Process of elimination

Among 24 schools city says it could close, some familiar names

Marc Sternberg, the Department of Education deputy chancellor in charge of school closures, said the city would consider whether to phase out 24 struggling high schools.

Seven high schools that the city tried in vain to close last year are among the two dozen that the Department of Education might move to shutter this year.

Department officials announced today that they had added 24 high schools to the list of schools they are considering closing. The schools join 36 elementary and middle schools already slated for “early engagement” meetings, the first step in the city’s school closure process. The department named those schools in October but postponed the meetings because of Hurricane Sandy.

The high schools were culled from 60 whose progress report scores made them eligible for closure under the city’s rules. Their test scores, attendance, graduation rates, and readiness for college do not measure up to city standards, according to Deputy Schools Chancellor Marc Sternberg, the department official who oversees school closures, who said the schools’ presence on the early engagement list indicates that they have deep problems to address.

“What we see in a school that can’t demonstrate the capacity to improve dramatically and to improve quickly is a calcification of the systems that lead to good schools,” Sternberg told reporters in a briefing on the reports this afternoon. “The adults are not communicating clearly and well with each other, there’s a lack of collaboration, a lack of organizational alignment that will enable the kind of instruction we know is important and necessary to lead to good outcomes.”

To keep off the official closure list, the schools will need to show officials they have “a way forward,” Sternberg said. That could come in the form of a dramatic leadership or staffing change, or the addition of new programs meant to address the department’s concerns. Typically, the department moves to close around half of the schools selected for early engagement.

A quarter of the schools potentially on the chopping block this year were there just a few months ago. Early this year the city’s Panel for Education Policy voted to close five schools on the new list through a stringent federal school reform process called “turnaround.”

At the time, city officials said those schools and 19 others lacked the institutional culture, leadership, and systems necessary to improve without being closed over the summer and reopened in the fall with new names and many new staff members. The schools escaped closure in July when the city lost a lawsuit filed by the teachers and principals unions over the plan, but officials warned that they still needed dramatic interventions.

Other former turnaround schools escaped the chopping block this year by posting higher scores. Among them are John Dewey High School, which rose from a C to a B this year after a tumultuous spring of student and teacher protests and the abrupt removal of longtime principal Barry Fried.

Several schools that were removed from the original turnaround proposal on the basis of last year’s city grades netted a second year of high scores. The School for Global Studies, W. H. Maxwell Career and Technical Education High School, and William E. Grady Career and Technical Education High School all earned Bs.

Other schools on the early engagement list did not face turnaround last year, but have still struggled in recent years to help their students meet graduation requirements and go on to college. They include Brooklyn’s Boys and Girls High School and the Bronx’s DeWitt Clinton High School, which both received their second F in a row this year. And five of the schools on the list remained open after undergoing the early engagement process last year, including Brooklyn’s Juan Morel Campos Secondary School.

Department officials compiled the shortlist by looking at schools’ progress report grades, their Quality Reviews, the results of state evaluations, and the efforts they’ve already undertaken to improve. During the early engagement meetings, the department aims to learn why the schools are struggling and whether other efforts could help them. Last year, 21 high schools underwent early engagement during the regular closure process, and the city ultimately moved to close nine of them.

High schools that the department is considering closing:

High School of Graphic Communication Arts
Coalition School for Social Change
Academy for Social Action: A College Board School
Choir Academy of Harlem
Bread & Roses Integrated Arts High School
Holcombe L. Rucker School of Community Research
Herbert H. Lehman High School
Leadership Institute
Bronx High School of Business
Jonathan Levin High School for Media and Communications
West Bronx Academy for the Future (only grades 6-8 will undergo early engagement)
Fordham Leadership Academy for Business and Technology
DeWitt Clinton High School
Bronx Regional High School
Freedom Academy High School
George Westinghouse Career and Technical Education High School
Juan Morel Campos Secondary School
Foundations Academy
Boys and Girls High School
W.E.B. Dubois Academic High School
Sheepshead Bay High School
Flushing High School
Law, Government and Community Service High School
Business, Computer Applications & Entrepreneurship High School

charter closure

In debt, with too many unlicensed teachers, Indiana College Preparatory School loses charter

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Roiled by unsustainable debts, a disintegrating school board, and violations of state requirements, Indiana College Preparatory School lost its charter and will close at the end of the school year.

