Super School project

Memphis group advances in Laurene Jobs’ contest to reinvent America’s high schools

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Crosstown High School would be located on the fourth and fifth floors of the redeveloped Crosstown Concourse building, joining other tenants in Memphis from mostly educational, healthcare and retail sectors.

Supporters of Crosstown High School are vying to use the proposed selective school in midtown Memphis as the canvas to remake America’s high school in a national contest backed by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

The board of directors for the Memphis educational endeavor announced Monday that its application is one of 348 to advance to the next round of of the XQ Super School Challenge, which Jobs announced last September, inviting teams to reimagine how high schools can better prepare students for college, workplace and life.

The competition received nearly 700 applications from 45 states, Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico — twice as many as the philanthropic effort expected. Five winners will be announced this August and will receive $10 million each — $2 million annually for five years — to develop new educational approaches.

“Our XQ application was the result of months of hard work by a large and diverse group of volunteers, including young people, parents, educators and many other community members who all have a stake in the future of our city’s public education,” said Michelle McKissack, a member of the proposed school’s board of directors.

Backers want Crosstown High School to be a selective college prep program operated as a contract school in a partnership between Shelby County Schools and Christian Brothers University, which is now part of a new nonprofit group called Crosstown High School Inc. The 500-student school would serve students who perform on or above grade level on state tests. It would open in fall 2017 and operate under an independent governing board.

Shelby County’s school board got its first look in January at the proposed partnership supported by Superintendent Dorsey Hopson. Members generally were open to the proposal but expressed concern about the school achieving diversity in a district where at least 65 percent of students come from poor families. The current proposal calls for a student population of at least 35 percent who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Board member Chris Caldwell, who represents the district that would be home to the new school, said the partnership proposal is still under discussion and that he supports efforts such as the XQ campaign that may yield new resources. “I wish them luck,” he said Monday. “Any school that is going to operate within Shelby County Schools that can get these kinds of resources is a great accomplishment.”

Crosstown High would be located in Crosstown Concourse, a former Sears warehouse building undergoing a massive renovation with tenants from mostly educational, healthcare and retail sectors. It would leverage partnerships and resources available through tenants including Church Health Center, Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Memphis Teacher Residency, Crosstown Arts and others.

The proposed school would represent a new direction for the school board, which for years has focused almost exclusively on efforts to improve Memphis’ lowest-performing schools. Hopson has said the district is seeking to increase options for high-quality schools in order to retain or attract students to Shelby County Schools who might otherwise go to a private school.

“This incredibly unique opportunity includes the space of the school itself,” McKissack said of the XQ effort. “Instead of trying to fit such an innovative high school into an existing school building, Crosstown Concourse offers us a blank slate, an open space with no walls to design a physical learning environment that is one-of-a-kind and presents us with limitless possibilities for collaboration, skills development, and learning.”

Schools chosen to advance to the next round of the contest represent 41 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico and must submit their next applications by May 23.

“This next part of the process is really about putting the flesh on the bones and demonstrating how the school would be operational,” said Ginger Spickler, a Memphis parent who created the Memphis School Guide and is a contributor to the application process.

Powell Jobs created the XQ Institute in an effort to bring Silicon Valley thinking to education to fix the biggest problems facing the nation’s high schools. The institute kicked off its work with the national contest.

Common themes that emerged from the first round of applications include a desire to make high schools the center of the community again; a desire to build school designs around involvement of the students themselves; and learning styles that focus on mastery of topic, project collaboration, blended subjects and applications in higher ways.

McKissack said the contest has provided an opportunity to galvanize education stakeholders in Memphis.

“Whether or not we ultimately make it all the way through the XQ Super School Challenge, we have definitely come to better understand the unique opportunity a Crosstown High School affords us,” she said.

Disclosure: Chalkbeat receives support from the Emerson Collective, which launched XQ.

