getting in

More students want to go to popular IPS magnet schools, but they still face barriers to getting in

PHOTO: Hafsa Razi / Chalkbeat

One year in, Indianapolis’ new system for applying to magnet and charter schools has helped make school choice fairer and more accessible for low-income families  but barriers remain for getting into some of the city’s most popular schools, a new report Thursday showed.

More low-income families are applying earlier to schools, increasing their chances of getting into schools of their choice, according to the annual report from Enroll Indy, the organization that handles how families enroll in Indianapolis Public Schools magnet programs, some innovation schools, and most charter schools in the city.

Families who look for schools later in the year, who are more likely to be low-income, now still get a shot at seats even if they miss the first deadline. And 1,000 more families are applying to magnet programs, the report said.

“A lot of people have thought about creating great schools in Indianapolis, but not a lot of people have been thinking about it from a parent demand perspective: What do families want, and how do we consider what they want?” said Caitlin Hannon, Enroll Indy’s founder and executive director. “Hopefully our work over time will inform those decisions, so it really is parents and families driving positive change, versus a top-down district or city or Mind Trust effort.”

But the report also shows that some inequities in Indianapolis Public Schools still persist: There still aren’t enough seats at the city’s most sought-after magnet programs to meet the increasing demand. At three out of six of the popular Center for Inquiry and Butler University Laboratory schools, which are mostly clustered in more affluent neighborhoods, only those who live closest could get in last fall during the first round of admissions — and they claimed most of those schools’ open seats.

In the first round of applications, when the largest share of families were deciding where to send their children to school, the report showed that spots often filled up before admissions could be opened up to students who live more than half a mile away from the school, let alone in other parts of the district. While most other choice schools had enough spots for just about all interested students, kindergarten students in the first round had a 1-in-3 or 1-in-4 chance of getting into most of the Center for Inquiry or Butler Lab schools.

Some families reapplied later to try to win spots, but most did not. The district set aside seats for later rounds of enrollment, and even at the most popular schools, those opened up to serve a larger range of students. But there were fewer seats available, and even though fewer families were looking for seats, many still faced long odds of getting in.

“It’s frustrating,” said Kelly Bentley, a retiring school board member who represents the northside. “We need to expand them and spread the love. They shouldn’t be all concentrated in one part of town.”

Because the district prioritizes admission to students who live nearby, some of the most high-demand magnet programs enroll a disproportionate share of white students and students from middle-class families, instead of drawing a more diverse population from across the district.

The exclusivity of these popular magnet schools persists because of their locations largely in wealthier neighborhoods and in spite of a change in rules two years ago to make them available to more students beyond those who live the closest. The change followed a series on segregation from Chalkbeat and the Indianapolis Star that showed how the district gave the most privileged families in the district an admission edge at sought-after schools.

Initially, district officials said the policy change helped increase the racial and socioeconomic diversity of those schools. It’s unclear whether the magnet schools became any more or less diverse this year, racially or socioeconomically, because Enroll Indy doesn’t track demographic data. School-level enrollment data is expected to be released by the state in coming weeks.

The district continues to struggle with the tension over making those high-quality magnet schools available to all students — both those who live nearby and those who live in other parts of the city. District officials say that the magnet schools help retain families who might otherwise seek private school or township school options. The northside has one F-rated neighborhood school, School 43, that serves mostly black and mostly poor students.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Bentley said. “You have a whole bunch of people on the northside who, if they don’t get into one of those programs, they’re probably going elsewhere. But then you have a whole bunch of people who live outside of this area who want the opportunity to go to those programs as well, and they’re not able to get in.”

At the Center for Inquiry School 70, the report said 463 students were competing for 54 kindergarten seats. The school opened in 2016 to some criticism over its Meridian Kessler location, since the northside was already home to the Center for Inquiry School 84. According to the report, both School 70 and School 84’s first round of available seats filled with children who lived within the half-mile proximity zone.

At the Center for Inquiry School 27 on the near-northside, where demand was smaller, kindergarten students had better chances of getting in, and location wasn’t as much of a limiting factor. Students from across the district were considered for admission in the first and third rounds.