Families were also complaining about frequent teacher turnover, discipline issues, and a lack of services for students with disabilities, according to Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett’s office.

The future seemed uncertain, too, for I CAN Schools, the nonprofit company contracted to run the school, after some of its struggling schools in Ohio were absorbed by another company.

The mayor’s office, which authorized Indiana College Preparatory School’s charter, said it tried to work with the school for nearly two years to improve its finances and governance. But it revoked the charter Tuesday after the school’s entire board resigned.

The shutdown in June will leave about 240 students looking for new schools.

The mayor’s office decided not to shutter the school immediately to try to minimize disruptions for students, who begin ISTEP testing next week, said Brian Dickey, interim director of the mayor’s charter school office.

School leaders did not return calls or an email seeking comment.

Indiana College Preparatory School, which serves grades K-8, opened in the 2015-16 school year. It had replaced a closed charter school, Andrew Academy, near 38th Street and Sherman Drive, and many of the students stayed to enroll at Indiana College Preparatory School.

It was put on probation last year.

“We’d started seeing red flags on the financial side,” Dickey said.

The school seemed unable to pay its bills in the short-term, and accumulating debt raised concerns about long-term financial health, he said.

It ended its first year with only four days’ worth of cash on hand, according to city documents. At one point, the school was running a deficit of about $780,000.

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis, which owns the school building, reached out to the mayor’s office when Indiana College Preparatory Academy didn’t pay its rent.

An audit filed in February 2017 showed Indiana College Preparatory School was not in compliance with the state’s guidelines for charter school accounting, highlighting questions about the schools’ internal controls.

Indiana College Preparatory School was receiving more than $2 million from the state for its students, the audit showed. The school had also received a $174,000 federal charter school grant, according to city documents, and it took out a $500,000 loan from the state’s Common School Fund.

Dickey and Deputy Mayor of Community Development Jeff Bennett said some of the school’s financial problems stemmed from an unexpected drop in enrollment.

“New charter schools are start-up organizations, and they are very sensitive to enrollment,” Dickey said. “And if that enrollment isn’t maintained, particularly in the early onset, it can really complicate things on the finance side.”

In the school’s second year, it lost about one-quarter of its students by the spring, the mayor’s office said.

Considering that Indiana College Preparatory School offered transportation, Bennett said, “for 25 percent to vote with their feet not to come back is just a red flag. For whatever reason, we don’t know. But it’s beyond the norm of any school to drop that much.”

Last year, the mayor’s office found out that I CAN Schools, the nonprofit organization that managed Indiana College Preparatory School, had transferred seven Ohio schools to another company, in part because of financial deficits.

The mayor’s office was already concerned that the Ohio operator was unfamiliar with Indiana policies. But now, Dickey said, he questioned if I CAN’s educational offerings would be diminished without a broader network to rely on.

I CAN said it intended to rebrand itself, but never did, Dickey said.

Indiana College Preparatory School’s board tried to address the city’s concerns about governance and teacher hiring, but Dickey said the mayor’s office was unsatisfied with the response.

Academically, the school was receiving low ratings from the state. Its students weren’t showing much growth. The school was hiring many substitute teachers, city documents show, failing to employ enough teachers licensed in their subject areas to meet state requirements.

And the school’s financial situation, Dickey said, only grew worse.

When the mayor’s office put the school under “threat of potential revocation” last month, three out of four board members resigned. Unable to operate with a sole board member, the last remaining one resigned this week.

“Anytime a school has to close, I don’t know that that’s ever a good thing,” said Jamyce Curtis Banks, the former board president. She declined to answer questions about the school’s challenges, saying they should be directed to the school or I CAN instead.

Other former board members did not return messages.

A parent who recently pulled her children out of Indiana College Preparatory School said the school needed to be shut down.

La’Key Eldridge said her second-grade son did not have a special education teacher, and she felt the school wasn’t equipped to handle his disorders.

“I knew that my son needed special education help, because he wasn’t picking up on certain vocabulary words,” she said.

Eldridge transferred her two sons to another charter school, and she said her son with special education needs will have to repeat the second grade.

She also raised concerns over how the school handled an incident in the fall reported by Fox59, when two students at the school tested positive for cocaine after eating what they thought was candy.

