satisfactory/unsatisfactory

Pace of change yields mixed reactions at Bryant closure hearing

Bryant High School teachers and students rally outside the school's 31st Avenue entrance before the closure hearing.

Over a hundred teachers, students, and alumni converged at from William Cullen Bryant High School closure hearing last night to warn city officials that undergoing “turnaround” next year would harm the school.

But some teachers said that rapid changes are already hitting the school under the hard-charging leadership of first-year principal Namita Dwarka.

Bryant is one of eight Queens schools proposed for turnaround, which would require them to close and reopen this summer with a new name and many new teachers. The school counts former schools chancellor Joel Klein among its graduates, but it has struggled in recent years to meet the city’s expectations. It landed on the turnaround list because of its lagging graduation rate, which last year was 56.5 percent, slightly lower than the city average.

City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer invoked Bryant’s century-old legacy in a press conference outside the school and during the hearing. Sporting a lapel pin with the school’s mascot, an owl, and other alumni, Van Bramer said the school’s tradition of excellence brought pride to the community and should be preserved.

Many teachers who spoke at the hearing shared his concern. But others expressed enthusiasm about changes at the school. The conflicting feelings reflected some of the tensions that have arisen since Dwarka took over as principal in September and, according to at least half a dozen teachers who have spoken with GothamSchools, began issuing low ratings to teachers who had never received them before.

Dwarka, who arrived when Bryant began a less agressive reform process last year, has the Department of Education’s support.

“We stand behind Namita Dwarka’s leadership, and we believe she is the right person to be the proposed new leader of the proposed new school,” said Deputy Chancellor Laura Rodriguez, to shouts and boos from students in the crowded auditorium. “In her time here at W.C. Bryant she has shown commitment and a strong will to improve student achievement and learning.”

One way that Dwarka has shown that commitment, according to the six Bryant teachers I spoke to in the last month, is by offering more bracing criticism than most teachers have gotten in the past.

“I was always satisfactory,” one teacher who asked not to be named told me by phone. “This is the principal’s first year and she never, ever observed me, not even a first time.”

“The environment in the school is not good,” she continued. “Many people complain. I get depressed, I cry. I personally believe that I work very hard during the whole year and every day, every class I try to do my best.”

The half dozen teachers said they learned in recent weeks, via letters from assistant principals who conducted classroom observations, that they would likely receive “unsatisfactory” ratings this spring. The U-rating is the first step in a contractual process that could lead to job termination. Last year, 2,118 teachers received unsatisfactory ratings citywide.

The news came as a shock to several of the teachers who testified last night — but none of them mentioned the U-rating spree they fear was underway in their public comments.

A handful of teachers did testify that they have brought a strong work ethic to the school but were not given enough time to meet the administration’s rising expectations. In private, several told me that they thought the new principal was laying the groundwork to reopen this fall with fewer veteran teachers.

Cracking down on subpar instruction is a typical first step for new principals, and one teacher who asked to remain anonymous  said Dwarka was working to help teachers improve by adding professional development sessions and more classroom observations.

But the teacher also said Dwarka’s leadership had caused a rift in the teaching staff, and rumors were swirling that many teachers would receive unsatisfactory job ratings in June, which could cost them their positions at Bryant.

The rumors have been exacerbated by the city’s approach to rehiring in turnaround schools, which will be conducted according to a process outlined in the city’s contract with the teachers union. The process, known as 18-D, requires that at least half of applicants to the new school from the old school must be hired according to seniority — provided that they are qualified. The hiring committees won’t be formed and the qualifications can’t be set until after the turnaround plans have been approved. But union officials have said in the past that the committees could reasonably decide to exclude from consideration teachers who have recently received U-ratings.

“With the present administration we’ve seen a sharp rise in unsatisfactory reviews — there’s nothing to compare it to. And the number of people who have been told officially that they are in danger of getting an end-of-the-year unsatisfactory rating is extremely high,” Sam Lazarus, the union chapter leader said in an interview. “These are veteran teachers who’ve never received an unsatisfactory. [The principal] is insisting on these decisions.”

Dwarka did not speak at the hearing, where she sat next to Rodriguez on stage and smiled as student athletes praised her leadership, the school culture, and their teachers during two and a half hours of public comments. She declined to comment on her leadership philosophy and referred all questions to Department of Education press officials.

