charter schools

Goodwill charter school would bring dropouts back to school

When you picture a charter school, you may imagine a crowd of youngsters in tidy uniforms learning their ABCs. But one of Shelby County’s newest charter schools, if it is approved, would serve a group of people more likely to be those students’ parents.

Goodwill Industries has applied to open a charter school in Memphis aimed at helping people who have dropped out of school to earn a high school diploma, and, ideally, get on the road to postsecondary education and better jobs.

The schools, called Excel Centers, would use a model pioneered by the Indianapolis affiliate of Goodwill Industries — the organization mostly known as a place for donating second hand clothing. Excel Centers focus on dropout recovery, and serve students ranging from teens who have dropped out of school to adults with children and grandchildren of their own.

Goodwill submitted its application to Shelby County Schools earlier this month and expects to know if it is approved some time in May. The organization hopes to open its first Excel Center in Memphis in the fall of 2015. It would serve some 300-350 students.

The schools combine online learning with classroom instruction, allowing students to work at their own paces.

“[The school] would meet a tremendous need in our community, and would extend Memphis Goodwill’s mission to remove barriers to employment,” said Trina Jones, the vice president of marketing and communications at Memphis Goodwill.

Goodwill estimates that some 120,000 adults in Shelby County do not have their high school diploma, with an additional 7,200 students dropping out each year.

Jones described some of the schools’ components: “Outreach to adult drop-outs, on-site services such as a child drop-in center, a coach who is helping each student consider “what’s next” after high school and an emphasis on post-secondary studies (academic or vocational training/certification).”

The postsecondary focus is important, said Lili Allen, the director of Back on Track Design at Jobs For the Future, a nonprofit that focuses on closing gaps in the “education-to-career” pipeline. For the program to really benefit students, “they need to be doing more than just credit recovery and test prep.”

The Excel Centers in Indianapolis have been been hailed by school choice and dropout recovery advocates as one of the best examples of successful charter school innovation.

Excel Centers in Indiana have helped more than 350 dropouts earn high school diplomas since 2010. About two-thirds of those earned industry certifications or college credit along the way and about 75 percent now have full-time jobs. Of those not yet working, some of them went onto college instead.

“Excel is very specialized because it has the older student focus,” said Andrew Moore, a Philadelphia-based senior fellow at the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families at the National League of Cities. “It’s clearly filling a really important niche, and stands in contrast to charters that work with 16–21 year olds.” 

But the demand for the schools had presented a funding challenge in Indiana: The programs draw on a pool of funds traditionally used to educate traditional students, aged 5-18 or so, to educate the adults they bring back to school. The same arrangement will likely be true in Tennessee as well. 

Growing demand

The Goodwill application comes as the number of charter schools in Memphis is increasing, and as there is continued attention to alternative school options. If Indianapolis is any indication, demand will be strong. 

In Indiana, the state had an estimated 400,000 dropouts and was adding 15,000 more each year. Goodwill pitched the idea of a charter school for dropouts to Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, who can sponsor charters under that state’s law.

When the first Indianapolis school opened in 2010, demand for the 300 spaces surprised Goodwill. The school’s waiting list quickly grew to 2,000. That prompted Goodwill to open more schools. It now has eight schools in four Indiana cities and plans for more.

A new charter school in Memphis that also does dropout recovery, called Pathways, is likewise already planning to expand, as its enrollment has grown from 50 to 150 students in just three months.

For each new school, Goodwill in Indiana will collect a license fee.

“It’s just recovering our cost,” said Scott Bess, the chief operating officer of education initiatives for Goodwill in Indiana. “The biggest thing from our perspective is creating a network all across the country of people who are doing pretty innovative things who can share with each other so everybody benefits.”

Goodwill has also licensed the dropout recovery charter school model to its Austin, Texas, affiliate, which has state approval to open an Excel Center there next fall.

Funding challenges

When Indianapolis’ mayor approved the Excel Centers, the plan was to fund them out of the state’s K-12 school funding formula like other charter schools. The city’s charter school office could not find any provision in state law that prevented it.

But legislators worried as the schools grew in popularity. This year, Goodwill’s Excel Centers enrolled about 3,000 students statewide. The state was soon spending a significant amount of money on these non-traditional students, many well over 18-years-old.

Indiana lawmakers responded by capping the number of dropout recovery schools there at 11 statewide last year and setting a limit of $25 million to be apportioned to such schools. But this year the cap has been lifted and a process for approving new schools established.

Some states cap the age at which a student is eligible to receive education funds, but that is not the case in Tennessee.

According to Kelli Gauthier, a spokeswoman for the state department of education, “In Tennessee, we cannot disallow enrollment solely on the basis of age. And if a student is enrolled, they generate BEP funding, which then goes to the charter school.”

Reach this reporter at [email protected] 

Sign up for our newsletter for regular updates on Tennessee education news:

hurdle cleared

Indiana’s federally required education plan wins approval

PHOTO: Courtesy of the Indiana Department of Education
State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick greets elementary school students in Decatur Township.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has signed off on Indiana’s federally required education plan, ushering in another era of changes — although not exactly major ones — to the state’s public school system.