In this year’s enrollment process, which opened Thursday, families will have just two rounds to apply.

These most sought-after programs saw more applications last year in part because of Enroll Indy’s targeted outreach efforts in low-income neighborhoods to close what Hannon called the “information gap,” by telling families about their options and how the system works. Higher participation, she said, means more families know about their options.

The programs also saw more applications because families could apply to all Center for Inquiry sites, rather than applying to the program and getting placed by the district at the closest location, said Patrick Herrel, Indianapolis Public Schools’ director of enrollment and options.

While the district has been examining whether and where it can expand its most popular programs, officials say they want to be strategic in those decisions. It also takes time to replicate those programs after this year’s new IPS/Butler Lab School 55 and the Center for Inquiry School 70 in 2016, because they use a model that relies on experienced teachers in existing schools to launch new sites.

“We’re always trying to figure out what it is that our families want,” Herrel said.

Changing course

After pressure from school board members, University of Memphis middle school drops its academic requirement

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
University of Memphis' elementary, Campus School, is one of the highest achieving schools in the state.

Leaders of a popular elementary school known for its high academic performance are changing the entrance requirements at a proposed middle school in hopes of creating a more diverse student body.

After the Shelby County Schools board raised concerns that the University of Memphis’ plans would continue a pattern of student enrollment from its elementary school, Campus School, that is mostly white, university leaders said last week they would drop the academic requirement for the middle school.

Most Memphis students do not meet state standards for learning. Under the revised proposal, students would need satisfactory behavior records and fewer than 15 unexcused absences, tardies, or early dismissals.

In addition, the school is meant to be a learning lab for teachers earning their degrees. School leaders hope these teachers will eventually return to the Memphis school system to work with children who live in poverty. But currently, the student body doesn’t reflect the population school leaders want to serve.

“We need to make sure that new teachers are getting everything they need. That way you then can learn how to be successful in a diverse community,” board member Miska Clay Bibbs said.

White students made up two-thirds of the elementary school in 2017, the highest percentage in the district. Only 8 percent of the students lived in poverty — the lowest in the district. By comparison, more than half of students in Shelby County Schools live in poverty while only 8 percent are white.

The Memphis district has added more speciality schools in recent years to attract and retain high-achieving students, including white students, who might otherwise choose a private school or schools in the surrounding suburbs. Campus School is one that attracts a lot of white families.

It wasn’t always like that, board member Michelle Robinson McKissack said. She and other board members urged university leaders to do more intentional outreach to the surrounding neighborhood that would have priority in admissions.

“It’s surprising to me that it did seem to be more diverse when I was a child going to Campus in the mid-70s than today,” she said. “And I want to ensure that University Middle looks like Campus looked when I was going to school there.”

Until recently, Campus School was the only school with a contract in the district. Compared to charter schools, contract schools have more say in how they choose students. That allows the University of Memphis to give priority to children of faculty and staff.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
University Middle would be housed in the former St. Anne Catholic School near Highland Street and Spottswood Avenue.

Paul Little and his wife chose their house because of its proximity to Campus School. If the university’s middle school had been open, he would have enrolled his oldest daughter there. He considered other public options, but ultimately decided on an all-girls private school.

“For a long time, I was against private schools in general because if people with high academic achievers pull their kids out of public school, you’ve left a vacuum,” he said.

Little, a White Station High School graduate, disagrees with the assertion that Campus School is not diverse, citing several international students who are children of University of Memphis faculty.

At a recent school meeting, “when I looked out over the cafeteria, I saw a lot of diversity there… That’s never been a concern for me,” he said. He said he was encouraged by the university’s outreach plans “to make the school as diverse as possible.”

Board members are expected to discuss the contract with University of Memphis on Tuesday night, vote the following week, and then open online applications to the school Jan. 30. The school would open in August with sixth-graders with plans to add one grade each year after that.

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned picking a fight now because of the limited scope of the negotiations. That would be the current agreement governing ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.