Dwarka’s approach has won her support from within the school. Alyson Roach, an English teacher, testified that Dwarka has “not been afraid” to push teachers and had set the school on a path toward improvement.

“We have a great school, but of course we have areas where we could improve. We are fortunate enough to have an energetic new principal who is herself an alumna of Bryant,” she said. “I believe everyone here would describe Ms. Dwarka as someone who is truly transforming our school. No one can question her relentless quest for excellence. Why then, after marked improvement, after only six months, have we been threatened with the possible closing of our school?”

A second school whose turnaround hearing took place Tuesday night also has a brand-new principal who was handpicked to lead the school through a reform effort. Brendan Lyons took over at Manhattan’s High School for Graphic Communications Arts in September, before that school had been selected for any reform process.

“Every crisis is an opportunity,” Lyons said when the turnaround plans were announced in January. “I’d like to show how our school is a model turnaround that other schools can learn from.”

Future of Schools

IPS students have made their high school choices. Here’s where they want to go.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

High schoolers across Indianapolis Public Schools have made their choices for next year, and some schools are proving far more popular than others.

With all but four high schools set to close, the district is already in the midst of an upheaval. Students’ choices this year could have far-reaching implications for the configuration of the district for years to come.

Shortridge High School had the greatest increase in demand, with more than triple the 400 students enrolled there now listing it as their first choice for next year. George Washington High School, which also enrolls more than 400 students now, is not likely to grow too much. And while Arsenal Technical and Crispus Attucks high schools are both likely to grow by hundreds of students, neither saw interest grow as exponentially as Shortridge.

The final enrollment at each school will determine such critical issues as how many teachers are hired, what courses are available to students, and how much it costs to operate the buildings. Ultimately, students’ choices are likely to shape course offerings over the next several years, district officials said.

The enrollment figures are the result of a district mandate requiring students from across the district to select high schools and magnet programs this fall. More than 90 percent of 8th to 11th grade students have made selections so far. All students will be placed in their top choice program, according to the IPS spokeswoman Carrie Cline Black.

Fewer than 500 IPS students have chosen programs at George Washington so far, according to district data obtained exclusively by Chalkbeat. In contrast, more than 1,300 students have selected Shortridge, which will house the arts magnet program currently at Broad Ripple and the International Baccalaureate Programme. More than 2,300 students have chosen programs at Arsenal Tech (currently the district’s largest high school with 1,826 students) and 1,050 have selected Crispus Attucks (which currently enrolls 695).

The uneven distribution of students did not take  Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration by complete surprise.

At an Indiana State Board of Education meeting on Oct. 4, state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick asked, “What happens if you don’t have a nice, somewhat-even distribution? … What if it’s very out of whack?”

Ferebee said that the district will have room to accommodate students if a school proves especially popular. In the long term, he added, IPS may have to adjust, by replicating  popular programs and discontinuing unpopular ones.

But Ferebee also said the district was hoping to persuade students to take another look at some of the programs that might not be popular at first.

For instance, he said, “We do know it’s going to take some time to educate families on construction and engineering. So we knew out of the gate, not many students may be interested, so it will take some time to build a program.”

Here is a full breakdown of the schools and programs that students chose:

In total 5,142 IPS students chose their preferred programs as part of a broad reconfiguration plan that includes closing nearly half of the seven high school campuses because of low enrollment. The district has not provided projections of how many students would enroll in each high school. But if enrollment doesn’t shift in the coming months, some campuses will be far closer to capacity then others. While the initial deadline for choosing schools and programs has passed, enrollment remains open to any students who have not yet made their selection.

If no other students enrolled in IPS high schools, Shortridge would be nearly 89 percent full. Arsenal Tech and Crispus Attucks would each be over 76 percent full. And George Washington would be about 25 percent full.

At the four remaining high school campuses, the district is aiming to “reinvent” high school by vastly expanding specialized programs in subjects such as business, engineering, and the arts, which students will study alongside their core classwork.

Next year, every student will be enrolled in specialized programs within high schools. District leaders hope that students will choose schools based on their interests, rather than their neighborhood.

Principal Stan Law will take over George Washington next year. In an interview about the school last week, before IPS released student selections numbers, Law said that it was important for students and families to get accurate information so they would select schools based on student career interests rather than neighborhood.