The U.S Department of Education announced the plan’s approval on Friday. Like other states, Indiana went through an extensive process to craft a blueprint to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which was signed into law in 2015.

“Today is a great day for Indiana,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement. “Our ESSA plan reflects the input and perspective of many stakeholders in communities across our state. From the beginning, we set out to build a plan that responded to the needs of Hoosier students. From our clear accountability system to our innovative, locally-driven approach to school improvement, our ESSA plan was designed to support student success.”

The federal government highlighted two aspects of Indiana’s plan. One is a pledge to close achievement gaps separating certain groups of students, such as racial and ethnic groups, from their peers by 50 percent by 2023.

Another is a staple of other states’ plans, as well: adding new ways for measuring how ready students are for attending college or starting their careers. Indiana education officials and lawmakers have made this a priority over the past several years, culminating in a new set of graduation requirements the Indiana State Board of Education approved late last year.

Under Indiana’s plan, high schoolers’ readiness will be measured not just by tests but also by performance in advanced courses and earning dual credits or industry certifications. Elementary school students will be measured in part by student attendance and growth in student attendance over time. Test scores and test score improvement still play a major role in how all schools are rated using state A-F letter grades.

In all, 35 states’ ESSA plans have won federal approval.

Advocates hope the law will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

Indiana officials struggled to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, such as graduation requirements and diplomas.

Under the state’s ESSA plan, A-F grades would include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and, in the case of chronic absenteeism, attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

Because the Indiana State Board of Education passed its own draft A-F rules earlier this month — rules that deviate from the state ESSA plan — it’s possible Hoosier schools could get two sets of letter grades going forward, muddying the initial intent of the simple A-F grade concept parents and community members are familiar with.

The state board’s A-F changes include other measures, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan. The state board plan also gets rid of the test score improvement measure for high-schoolers.

While that A-F proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

The state can still make changes to its ESSA plan, and the state board’s A-F draft is also expected to see revisions after public comment. But the fact that they conflict now could create difficulties moving forward, and it has led to tension during state board meetings. Already, the state expected schools would see two years of A-F grades in 2018. If both plans move forward as is, that could continue beyond next year.

Read: Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Find more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.


Aurora recommends interventions in one elementary school, while another gets more time

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Aurora school district officials on Tuesday will recommend turning over management of some operations at one of their elementary schools to an outside management company.

The school, Lyn Knoll Elementary, is located in northwest Aurora near 2nd Avenue and Peoria Street and serves a high number of students from low-income families, with 4 percent of students identified as homeless. The school was one of three Aurora schools that earned the lowest rating from the state in 2017.

That rating automatically flags the school under a district process for school interventions. The process directs district officials to consider a number of possible improvement plans, including closure or turning the school over to a charter school.

Lyn Knoll has had good rankings in recent years before slipping dramatically in the past year, a change that put it on the turnaround list. The district did not recommend intervening at Paris Elementary, even though that school has been in priority improvement for years and will face state sanctions if it has one more year without improvement.

Annual ratings for Lyn Knoll Elementary

  • 2010: Improvement
  • 2011: Improvement
  • 2012: Performance
  • 2013: Improvement
  • 2014: Priority Improvement
  • 2016: Performance
  • 2017: Turnaround
Colorado Department of Education

The board will discuss the recommendation on Tuesday and vote on the school’s fate next month. In November, four union-backed board members who have been critical of charter schools won a majority role on the district’s school board. This will be their first major decision since taking a seat on the board.

In September, Superintendent Rico Munn had told the school board that among January’s school improvement recommendations, the one for Paris would be “the most high-profile.” A month later the district put out a request for information, seeking ideas to improve Aurora schools.

But in a board presentation released Friday, district officials didn’t give much attention to Paris. Instead, they will let Paris continue its rollout of an innovation plan approved two years ago. Officials have said they are hopeful the school will show improvements.

The recommendation for Lyn Knoll represents more drastic change, and it’s the only one that would require a board vote.

The district recommendation calls for replacing the current principal, drafting a contract for an outside company to help staff with training and instruction, and creating a plan to help recruit more students to the school.

Documents show district officials considered closing Lyn Knoll because it already has low and decreasing enrollment with just 238 current students. Those same documents note that while officials are concerned about the school’s trends, it has not had a long history of low ratings to warrant a closure.

In considering a charter school conversion, documents state that there is already a saturation of charter schools in that part of the city, and the community is interested in “the existence of a neighborhood school.” Two charter networks, however, did indicate interest in managing the school, the documents state.
The district recommendation would also include stripping the school’s current status as a pilot school.

Lyn Knoll and other schools labeled pilot schools in Aurora get some internal district autonomy under a program created more than 10 years ago by district and union officials.

Because Lyn Knoll is a pilot school, a committee that oversees that program also reviewed the school and made its own recommendation, which is different from the district’s.

In their report, committee members explained that while they gave the school low marks, they want the school to maintain pilot status for another year as long as it follows guidance on how to improve.

Among the observations in the committee’s report: The school doesn’t have an intervention program in place for students who need extra help in math, families are not engaged, and there has not been enough training for teachers on the new state standards.

The report also highlights the school’s daily physical education for students and noted that the school’s strength was in the school’s governance model that allowed teachers to feel involved in decision making.

Read the full committee report below.