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.

Follow the ratings

Illinois education officials laud their school ratings — but critics say they don’t go far enough

Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State education officials publicly lauded their new school rating system Friday, even as a new, nationwide analysis of school improvement plans criticized Illinois’ approach as too hands-off.  

While the state developed a clear rating system as the federal government requires, Illinois falls short in follow-through, according to the report from the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit advocacy group, and HCM Strategies, a policy analysis group.  

“The state is taking too limited a role in leading or supporting school improvement efforts,” said the report, which examined how 17 states are implementing school improvement plans under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which was passed in 2015 and replaced the No Child Left Behind Act.

Both those federal laws task states with identifying and helping improve underperforming schools and with creating criteria to judge which schools are doing well. Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State officials disagree with the criticism.

“Illinois is being held up as a model for other states to follow,” said Ralph Grimm, chief education officer of Illinois, speaking at the monthly state board of education meeting on Friday. “The entire (state) team has to be commended for providing useful information.”

Illinois’ rating system places every public school in the state into one of four categories based in part on scores on the annual PARCC standardized tests (click here to see how Chicago schools ranked).

Only about a third of Illinois students scored proficient or higher on PARCC tests administered last spring. In reading, 37 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 met that benchmark, while in math 31 percent did. Despite that, the state awarded 80 percent of its schools a “commendable” or “exemplary” rating. 

The state labeled 20 percent of schools “underperforming” or “low performing,” the only designations that could trigger state action. Intervention measures include improvement plans, visits from specialists, and additional funding.

The state released its ratings just days after Chicago released its own batch of school ratings, which take into account a different set of metrics and a different standardized test.

Grimm said the next step will be asking the state’s lowest-performing schools to draft improvement plans and then connecting them with experts to implement their changes.

The state ratings pay particular attention to how schools educate certain groups of students — such as children of color and English language learners. Improvement plans will focus on ways to raise their achievement levels.

Under the latest state rankings, nearly half of Chicago schools failed to meet the state’s threshold for performance, with a disproportionate number of high schools on the low-performance list. Nearly all of under- and low-performing Chicago high schools are on the South Side and sit in or border on the city’s poorest census tracts.

The state could grant underperforming schools $15,000, and  the lowest performers can apply for $100,000 under its IL-Empower program — which helped schools improve by funneling federal funds to them. Advocates have welcomed the change to a carrot to help schools pull themselves up, after years of sticks that overhauled and cut funding for low-performing schools.

Nationally, the Collaborative for Student Success report applauded Colorado for its streamlined application system, and Nevada for asking districts to directly address equity.

The collaborative criticized Illinois for failing to involve parents and community members in its plan. The group also said the state needs to give districts more guidance on putting together school improvement plans. 

carry on

These 16 Denver charter schools won renewal from the school board

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Sebastian Cruz waves to Rev. Leon Kelly as he works with children in a classroom during his after-school program at Wyatt Academy in September 2018.

The Denver school board on Thursday night unanimously renewed agreements with 16 of the district’s charter schools. The lengths of those renewals, however, varied from one year to five years — and signaled the board’s confidence in the schools to deliver a quality education.

The board also accepted Roots Elementary’s decision to close and surrender its charter at the end of this school year. The Park Hill school is facing low enrollment and high costs.

Denver Public Schools is a charter-friendly school district that has for years shared tax revenue and school buildings with its 60 publicly funded, independently operated charter schools. The schools are controversial, though, with opponents viewing them as privatizing public education.

Every charter school in Denver has an agreement with the district that spells out how long it’s allowed to operate. To continue running after that time period, the charter school must seek renewal. The arrangement is part of the deal for charters: They get the flexibility to operate independently, but they must periodically prove to the district that they’re doing a good job.

The school board relies on one set of recommendations from Denver Public Schools staff and a second set of recommendations from a districtwide parent committee in deciding how long a leash to give each charter school. The district staff and the parents on the committee consider factors such as test scores, school culture, financial viability, and the strength of a school’s leaders when making their recommendations.

They also consider a school’s rating on Denver Public Schools’ color-coded scale based largely on academic factors. The School Performance Framework, or SPF, labels schools either blue, green, yellow, orange, or red. Blue means a school has a distinguished academic record, while red means a school is not meeting the district’s expectations.

The staff recommended the school board renew the charters of all 16 schools that applied. Two other charter schools — DSST: Cole Middle School and Compass Academy — are also up for renewal this year. But because they earned the district’s lowest rating, they must go through a separate process in which they will present a detailed improvement plan. Their renewals will depend on the strength of their plans, which is why they weren’t included in this batch.

The board approved the 16 renewals Thursday without discussion. All of the new terms begin next school year. Here’s the rundown:

STRIVE Prep Federal, a middle school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2006
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

Rocky Mountain Prep Creekside, an elementary school in southeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: College View High School, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Green
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Blue
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Elementary School, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, an elementary school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Wyatt Academy, an elementary school in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2003
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Middle School, a middle school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2013
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Denver Justice High School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in central Denver
Year opened: 2009
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

REACH Charter School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

Monarch Montessori, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

STRIVE Prep SMART, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

Academy of Urban Learning, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northwest Denver
Year opened: 2005
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year, with a possible one-year extension

Rise Up Community School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year