summer learning loss

This Indiana summer program is fighting summer learning loss. Here’s how

PHOTO: Shelby Mullis
Seventh-grade students at Horizons are currently reading author Paul Fleischman’s “Seedfolks,” a novel about building community and discovering tolerance. By the end of the course, students will be able to identify historical figures from the civil rights movement and memorialize them within the community.

The upside of summer, for many students: No homework.

The downside: Losing a lot of what they learned during the school year.

A central Indiana summer program is trying to reverse this widespread backsliding, which research has shown can be equivalent to two to three months of lost reading ability.

Trinity Sanders, 14, is one of 150 Indianapolis students spending six weeks this summer at Horizons, an academic camp program for students from low-income families, whose summer learning loss can be steeper than that of their more affluent peers.

“It keeps me motivated to want to go to school because I’m ahead of everybody since I’m just not at home during the summertime,” Trinity, now in her ninth and final year at Horizons, told Chalkbeat.

Horizons at St. Richard’s Episcopal School is the local arm of a larger tuition-free program serving rising kindergartners through ninth-graders in 18 states. To be eligible, students must qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch. When they start at Horizons, two-thirds of students are performing below grade level in math and literacy.

More than 25 local companies and nonprofits fund the Indianapolis program, which the Indianapolis-based education advocacy group The Mind Trust is citing as a model for what can  be done statewide to reduce summer learning loss.

The Mind Trust, which regularly tours Indiana schools, summer programs, and adult high schools, organized a visit last week to a Horizons site at Butler University. Some 30 Indiana educators and community leaders came along to hear about Horizons’ approach to summer enrichment and to eradicating learning loss among its students.

“Oftentimes quality programs, not on purpose, can exclude the families who need it the most,” Marquisha Bridgeman, senior director of community engagement at The Mind Trust, told Chalkbeat. “Horizons is very intentional [about] making sure they reach families who are going to be best served by their program.”

Trinity, an aspiring doctor, told the visitors about her experience at Horizons.

During the summer program, each level is assigned a theme unique to their class, and study a novel based on that theme. This summer, such themes include “Plants and Nature,” “Building Healthy Communities,” and “Discovery through the Five Senses.” During the course of the summer, students are expected to complete independent projects related to that theme.

The eighth-grade theme, this year, is “A Force for Good.” Students are tasked with developing their own idea for a nonprofit organization. On field trips to the Children’s Museum and the Mid-North Food Pantry, they learn more about nonprofit operations.

The nonprofit Trinity wants to develop promotes gun control and gun safety. Later this summer, she’ll have an opportunity to present the group’s mission statement, volunteer plans, and budget to a panel of nonprofit professionals. The panel will assess which proposals are worth acting on.

“I hope my nonprofit is one of the ones they pick to actually consider trying to make,” Trinity said. “With the gun violence, I think I want to do one that keeps kids safe and that keeps them away from gun violence — even adults, too.”

Using the STAR assessment —  a test used to assess student growth in areas such as math and literacy — Horizons found that its students show two- to three-month average gains in reading and math skills. That puts them four- to six-months ahead of where they have would otherwise been at the beginning of the next school year.

Horizons focuses on youth most at risk of falling behind.

A 2017 Children’s Defense Fund report found that 77 percent of Indiana’s eighth-grade students who qualify for free and reduced-priced lunch performed below grade level in reading, and 76 percent of these same children performed below grade level in math in 2015.

By contrast, 49 percent of students from higher-income families performed below grade level in both reading and math.

Teachers also use data from the STAR assessment, which students take at the beginning and  end of the summer, to determine what areas students need the most help in. This helps shape classroom content.

Nick Stewart is the coordinator for Horizons’ site at Butler University, where middle school students spend their day. He said Horizons is focused on hands-on learning, which means more projects and fewer worksheets.

“You’re going to see students working to solve real-world problems with real-world solutions,” Stewart said. “They’re engaging content in a way that matters to them.”

Which makes the program popular with students and parents.

Although Trinity will age out of the program after this summer, she said she wants to come back as an intern when she’s in high school. “This is the place for me,” she said.

Like Trinity, 90 percent of last year’s Horizons students in Indianapolis returned this summer. There are nearly 100 families are on a waiting list.

“It’s great in one regard and sad in another regard,” said Shanna Martin, executive director of Horizons at St. Richard’s. “It’s helping us know there really is a lot of need out there as we think and plan for the future and other opportunities to expand and grow.”

To that end, the program will also serve Indianapolis Public Schools students during fall, winter, and spring breaks in the upcoming school year. Horizons will partner with Tabernacle Presbyterian Church to offer programming and meals at the church to students from nearby School 43, School 48, and School 60.

Asked and answered

Are special education reforms moving too slowly? Chicago monitor responds to criticism.

