Future of Schools

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

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Katie Knutson, left, is helping to run a new student teacher program.

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.”

parent power

From Amazon to air conditioners, parent leaders quizzed de Blasio and Carranza at forum

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza host a forum for parents in Queens, the first of five stops across the city.

Deborah Alexander, a parent whose school district covers Long Island City, asked Mayor Bill de Blasio Wednesday night why the local Community Education Council wasn’t asked to be on a committee providing input on Amazon’s controversial move to the Queens neighborhood.

De Blasio agreed. “You’re right,” the mayor said,  “the CEC should be on the committee, so we’re going to put the CEC on that committee.”

Not every question received such a cut-and-dry answer at the mayor and Chancellor Richard Carranza’s first “parent empowerment” listening tour event in Queens that drew about 200 local parents who were elected or appointed to certain boards and received invites. The pair faced a host of tough questions from parent leaders about problems including school overcrowding, the lack of air conditioners, lead in water, and busing.

By the end of the meeting, de Blasio told the audience that they should always get quick responses to their questions from the department and “that you can feel the impact of your involvement…that’s up to us to help that happen.”

He also called the listening tour “overdue,” and said that Carranza has told him the city needs to do more to reach out. Parents have often criticized city officials for not being plugged into the community.

Some questions needed more time to be answered. Bethany Thomas, co-president of the PTA at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, asked why the education department had not yet signed off on aspects of the school’s plan to have more than one principal. De Blasio asked Carranza to come up with an answer by next month.

Another parent said students at P.S. 62 were drinking from school water fountains that tested positive for lead last year, even though, according to the parent, the issue had not been addressed. De Blasio asked city officials to visit the school Thursday.

Other comments were even more complicated, often causing de Blasio and Carranza to rush parents along and condense comments to one specific issue. One Asian parent, who serves on a middle school’s PTA, gave an impassioned speech about feeling like “the enemy” after de Blasio announced a proposal in June to scrap the specialized high schools admissions test in order to diversify the schools. Currently 62 percent of specialized high school students are Asian.

“This was not about saying anyone is the bad guy,” de Blasio said, who has defended the plan as a way to bring more black and Hispanic students to those high schools.

Several parents asked why their schools still don’t have air conditioners. After de Blasio and Carranza said there is a plan to put air conditioners in every school by 2021, a mother with children at John Adams High School tearfully explained that her children will be out of school by then.

Carranza said he understood her problem, and the department would follow up, but that electrical wiring at each building makes it tough to solve the problem sooner than planned.

Alexander — the parent who asked about Amazon — questioned Carranza and de Blasio about how parent feedback would be used. She talked about the resolutions her Community Education Council passes that never get responses or feedback from the education department.

“We come, all of us, unpaid, away from our families, away from our jobs, away from bed times and dinners,” Alexander said. “We want to know what we’re doing is impactful, not a checked box.”

De Blasio said the city owes her “a process,” and department officials should respond in “real-time” — which could mean a couple of weeks. Carranza and de Blasio pledged to get a report of the meeting back to the parent leaders, noting how city leaders are following up with concerns.

elected school board

In Chicago, not everyone agrees with the grassroots call for an elected school board

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum on the city's next mayor and public schools included, from left, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, Daniel Anello, Jitu Brown, and Beth Swanson

Despite a growing call for an elected school board, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to Chicago’s troubled public school system.

Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum Wednesday evening split on whether an elected school board would offer more public accountability, especially given concerns that factions such as the teachers union would out-organize, and outspend, other candidates.

Daniel Anello, the CEO of school choice group Kids First, said he worried that an election determined by the size of campaign spending wouldn’t necessarily produce a board responsive to student and family needs.

“You need a school board that is representative of the communities we are talking about, but I worry if you take away accountability from the mayor, the mayor can absolve themselves of schools,” said Anello, noting his worries about big money entering a school board election. “My concern is that it is going to turn into a proxy war of ideology.”  

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
The crowd at the Chalkbeat Chicago Education for All event at Malcolm X College

The conversation was part of a larger discussion, hosted by Chalkbeat Chicago and sponsored by a new AT&T economic development initiative called Believe Chicago, about the next mayoral election and the future of city schools. Of the leading mayoral candidates who were invited, Lori Lightfoot and Paul Vallas attended.

The evening produced little agreement, except that school quality still differs dramatically by the address and race of students, and that the next mayor needs to be willing to have difficult, and even confrontational, conversations.

In addition to Anello, the panelists included Elizabeth Swanson, the vice president of strategy and programs at the Joyce Foundation and the former deputy chief of staff for education for outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel; community organizer Jitu Brown, who led the 2013 hunger strike that saved Dyett High School; and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a county commissioner and newly elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Brown, who is the national director for the community education group Journey for Justice, made an impassioned plea for an elected school board, calling it one of the few pathways for communities of color to regain any influence over an education system he argued wasn’t working for them.

“In order for us to hold a system that has never loved us accountable, we must have democracy, we must have decision-making authority around how these institutions function in our community,” Brown said. “Is this a silver bullet? No. But is it a necessary ingredient? Yes.”

Another burning question raised during the night:. Should homegrown schools chief Janice Jackson keep her job?

Brown praised Jackson as a talented teacher and strong principal in the black community before her ascent to the central office — but expressed deep concern that she’s unable to run the district “with her instincts and what she knows how to do.”

“I think her work is highly politicized,” Brown said. “National Teachers Academy was being closed over a land grab, and her position on that was not the right position. Parents had to go to state appellate court in order to get that victory. Situations like that give me pause.”

But Anello and Swanson answered with high praise for the work Jackson has done and strong endorsements for her continuing to run the show at the nation’s third-largest school district.

Anello touted Jackson as a down-to-earth and accessible schools chief.

“If you want to have a conversation with her just pick up the phone,” he said. “That is rare in a school leader. It would be a shame and an absolute mistake to tell her to step down when you have a unicorn.”

Swanson said Jackson’s on-the-ground experience in school communities helps her relate to and inspire educators and school leaders, and her experience managing the $5 billion Chicago Public Schools make her a strong candidate to keep the job, whoever occupies the mayor’s office next year.

“I think Janice is an incredible leader, really unique,” Swanson said.

Panelists also diverged on whether the new mayor should freeze charter school expansion in the city.

Garcia questioned whether the city’s more than 100 charter schools have lived up to their billing as laboratories to experiment with and improve education. Chicago, he said, has “been infected with charter mania,” and instead needs to pivot toward the importance of ensuring current schools are adequately funded.

Anello tried quelling the debate on charters vs. neighborhood schools, arguing that parents are agnostic about school type and more concerned about quality education and good schools for their children.

“I would start by listening to communities and families,” he said.