“Everyone has their ideas about things, but only certain people have the accurate information,” he said.

The most popular programs are the health sciences academy at Crispus Attucks and the Career Technology Center at Arsenal Tech, where students can study subjects such as culinary arts, welding and fire rescue. Each attracted more than 900 students. The least popular are the teaching program at Crispus Attucks, chosen by  104 students, and the information technology program at George Washington, chosen by 80.

Despite its apparent unpopularity with IPS students, the information technology program fits in with a state push to prepare students for careers in computer science and related fields. Gov. Eric Holcomb’s legislative agenda calls for requiring high schools to offer computer sciences classes, and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce wants computer science to be a high school graduation requirement.

breaking

Breaking: Indiana didn’t set aside enough money for schools. Senate leader says a fix is ‘top priority.’

PHOTO: Photo by Shaina Cavazos/Chalkbeat
Students at Global Prep Academy, a charter school, learn about comparing shapes. All schools could see less funding if lawmakers do not fix the funding shortfall.

State education officials are expecting a shortfall in school funding this year that could be as high as $9 million because state and local officials underestimated Indiana’s student enrollment.

If the legislature does not act to increase funding, districts, charter schools and private schools that receive state vouchers could all get less money than they were promised this year.

Senate President David Long said new legislation to appropriate more money to schools would be proposed, though other lawmakers involved in budget-making were less certain on what a solution would look like this early.

“It’s our top priority, education is, so it’ll have our full focus when we come back in January,” Long said.

But on the upside, he said, public school enrollment increased since last year.

“It’s not a bad problem,” Long said. “We have more kids going into public schools than we did last year, but it’s a challenge for us only in a sense that we need to adjust our numbers.”

A memo from the Indiana Department of Education said the legislature’s budget appropriation was short by less than one-half of 1 percent. When the amount the legislature allocated for school funding does not line up with its funding formula, “the law requires the Department to proportionately reduce the total amount to be distributed to recipients,” the memo said.

It’s not clear how the miscalculation in enrollment numbers occurred, said Rep Tim Brown, a key budget-writer and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. The budget dollars are estimated based on projected school enrollment counts from districts themselves, the education department and the legislative services agency, which helps provide information and data to lawmakers.

Brown urged people to keep the number in perspective, especially since the budget is crafted based on estimates. Brown said this was the first year since he became involved with budget writing in 2013 that projected budget allocations ended up being less than school enrollment, which was calculated based on counts from September Count Day.

“We’re looking at what our options are, but let us keep in mind it is $1.50 out of every $10,000 a school gets,” Brown said, adding that he wasn’t sure this early on how lawmakers would act to make up the shortfall.

But J.T. Coopman, executive director for the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, said even small amounts of money make a difference for cash-strapped schools. Districts have already started making contracts and have obligations to pay for teacher salaries and services at this point. It’s pretty late in the game for this kind of news, he said.

“I did see that it’s less than a half a percent, but for schools that’s a lot of money,” Coopman said. “Can we get this fixed before it becomes a real problem for school districts?”

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, who leads a district that is already in deficit, was optimistic. In a statement, he said, “we’re encouraged by the commitment and urgency demonstrated by our legislative leaders.”

Neither Brown nor Long knew how much public school enrollment had increased. The $32 billion two-year budget passed in April increased total dollars for schools by about 3.3 percent from 2017 to 2019, for a total of about $14 billion. Included within that was a 2.5 percent average increase for per-student funding to $6,709 in 2019, up from $6,540 last year.

The news of a funding shortfall comes as the state continues to see declining revenue. The Northwest Indiana Times reports that state revenue is down $136.5 million (2.8 percent) from what lawmakers estimated this past spring for the next two-year budget.

During the annual ceremonial start to the 2018 legislative session today, leaders discussed a need to provide more resources to schools and the state board of education. So far, many of the priorities involving education this year look to address workforce needs and encourage schools to offer more computer science courses.

But House Speaker Brian Bosma also shouted out “innovative” steps made by Indianapolis Public Schools and Fort Wayne Public Schools.

“People are trying something different and they are having great results with it,” Bosma said. “We need to give them more tools, we need to give them more opportunities.”