Correction: April 11, 2016: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the competition had received nearly 700 applications from 49 states. The correct number is 45 states, as well as Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.

new money

House budget draft sends more money to schools, but not specifically to teacher raises

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Despite months of heated debate, Indiana House Republicans are not setting aside extra dollars for meaningful teacher raises in their version of the state’s $14.5 billion education budget plan released Monday night.

Even though lawmakers are proposing preserving a controversial merit-based bonus pool and adding small amounts for teacher training programs, their budget draft would largely leave it up to school districts to dole out raises through increased overall funding.

The budget draft proposes increasing what Indiana spends on schools overall by $461 million — or 4.3 percent — through 2021, a little more than increases in years past. The basic per-student funding that all districts get would jump from $5,352 per student this year to $5,442 per student in 2020 and $5,549 per student in 2021. House lawmakers are also adding in a one-time payment of $150 million from state reserves that would pay down a pension liability for schools. But while lawmakers and Gov. Eric Holcomb have said that pension payment would free up about $70 million in schools’ budgets each year, the state likely wouldn’t require the cost-savings be passed along to teachers.

Although increasing teacher pay is a top goal for House Republicans, lawmakers have crafted bills that hinge on districts spending less money in areas such as administration or transportation rather than adding more money to school budgets and earmarking it for teacher salaries.

Their criticism of school spending has raised the ire of superintendents and educators who say they have little left to cut after years of increasing costs and state revenue that has barely kept pace with inflation.

But budget draft, which is expected to be presented to and voted on by the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday, doesn’t completely omit efforts to incentivize teachers to stick around. Unlike Holcomb’s budget proposal, House lawmakers are keeping in the current appropriation of $30 million per year for teacher bonuses.

The House budget draft would also set aside $1 million per year for a teacher residency pilot program and $5 million per year for schools that put in place career ladder programs that allow teachers to gain skills and opportunities without leaving the classroom.

Teacher advocacy groups, such as the Indiana State Teachers Association and Teach Plus, have been supportive of residency and career ladder programs, but the organizations have also called for more action this year to get dollars to teachers. Additionally, the ideas aren’t new — similar programs have been proposed in years past.

Calls for the hundreds of millions of dollars it would take to raise teacher salaries to be more in line with surrounding states will likely go unheeded for now as the state instead prioritizes other high-profile and expensive agencies, such as the Department of Child Services and Medicaid.

But while plans for major teacher pay raises appear to be on hold, House lawmakers are looking to boost funding in other areas of education to support some of the state’s most vulnerable students.

The budget draft would increase what the state must spend on preschool programs for students with disabilities from the current $2,750 per-student to $2,875 in 2020 and $3,000 in 2021 — the first such increase in more than 25 years.

House lawmakers are also proposing the state spend more money on students learning English as a new language, at $325 per student up from $300 per student now. While all schools with English learners would receive more money per student under this plan, the new budget draft removes a provision that had previously allocated extra dollars to schools with higher concentrations of English learners.

A 2017 calculation error and an uptick in interested schools meant state lawmakers did not budget enough money for schools with larger shares of English-learners in the last budget cycle, so they ended up getting far less than what the state had promised. But even the small increases were valuable, educators told Chalkbeat.

House lawmakers also suggested slashing funding for virtual programs run by traditional public school districts. Going forward, funding for both virtual charter schools and virtual schools within school districts would come in at 90 percent of what traditional schools receive from the state — now, only virtual charter schools are at the 90 percent level. It’s a marked change for House lawmakers, who in years past have asked that virtual charter school funding be increased to 100 percent.

The virtual funding proposal comes as lawmakers are considering bills that would add regulations for the troubled schools, where few students pass state exams or graduate.