PHOTO: Getty Images

Just four months into her role as the powerful independent monitor overseeing efforts to reform special education in Chicago Public Schools, Laura Boedeker already faces angry, public criticism.

The state created the monitor’s office earlier this year after a public inquiry found that Chicago was systematically delaying and denying educational services — guaranteed by federal law — to special-needs students. But on Monday, advocates for special education charged that Boedeker and her superiors at the Illinois State Board of Education have failed on many counts to improve services and to communicate with parents.

At the same time, the advocates released findings of a survey of 800 parents and teachers that backed their charges. The next day, Chicago parents finally received an email from Boedeker and her boss, state board General Counsel Stephanie Jones, that linked to updated special education protocols and parent trainings, and suggested that the state was working on a plan for families who want to file grievances.

In an interview with Chalkbeat on Tuesday afternoon, Boedeker responded to the criticism, described the work she’s done, and outlined what’s ahead.

What exactly is your job?

Being that one person in ISBE who is dedicated to overseeing, correcting, and addressing concerns about special education in Chicago Public Schools.

Do parents know you exist?

I hope so. They seem to. The word is getting out there, I can tell that.

We’re getting more attendance at our parent workshop sessions, and there’s a new topic every month. I’m seeing more parent emails. Not so much in the sense of  “I’m complaining about services,” but “I wanted to let you know this is something going on at my school.”

Why did it take several months to introduce yourself to parents and tell them what you’re doing as monitor?

We really wanted to.

But where it got really complicated is we really wanted all the information to be in the letter, including the student-specific corrective action, rather than sending out two letters. We also saw delays in trying to come to an agreement on language along with the advocate groups as well. It was hard to reach an agreement about not just appropriate language, but the level of the language of the letter.

A survey released this week indicated that special education reform in Chicago has been slow and under-resourced. How do you respond to that?

We are talking about very pervasive, systemic issues that were already problematic before the advocates submitted their letter last November [an action that helped put in motion events that led to the state monitor overseeing Chicago schools]. This is going to take a long time. There’s been a lot of broken trust between parents and schools, parents and central office, parents and administrators.

There’s a lot of restoration and repair we need to address even before we can go in and dig really deep into those corrections.

And as far as resources go, we have been wanting to take this first month or two to get a better idea of where I need more assistance. That’s something you’re not going to know until you start the job, when school is in session. We have regional offices that we work with and that I will be partnering with as specific to CPS. As far as my surrounding staff goes, that’s something that I’m discussing with [the office of the general counsel].

How many schools have you visited?

A small handful — less than 10 so far. That’s something we’re just starting to schedule because we’ve been getting a lot of feedback over the first two months of school, so we now have some action items, some investigatory points. I’ve had a lot of district representatives go into schools and do investigations. My plan is to go in and see if I’m seeing the same things they are reporting.

From the schools you’ve been to, what have you seen?

What’s been fascinating is that there’s so many stakeholders in special education. At the center of everything is the student, of course, and then you have the laws that surround special education — federal and state laws. And then you have a group of all these adults that have different understanding of special education. Even if they have the same understanding, they have different interpretations and beliefs about how things should be done.

So it’s really about getting inside of that story. For example: At a school I went to last week, I [received a] lot of staff outreach. And if I’m just going on the staff outreach, then I think the principal is assigning special education teachers to gen ed classrooms when a teacher doesn’t show up. But when we got in there, it was a little different than what was portrayed via the staff.

What was happening?

In this particular instance, four teachers called off that day, so they had four absences they were trying to deal with. It came down to [the principal asking special education teachers] can you please go to this classroom, unless or until we get a substitute who is arriving within the next 10 minutes, so these students aren’t alone without an adult.

What are some other concerns you’ve heard from schools you’ve visited?

Paraprofessionals being assigned to roles that aren’t IEP-based [referring to individualized education programs, which schools must create for each special-education student]. For example, covering lunchroom duty. That’s not a proper use of a paraprofessional.

A lot of scheduling concerns go back to schools being trained to properly schedule their teachers, so if a teacher does call off there can be a better contingency plan for covering those students and classes.

Messaging to IEP teams. Making sure the right people are in an IEP meeting for the duration of the meeting. We’ve been really hammering home the message that the only person that can excuse a member from an IEP meeting is a parent. But sometimes we have reports that the principal directed teachers to go somewhere else. So we have to really train principals on the law, and proper use of the teachers.

In the advocates’ survey, three out of four teachers reported knowing one or more students were not receiving services due to staffing shortages. What can you do about that?

Let’s take the example of a principal taking a special education teacher and sending them to a gen ed class because they need an adult in the room.

