arriving late, students trapped on hours-long routes crisscrossing the city, or buses simply not arriving at all have dominated the opening weeks of Carranza’s first full school year, splashing across the front page of the Daily News.

Last week, after deeming the situation “unacceptable,” Carranza fired Eric Goldstein, the CEO of school support services responsible for transportation, school food, and the public school sports league. Carranza also reassigned Elizabeth Rose, who had been CEO of school operations and a top deputy under former Chancellor Carmen Fariña, to focus solely on transportation contracts.

Carranza said Monday that a broader shakeup to the $1.2 billion-per-year bus system, which serves roughly 150,000 students, two-thirds of whom have disabilities, could be coming.

“As we understand more fully how [the Office of Pupil Transportation] in particular operates, I wouldn’t be surprised if there aren’t some more changes,” he said. Leading that effort will be Kevin Moran, a former borough field support director who will now serve as a senior advisor to Carranza on transportation — while the city searches for a permanent leader.

The busing problems are the first significant test of Carranza’s leadership during a crisis since taking the helm of the nation’s largest school system last April. So far, Carranza’s response has echoed his reaction to much larger issues such as school segregation — that he’s interested in systemic fixes and doesn’t want to excuse the issue just because it has bedeviled past chancellors. Under changes made by Carranza’s administration, school bus drivers will undergo the same background checks and have investigations handled by the same education department unit as other schools staffers.

But so far, his response to the crisis has drawn mixed reactions from some advocates, observers, and education department insiders.

Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, said busing issues often linger through much of the school year. In the past, the education department has reacted defensively, fixing bus issues in individual cases when advocacy groups get involved but rarely pledging to overhaul the system, she said.

“We get a lot of students at this time of year who have not been to school yet because they don’t have a bus,” Moroff said. “It’s exciting to hear the chancellor say, ‘it’s unacceptable and we’re going to do something about it.’”

But overhauling the bus system will be a massive undertaking, partly owing to the technical complexity of ferrying students to schools with different schedules, shifting rosters of students necessitating new routes — but also because the system is dependent on a rough-and-tumble web of private bus companies. (Goldstein, the support services CEO who Carranza fired, reportedly faced down the CEO of a bus company who confronted him with a loaded pistol during contract negotiations in 2010.)

Eric Nadelstern, a top education department deputy during the Bloomberg administration, said Carranza may be underestimating the bus system’s complexity and the value of keeping leaders with deep knowledge of it.

“Goldstein at the very least understood where the pitfalls were,” Nadelstern said, adding that removing a leader in the middle of a crisis may prove unwise. “I don’t think there’s anyone else in the system who has that knowledge or capacity.”

The Bloomberg administration attempted an overhaul of the bus system in 2007, hiring private consultants in an attempt to make it more efficient. That effort turned out to be a flop, the New York Times reported, “leaving shivering students waiting for buses in the cold and thousands of parents hollering about disrupted routines.” Klein eventually apologized but largely defended the reorganization at the time, saying, “I never think that the pain is worth it. On the other hand, I don’t think there’s any good time to make these changes.”

Others, including one current education department administrator who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they worried that Carranza wanted to show he was taking charge of the situation by making heads roll without immediately addressing the underlying problems.

But while Carranza admitted he does not yet have a full explanation of why the school bus system has repeatedly fallen short, he said he is committed to a longer-term solution.

“My understanding is this goes back at least decades,” Carranza told Chalkbeat. “There are some systemic issues that I don’t want to put a band-aid on, I want to actually find the root cause and fix.”

inner circle

With Earth, Wind and Fire tune, Chicago’s first chief equity officer announces new job

PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons
Earth, Wind and Fire in 1982

It’s little surprise that the public announcement of Chicago’s first chief equity officer, Maurice Swinney, came over Twitter. Last Friday, he announced his new job with a video of the iconic disco band Earth, Wind, and Fire performing the tune that made Sept. 21 famous.

Like his boss, Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson, Swinney comes from the ranks of spirited Chicago principals and has an affinity for the social media platform. Swinney, the principal of Tilden Career Academy in Fuller Park on the South Side, now moves up the ranks to a cabinet-level job, and will head the four-person Equity Office with a $1 million budget.  

Jackson told Chalkbeat over the summer that the equity chief’s primary focus in year one would be how to narrow gaps in test scores and academic achievement between black and Latino students on one hand and their white and Asian peers on the other.

Priorities would include diversifying the district’s workforce, ensuring resources are distributed equitably across the district, and supporting efforts to award more contracts to minority- and woman-owned businesses. But the schools chief also emphasized then that it was too early to chart a course for the new equity office before filling the job.

Read more: Chicago forges ahead with a teacher experiment

Before moving to Chicago in 2012 to lead Tilden, Swinney was an associate principal at St. Amand High School, a majority-white school in Ascension Parish, Louisiana.

The choice signals growing attention from Chicago Public Schools’ central office on the issue of neighborhood schools. Last week, the district announced that neighborhood schools would get first priority in a new investment: expanding International Baccalaureate programs.

Tilden, whose student population is mostly black and Latino, is a struggling neighborhood school that illustrates many of the inequities so pervasive in the school system. It has fewer than 300 students in a building built for 2,000. Slightly more than half of its students graduate, compared with the district’s five-year rate of 78 percent. One in three enrolls in college.

Swinney’s appointment comes at a time when neighborhood schools are being squeezed by school choice, with students increasingly leaving their ZIP codes to attend schools across the city. Tilden is among a group of high schools that face additional pressure, with declining enrollment and newer charters and other options nearby.

Plans to open a South Loop high school are just the latest threat. Chicago’s Board of Education is set to vote on a boundary proposal Wednesday that would lop off attendance in its northern zone.  

On Friday, Jackson sent a letter announcing Swinney’s promotion to district staff. The letter touted “historic gains” at the school district but acknowledged “that an opportunity gap persists for some students,” that demands the district examine itself to identify and root out inequity “whether in resources, staffing, academic supports, social and emotional supports, or access to high-quality programs.”

She noted that Swinney, who has led Tilden since 2012, has been recognized for his emphasis on social emotional learning and postsecondary success by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research’s To And Through Project, which focuses on ensuring students enroll in and finish college.

Jackson’s letter to staff stressed that, beyond the new equity office, every educator in the city shares “a collective responsibility” to build a diverse workforce for the district and increase equity in resource allocation for all students and schools.