Future of Schools

A fast-growing charter network is planning a high school 0.8 miles from a closed IPS campus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students at the Phalen Leadership Academy middle school.

At the same time Indianapolis Public Schools is closing campuses, a charter network is starting a high school – just blocks from the just-shuttered John Marshall building on the far eastside.

Phalen Leadership Academy will add ninth grade to its middle-school campus, with the ultimate aim of creating a full high school, said founder Earl Phalen. The school is at 4352 Mitthoeffer Road, on the distant edge of Indianapolis Public Schools and less than a mile down the road from John Marshall, a campus the district first converted to a middle school then closed this spring.

The shift in the neighborhood is the latest chapter in decades of shrinkage of Indianapolis Public Schools, as families left for charter, suburban, and private schools. Now, the district is facing a paradox: Low enrollment led the school board to close half its high schools over two years in an effort to save money and improve the academic offerings at the remaining four centrally located campuses. But closing neighborhood high schools at the geographic fringes could expose Indianapolis Public Schools to more competition for families who no longer live near a district school.

Phalen’s announcement underscores its rapid growth in Indianapolis. Its expanded school, which currently has a charter for ninth grade, eventually hopes to enroll 400 students in grades nine through 12, Phalen said. That could increase enrollment in the non-profit charter network’s schools on the far eastside to about 1,500 students. That’s almost as many students as Speedway, a tiny district on the west side of the city.

Marshall long had a reputation for academic problems and violence, but the school enrolled nearly 800 middle and high school students in 2016-17. With Marshall closed, the district will allow all students to choose among four high school campuses.

The closest options will be Shortridge and Arsenal Technical high schools, which are both nearly 10 miles away.

“As nice of a school as Tech is, that’s a far ride for our kids, especially kids who want to play sports and do things that last after school,” said Nicole Fama, principal of the Phalen middle school. “They don’t have a neighborhood school really now.”

For Krystale Massey, the changing school landscape is clear. When she was growing up on the far eastside, everybody in the neighborhood went to the same school. Now, kids go to township and charter schools as well as Indianapolis Public Schools. Her own daughter goes to high school in Lawrence Township.

But Massey has three younger children in schools managed by Phalen, and she’s glad they may be able to stay with the network once they reach high school. Her children like the teachers, and they are doing well academically.

“They feel comfortable there,” Massey said. “You want your kids to at least feel comfortable at a school they are attending.”

Phalen got its start on the far eastside when it took over School 93 and School 103, two elementary schools. Those schools are not directly in competition with the district because they are in the Indianapolis Public Schools innovation network and are managed by Phalen through contracts with the district. But they gave the charter network a foothold in an area without many schools with good test results.

As Phalen elementary students matriculated, network leaders decided to launch a middle school, which opened this year with seventh- and eighth-graders.

“The question then becomes, what happens to our eighth graders?” Phalen asked. “There really is not a great option for high schoolers on the far eastside, so we decided to expand to the ninth grade.”

The middle school is only using about half of the building, and beginning this fall, Phalen will open a ninth-grade wing. To create a high school on the other half of the campus, said Phalen, the network is aiming to raise about $2.5 million in donations. So far, they have raised about $1.2 million, he said.

If Phalen goes through with the plan to create a full high school, it will be just the latest addition to the fast-growing network. Phalen started his first charter school in 2013. Now, the network runs 20 schools, educating 8,000 students in cities as far as Tampa, Florida, Phalen said. The network has expanded at such a rapid clip in large part by taking over struggling schools.

Indiana's 2019 legislative session

Indiana’s push to raise teacher pay is creating some unlikely allies

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Middle school math teacher Eliana Moore, left, gives Armando Flynn, 13, some extra attention to help with a lesson in algebra.

It’s not every day that the state’s teachers union, Republican leaders, and education advocacy groups find themselves working toward the same goal. But this year, as Indiana puts teacher pay at the forefront of its legislative priorities, there seems to be an all-hands-on-deck approach to make it happen — and that means some unlikely allies.

During Tuesday’s ceremonial first day of the legislative session, House Speaker Brian Bosma announced in a speech to fellow lawmakers that Republican Reps. Bob Behning and Todd Huston — as well as representatives from the Indiana State Teachers Association, advocacy group Stand for Children, and the educator organization Teach Plus — were working on a plan to ensure teacher raises are part of the state’s next two-year budget.

“The most important profession for the future is those that serve in our classrooms,” Bosma said, adding that although the state has made increases over the past few years in school funding, pay for teachers has not kept pace even as administrative spending has increased.

It’s an unusual partnership because the teachers union has frequently had tension with Republicans who favor school choice and expanding the state’s charter school and private school voucher programs. The union, which staunchly advocates for traditional public schools, has also clashed over charter partnerships with districts, a model that Teach Plus and Stand for Children have supported, even though they aren’t inherently partisan.

Why now? The combination of local districts struggling to hire teachers and keep them in the classroom and a larger national conversation about teacher compensation has put raising teacher pay in the spotlight, both in Indiana and across the country. Last week, teachers in Portage, Indiana, picketed to push for larger raises as they negotiate a new contract.

“It’s been a crisis that’s been coming — we’ve seen it coming … and finally people are starting to connect the dots between compensation and retention,” said Teresa Meredith, president of ISTA, the state’s largest teachers union. “We finally had to take a step back and say, obviously fighting each other is not getting anything done.”