The budget draft also includes:

  • $5 million per year added to school safety grants, totaling $19 million in 2020 and $24 million in 2021
  • Doubling grants for high-performing charter schools from $500 per student to $1,000 per student, at a cost of about $32 million over two years. The money is a way for charter schools to make up for not receiving local property tax dollars like district schools, lawmakers say.
  • $4 million per year more to expand the state’s private school voucher program to increase funding for certain families above the poverty line. Under the plan, a family of four making between $46,000 and $58,000 annually could receive a voucher for 70 percent of what public schools would have received in state funding for the student. Currently, those families receive a 50 percent voucher.
  • About $33 million over two years (up from about $25 million) for the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship program.

rethinking the reprieve

Indiana lawmakers take step to eliminate generous ‘growth-only’ grades for all schools, not just those in IPS

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

A panel of Indiana lawmakers took a first step Monday to stop giving new and overhauled schools more generous state A-F grades that consider only how much students improve on tests and cut schools slack for low test scores.

The House Education Committee was initially looking to clamp down on Indianapolis Public Schools’ innovation schools, barring them from using student test score improvement as the sole determinant in their first three years of A-F grades. The more generous scale has boosted IPS’ performance as it launches a new strategy of partnering with charter operators, by allowing some innovation network schools to earn high marks despite overall low test scores.

But lawmakers expanded the scope of the bill to stop all schools from receiving what are known as “growth-only grades” after Chalkbeat reported that IPS’ overhauled high schools were granted a fresh start from the state — a move that would allow the high schools to tap into the more lenient grading system.

“I want to be consistent, and I felt like [grading] wasn’t consistent before, it was just hodge-podge,” said committee Chairman Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican. “We need to be transparent with parents.”

Read: Why it’s hard to compare Indianapolis schools under the A-F grading system

The committee unanimously approved the bill. If it passes into law, Indianapolis Public Schools stands to be one of the districts most affected. Growth-only grades for innovation schools have given the district’s data a boost, accounting for eight of the district’s 11 A grades in 2018. All of its high schools could also be eligible for growth-only grades this year.

Indianapolis Public Schools officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In the past, they have defended the two-tiered grading system, arguing that growth on state tests is an important window into how schools are educating students. Growth-only grades were originally intended to offer new schools time to get up and running before being judged on student test scores.

IPS was also the target of another provision in the updated bill that would add in stricter rules for when and how schools can ask for a “baseline reset” — the fresh start that its four high schools were recently granted.

Read: IPS overhauled high schools. Now, the state is giving them a fresh start on A-F

The resets, which districts can currently request from the state education department if they meet certain criteria that show they’ve undergone dramatic changes, wipe out previous test scores and other student performance data to give schools a fresh start. The reset schools are considered new schools with new state ID numbers.

The state determined a reset was necessary for IPS’ four remaining high schools because of the effects of decisions last year to close three campuses, shuffle staff, and create a new system a new system for students to choose their schools. Each school will start over with state letter grades in 2019.

But Behning and other lawmakers were skeptical that such changes merited starting over with accountability, and they were concerned that the process could occur without state board of education scrutiny. If passed into law, the bill would require the state board to approve future requests for accountability resets.

A state board staff member testified in favor of the change. The state education department did not offer comments to the committee.

Rep. Vernon Smith, a Democrat from Gary, said he didn’t like the fact that a reset could erase a school’s data, adding that he had concerns about “the transparency of a school corporation getting a new number.”

The amended bill wouldn’t remove the reset for IPS high schools, but by eliminating the growth-only grades, it would get rid of some of the incentive for districts to ask for a reset to begin with. Under current law, reset schools are considered new and qualify for growth-only grades. But the bill would require that reset schools be judged on the state’s usual scale, taking into account both test scores and test score improvement — and possibly leading to lower-than-anticipated state grades.

The amended bill would still offer a grading grace period to schools opening for the first time: New charter schools would be able to ask the state to give them no grade — known as a “null” grade — for their first three years, but schools’ test score performance and test score growth data would still be published online. Behning said he didn’t include district schools in the null-grade measure because they haven’t frequently opened new schools, but he said he’d be open to an amendment.

The bill next heads to the full House for a vote.