Future of Schools

Tindley says it can't afford to keep running Arlington High School

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Marcus Robinson, CEO of Tindley Schools, (center) addresses the Indiana State Board of Education in 2014.

Tindley Schools, the charter school group that has run Arlington High School in Indianapolis for two years under a contract with the state, said today it wants out.

The leader of the nonprofit group that also operates a network of Indianapolis charter schools told the Indiana State Board of Education Tindley simply couldn’t afford to keep managing the school unless it received an additional $2.4 million in aid. Otherwise it would have to subsidize the cost of running the takeover school with money earmarked for the charter schools it runs.

Tindley CEO Marcus Robinson said he’s not willing to do that.

“We made a promise before we started,” he said. “Tindley is a small non-profit. It is not some big corporate conglomerate or an entity that can afford to take $1 million or a half million dollars to prop up an operation. Does the charter school need to carry the turnaround school? The answer to that is that cannot be.”

After the state board balked at Tindley’s request to add more money for Arlington, Robinson instead proposed a year-long transition to hand the school back to Indianapolis Public Schools.

If not, Robinson said, he would exercise an option to end Tindley’s contract within 60 days.

“There is no way I put my team in that building without some clarity about what happens after this year,” he said.

State board members, appearing caught off guard, ultimately decided to establish a task force with representatives of Tindley, IPS, Mayor Greg Ballard’s office, Gov. Mike Pence’s Center for Education and Career Innovation and the Indiana Department of Education to work on a “transition plan” for Arlington.

“You can’t hold the young people you committed to serve hostage,” a frustrated state board member Dan Elsener said during the debate.

Ritz asked that the committee meet and complete a plan in a short nine-day window by July 18.

Arlington is one of five Indiana schools — four in Indianapolis and one in Gary — that were taken over by the state after six straight years of F grades in 2011.

Since the takeover, all of the schools have remained among the worst performers on state tests and none has risen above an F. Arlington’s modest test score gains, however, were the biggest of the group.

But funding has been a problem from the start. Under former Superintendent Eugene White, IPS pledged to compete with the takeover schools by aggressively recruiting their students to other IPS schools. It worked. After the takeovers, a fraction of the enrollment remained at the schools.

Because state funding is heavily based on enrollment count, the takeover groups faced the danger of far less money to operate the schools than they anticipated. In fact, when the state board at Bennett’s urging funded the takeovers at the same amount as the prior year to start, IPS sued and won.

Robinson said federal school improvement grants were a way to fill the gap, describing the expectation that the takeover schools would continue receiving them as “an enticement from prior administration to get groups to take over these schools.”

But the grants are not guaranteed. A similar dynamic played out last summer, when Tindley said it would invoke the out clause in its contract if the state education department, which was late issuing grant notifications, did not award the school one of them.

After it won the grant, which is administered by the state through a competitive process, Tindley was satisfied.

This year, Tindley’s grant will be less than the $1.3 million it received lass year.

That and other factors mean “the operational overhead outstrips revenue generated by students assigned to the school,” the letter states.

Since then, Robinson said he had discussions with IPS about ways the two groups might work together that he was hopeful would lead to “creative solutions” that might relieve some of the financial pressure on Tindley.

Even so, Robinson was counting on relief in the form of extra money from the state in response to his letter. But board members said the only way to give Arlington more was to take money from other schools that would receive the grants. The state board doesn’t have the leeway to assign other funds to the school.

When the board voted down Tindley’s request, Robinson shifted tone immediately, saying instead he wanted transition the school back to IPS for the 2015-16 school year.

Board member Sarah O’Brien cautioned that she wasn’t sure returning the school to IPS was the best option, or that a decision to move in that direction should be made hastily. Other options for a school in state takeover that the board could choose include merging it with a higher scoring school, closing it or turning it into a charter school.

She and others also noted that IPS officials were not present and Tindley had no formal agreement with the district.

“My hesitation is we are being asked to vote for a partnership that may or may not exist,” she said.

The task force is charged with figuring that out.

The operator of three other former IPS schools in state takeover — Donnan middle school and Howe and Manual high schools — said there is no danger it would walk away from the schools.

“CSUSA remains fully committed to educating our students in Indianapolis and the actions and discussions at today’s State Board of Education meeting don’t change that,” the Florida-based company said in a statement.

More autonomy

These Denver schools want to join the district’s ‘innovation zone’ or form new zones

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual Middle School students at a press conference about test scores in August 2017. The school has signaled its intent to be part of a new innovation zone.

Thirteen Denver schools have signaled their desire to become more autonomous by joining the district’s first “innovation zone” or by banding together to form their own zones. The schools span all grade levels, and most of the thirteen are high-performing.

Innovation zones are often described as a “third way” to govern public schools. The four schools in Denver’s first zone, created in 2016, have more autonomy than traditional district-run schools but less than charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Denver Public Schools recently released applications for schools to join the first zone, called the Luminary Learning Network, or to form new zones. The school district, which at 92,600 students is Colorado’s largest, is nationally known for nurturing a “portfolio” of different school types and for encouraging entrepreneurship among its school principals.