Meredith said state-driven policies that have led to more testing and dialed up the need for schools to compete for students naturally has resulted in increased spending on staff members who aren’t in the classroom. Now, she said, lawmakers are seeing how that’s affecting school budgets, and, in turn, making it difficult to attract and retain teachers.

The desire to figure out ways to keep teachers in the classroom also brought Teach Plus to the table, said Rachel Hathaway, program manager for the national organization’s Indiana arm. Teach Plus helps train teachers to be policy advocates.

“There is a moment happening this year that can bring folks together to really elevate the profession and support teachers to make sure they are able to stay in the classroom,” Hathaway said. Teach Plus has “a history of knowing the importance of teacher recruitment and retention and ensuring we have high-quality teachers in front of our students.”

And it’s that impact at the classroom level, Stand for Children Indiana executive director Justin Ohlemiller said, that speaks to his group’s mission. Stand is an organization that aims to help parents learn how to advocate for their children in schools, but the group has been criticized, such as during the recent Indianapolis Public Schools board election, because they do not have to disclose their spending.

“At the end of the day, data shows one of the most important single factors in children’s education is the educator at the front of the room,” Ohlemiller said.

Indiana’s plans for how to boost teacher salaries are expected to come into sharper focus over the next few weeks. But Bosma cautioned again Tuesday that there might not be much extra money to work with, casting some doubt on the state’s ability to raise pay enough to make a meaningful difference for educators across the state.

“We’re going to have more needs, more critical needs, than we have available dollars,” Bosma said.

Bosma wouldn’t offer details about how much money House Republicans would add for teacher pay, but said after funding obligations to the Department of Child Services, that state would have an optimistic $50 million per year in new revenue for other funding requests. If teacher pay were to receive just a piece of that, it would be far less than the $81 million per year or so that Senate Democrats have called for — which they figure would amount to a 5 percent raise for teachers and counselors over the next two years.

And if curbing teacher shortages is as much of a priority as the state’s majority is now pushing, state Democrat leaders say, Indiana needs to prove that come January by making it a meaningful part of the budget.

“We have the resources,” Sen. Tim Lanane, a Democrat from Anderson, said on Friday when his caucus presented its 2019 priorities. “We can make that sacrifice to make sure our teachers know we respect and appreciate them.”

cry for help

View from the child care trenches: ‘Those of us cleaning the poop are not making it’

PHOTO: Ann Schimke | Chalkbeat

At the end of three hours of briefings Monday on advancing care for Illinois’ tiniest residents, an on-the-ground provider’s 3-minute plea shook awake a gathering of the state’s top early childhood leaders and reminded them why they were there.

“We are in a crisis and unable to get help,” said Holtz, who in seven years has cycled through 147 staff members at her two day care centers in south central Effingham.

Turnover in that time among her 35 employees has been enough to staff the two centers more than four times over.

Speaking to the early learning council that directs how the state funds services for children from birth to age 5, Holtz said half of those departing sought better-paying jobs in other fields. Others headed to public school districts that pay better. Some she let go.

“Down here in the trenches, those of us who are cleaning the poop and plunging the toilets — we’re the ones who are not making it,” said Holtz, ticking off how well-intentioned Illinois directives make it tough to run a childcare business. She listed state policies like raising degree requirements for jobs that pay $8.50 to $10.25 an hour in her area, an endless stream of “health and safety” trainings, and lead and radon tests that cost her $1,000 apiece.

In a meeting that focused mainly on future ambitions, Holtz redirected attention to a present hazard: a critical shortage of qualified staffers to work in infant centers, daycare programs, and community-based preschools.  

The issue threatens to undercut any sort of universal pre-K program, which governor-elect J.B. Pritzker pledged to pursue as a candidate.

Preschool expert GG Weisenfeld said Illinois meets many established early learning benchmarks. But the state lags in salary parity. Other shortcomings: a revolving door of the state’s top leadership in early learning and a lack of full-day programs.   

“For preschools housed within public schools, those teachers have salary parity with other teachers,” said Weisenfeld, the lead author of a new state preschool policy scan from the National Institute for Early Education Research. “Unfortunately, when programs are housed in community-based centers, those teachers do not.”

But the state’s powerful Early Learning Council barely touched on that topic at its quarterly meeting Monday.

Holtz, one of only two people to address the council, said she drove several hours from Effingham for her three minutes at the mic. She said she supports the state’s push for better quality, but that effort doesn’t pencil out for her and other caregivers. One state subsidized program for low-income families reimburses her only $23 per day per child. That’s not enough to pay a lead teacher with a bachelor’s degree.

“When we do hire them, they uniformly all leave for better pay and benefits — and less stress. The stress is up there with the reasons for leaving, along with pay.”

As Illinois focuses on raising the quality of early learning throughout the state by requiring bachelor’s degrees for lead teachers in preschools, it faces a conundrum: Teachers with college degrees want to and can earn more than minimum wage elsewhere. (A 2017 state report said the median hourly wage for a licensed childcare center teacher was $12.50. Assistant teachers and infant caregivers generally made less.)

Jill Andrews, another downstate center director who heads up the Southern Illinois Child Care Assistance Task Force and made the trek with Holtz, handed out folders with her own set of recommendations.

Among them: raising state reimbursement rates for publicly funded child care programs, helping child care providers qualify for state health insurance, and offering community college credit as an incentive for workers to pursue training.