As I was telling the principal, that’s when your scheduling needs to be really tight so you have the flexibility to come up with a contingency plan. You know teachers are going to be out. It’s kind of hard to have a contingency plan for four teachers that are out, but one or two, there are ways to get creative. You can split up a gen ed class and integrate them into a few other age-appropriate classes for instruction, or bring them into a large group and do a social emotional learning circle that addresses a current academic issue.

Your first or second solution should not be going to the special ed teacher.

A lot of the inquiry boils down to this: students who have needs being delayed or denied services. Do you see that’s still the case at CPS from what you can tell so far?

Issues of delays and denials of services — such as paraprofessional assistance, separate day school, transportation — those have dissipated some. From the data we’ve pulled and from the feedback from schools and parents, those are not nearly as big an issue as they were before, primarily because those blocks that were put on the electronic system were lifted.

Before, the only way transportation could be added to an IEP was if a district rep was there to approve it, and that’s no longer the case. Most of the power has gone back into the hands of the IEP teams, which is exactly what the public inquiry recommended.

What should the student-specific corrective action process look like, and how does it compare with what’s going on now?

We’ve been discussing this process with an office within the U.S. Department of Education. One thing they have been very clear on is that IEP teams need to be front and center of that decision. They’re the ones on the front lines with these students, so the Education Department is insistent that the IEP teams are involved when we’re talking about sending notices out to families, alerting them that you may have a child affected by the public inquiry.

That leads us to identifying who that class of students is, and then after we have those families and students identified, that’s when the IEP team comes in to say, “Yes, we do know there was a delay or break in services — what was the harm to that student?”

We hope to provide them with a set of instructions, like, “Here are the talking points, and if you find the student was harmed, here’s a menu of remedies that would be appropriate.”

Those are the conversations we’re working through right now with the department of education, CPS, the advocate representatives, and ISBE. As you can imagine, those are some pretty hefty and lengthy conversations. We’re all trying to get on the same page, and all trying to come to an agreement about what that would look like. But also, what’s fiscally responsible?

This is a three-year process. What should parents and students expect to happen between now and the end of the school year?

We’re holding schools more accountable now and we have them on our radar.

There’s going to be a lot more eye-opening information that emerges from this role, and it’s the first time it’s really been done in this way. This is truly a way for one person to explore CPS through the special education lens like nobody has ever done before. I find that really exciting.


Going to court

Memphis charter school sues former principal at center of student protests

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Students say Memphis Academy of Health Sciences High School has been uneasy since the principal was fired in August.

A Memphis charter high school is seeking $300,000 in damages — alleging that its former principal has been encouraging students to transfer from the high school and that he has violated his severance agreement.

In recent weeks, many students and parents have insisted that Memphis Academy of Health Sciences High School’s’ former principal, Reginald Williams, was fired unfairly. Parents who support Williams and Patricia Ange — another educator, who was recently let go — crowded into a recent school board meeting to register their disapproval of the school’s decision. And earlier this week, students led a walkout in support of both educators.

Florence Johnson, the lawyer for Memphis Academy, argued in the complaint filed late Wednesday that Williams “conspired” to “disrupt the operations of the school, to lure students away from the school, and to cause financial harm and public embarrassment to [the academy’s] standing in the educational community.”

Williams said he has neither been on campus since he was fired Aug. 10, nor has he spoken with Memphis Academy parents since then.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Reginald Williams
Reginald Williams

“All of this is embarrassing to me,” he told Chalkbeat, calling the lawsuit “baseless” and “frivolous.” “I haven’t, nor will I ever, impede students’ progress.”

In the court filing, the charter network noted it “allowed Williams to retire early rather than fire him outright for poor performance,” which differs from what school leaders had told parents and students. Parents were told Williams resigned and did not know his departure was about poor results on the state’s test this spring. But in internal emails obtained by Chalkbeat, the network’s executive director explicitly tied Williams’ departure to the scores. Using state test scores to fire teachers is illegal this year in Tennessee after major technical glitches to computerized testing, but it is unclear if the law applies to principals.

Under Williams’ severance agreement, the charter school gave him about $40,000 in exchange for assurance he would not speak ill of his former employer or speak about the agreement. Johnson argues Williams violated that during an Oct. 16 board meeting.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift was at Memphis Academy of Health Sciences High School to protest firing a beloved principal and teacher.

Ange, a vocal supporter of Williams, had called the former principal and put him on speakerphone during the meeting as parents demanded answers. Williams said at the meeting that he did not have a problem with the decision to let him go.

“My only concern was how it was done,” he said. “If I’d known in the summertime, I could have found another place.”

Markayla Crawford, a senior at the high school who was among those who led protests after Williams and Ange were fired, said Williams did not ask her to protest on his behalf and had not heard of Williams contacting other students.

School leaders are “still not giving us answers about what happened,” she said. “All the kids are basically saying the same thing. The school is falling apart and no one knows what’s going on.”

A hearing is set for 10 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 20 in Memphis chancery court.