The last time the mayor’s office revoked a charter was in 2014, because of allegations of systemic cheating on standardized tests at Flanner House Elementary Charter School. That school closed immediately, leaving families scrambling to find new schools after the academic year had already started.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that I CAN Schools is a for-profit company. It is a nonprofit company.

Making Montssori

A popular new Montessori program in Detroit’s main district may expand into its own separate schools

PHOTO: Nick Hagen

Detroit’s main district is considering expanding its popular Montessori program, including possibly creating free-standing Montessori schools designed to draw students from around the city.

The possible changes could represent a major shift for the two-year-old program, which now operates in 14 classrooms in six schools.

Montessori parents have been on high alert in recent weeks. Told that changes are coming to the program, they’ve been worried that new Montessori schools would mean an end to existing programs.

“My son keeps asking ‘where am I going to school next year?’” parent Maria Koliantz told Chalkbeat last week.

Koliantz, who has two children in the Montessori program at Maybury Elementary School in Southwest Detroit, said a sense of brewing change has been affecting parents and teachers.

“I just keep trying to assure him,” she said of her son. “But … I hate that the uncertainty has affected him.”

But Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says there are no plans to move existing programs. Questioned by Koliantz at a school board community meeting Tuesday night, Vitti assured her the district would only add new programs, not close existing ones.

“We have no intention of discontinuing that program,” he said. “It’s a vehicle to recruit parents to the school system. I don’t think you’re going to see anything but expansion.”

Since his arrival in Detroit last spring, Vitti has talked about the need to give every school in the district a distinct identity, with some schools focusing on math and technology and others perhaps developing a focus on creative writing.

Vitti revealed Tuesday morning that the district is considering eventually creating three arts schools for children who’ve been identified as gifted or talented.

New Montessori schools are also on the table, he said. “The new schools will be announced by the end of March as we work towards ensuring that every school has a identifiable and distinct program to improve performance and enrollment.”

Freestanding Montessori schools could represent a new chapter for a program that was launched in Detroit two years ago as a hybrid system, with Montessori classrooms operating next to traditional classrooms in a handful schools.  

The program, which allows children to learn at their own pace in mixed-age classrooms, started in 2016 with classrooms serving pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students, as well as some students in grades 1-3 at Spain, Maybury and Edison elementary schools. The program more than doubled in size in 2017, adding classrooms in the first three schools and expanding into three more — Chrysler, Palmer Park and Vernor elementary schools.

But while the current structure at the six schools has been popular with some parents, it has also created some difficulties.

The Montessori program is run by a director, Nicola Turner, who hires teachers for the program, oversees their training, and supports them as they implement the Montessori curriculum. But those teachers also work for their school principals — a dynamic that can create complications.

In some schools, there has been tension between parents and teachers affiliated with the Montessori program and those connected to traditional classrooms. Since the Montessori programs tend to have more teachers and fewer students than traditional classrooms, that’s raised issues of fairness and equity.

The current setup has also created challenges aligning the Montessori curriculum with the structure and schedules of a traditional school. In an ideal Montessori classroom, for example, students would have an uninterrupted three-hour block to work on their core lessons, but that isn’t always possible in a school where many factors determine when students can have lunch, go to recess or take art and music classes.

Freestanding Montessori schools could avoid some of those problems — and potentially offer some advantages.

“We could do after-school programs that were Montessori-specific,” said Yolanda King, who has a son in the program at Spain Elementary and a younger child she hopes to enroll next year. Special classes like art, music and gym “could be more aligned to Montessori” in a freestanding school, she said, suggesting “yoga programs and whole food programs.”

Turner, the Montessori program director, declined to comment about the possible changes but an email she sent to parents this month indicates they were fairly divided about the prospect of freestanding schools.

Nearly half — 48 percent — said they preferred keeping Montessori classrooms in their current schools while 37 percent liked the idea of a Montessori school. About 15 percent did not indicate a preference.

Dan Yowell is among parents who’ve raised concerns that freestanding schools might feel removed from the rest of the district.

“We liked the fact that [Montessori] is accessible to people all over the city,” said Yowell, whose son is in the program at Spain.

A freestanding Montessori school “has a feeling that it’s more exclusive,” Yowell said. “I don’t want it to be perceived as something that only certain people can access.”  

Spain, in Detroit’s midtown neighborhood, is one of two schools with Montessori classrooms that has enough space to dramatically expand the program. The other one is the Palmer Park Academy, which is in northwest Detroit.