The district is offering two options to schools that want to form new zones. One option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen not by the district but by a nonprofit organization. That’s how the Luminary Learning Network is set up.

Another, slightly less autonomous option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen by the district. “Some additional autonomies would be available to these schools, but many decisions would still be made by the district,” the district’s website says.

One tangible difference between the two: The principals of schools in zones overseen by the district would answer to district administrators, while the principals of schools in zones overseen by nonprofit organizations would be hired and fired by the nonprofits’ boards of directors.

Schools in both types of zones would have more control over their budgets. A key flexibility enjoyed by the four schools in the Luminary Learning Network has been the ability to opt out of certain district services and use that money to buy things that meet their students’ specific needs, such as a full-time psychologist or another special education teacher. The zone schools would like even more financial freedom, though, and are re-negotiating with the district.

The district has extended the same budgetary flexibility to the schools in Denver’s three “innovation management organizations,” or IMOs, which are networks of schools with “innovation status.”

Innovation status was created by a 2008 state law. It allows district-run schools to do things like set their own calendars and choose their own curriculum by waiving certain state and district rules. The same law allows innovation schools to join together to form innovation zones.

The difference between an innovation zone and an innovation management organization is that schools in innovation zones have the opportunity for even greater autonomy, with zones governed by nonprofit organizations poised to have the most flexibility.

The deadline for schools to file “letters of intent” to apply to join an innovation zone or form a new one was Feb. 15. Leaders of the three innovation management organizations applied to form zones of their own.

One of them – a network comprised of McAuliffe International and McAuliffe Manual middle schools – has signaled its intent to join forces with an elementary school and a high school in northeast Denver to form a new, four-school zone.

Three elementary schools – Valdez, High Tech, and Swigert – submitted multiple intent letters.

Amy Gile, principal of High Tech, said in an email that her school submitted a letter of intent to join the Luminary Learning Network and a separate letter to be part of a new zone “so that we are able to explore all options available in the initial application process. We plan to make a decision about what best meets the needs of our community prior to the application deadline.”

The application deadline is in April. There are actually two: Innovation management organizations that want to become innovation zones must file applications by April 4, and schools that want to form new zones have until April 20 to turn in their applications.

Here’s a list of the schools that filed letters of intent.

Schools that want to join the Luminary Learning Network:

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College High School
Valdez Elementary School
High Tech Elementary School

Schools that want to form new innovation zones overseen by nonprofits:

McAuliffe International School
McAuliffe Manual Middle School
Northfield High School
Swigert International School
These four schools want to form a zone called the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone.

McGlone Academy
John Amesse Elementary School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Montbello Children’s Network.

Grant Beacon Middle School
Kepner Beacon Middle School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Beacon Network Schools IMO I-Zone.

Schools that want to form a new innovation zone overseen by the district:

High Tech Elementary School
Isabella Bird Community School
Valdez Elementary School
Swigert International School
DCIS at Ford
These five schools want to form a zone called the Empower Zone.

First Responder

Jeffco’s superintendent has some ideas about preventing school shootings — and none of them involve gun control or armed teachers

Jeffco superintendent Jason Glass at the Boys & Girls in Lakewood (Marissa Page, Chalkbeat).

Superintendent Jason Glass of the Jefferson County school district isn’t interested in talking about gun control in the wake of yet another deadly school shooting.

Home of Columbine High School, Jefferson County is no stranger to these tragedies or their aftermath, and Glass doesn’t think calls for restricting firearms will get any more traction this time than they have before. Nor is he interested in talking about arming teachers, a proposal he considers just as much of a political dead end.

“A solution is only a solution if we can actually enact it,” Glass wrote in a blog post published Monday. “We are not able to get either of these solutions passed into law so they have no impact.”

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to talk about, he wrote. Glass lays out four ideas that he sees as more politically feasible and that might make a difference:

  • Put trained, armed law enforcement officials in every school
  • Increase funding and support for school mental health services
  • Create a federally funded center to study school safety and security
  • Change the layout of and access to school buildings to make them safer, much the way we’ve renovated airports, stadiums, and other public facilities

Glass describes these measures as “proactive, preventative, and reactive steps that would make a big impact in making our schools much safer than they are today.”

Some schools and districts already have an armed police presence on campus or offer mental health services, but Glass argues these efforts need more money, more support, and more cohesion.

“These solutions need to come from the federal level to create the scale and impact we really need,” he wrote. “Congress and the President need to act and now. … Flexibility and deference can be built into these solutions to accommodate differences across states and communities – but we have a national crisis on our hands and we have to start acting like it.”

Of course, even studying something, as Glass envisions this new center on school safety doing, can be political. Since 1996, the federal government, at the urging of the National Rifle Association, has placed tight restrictions on the ability of the Centers for Disease Control to study gun violence as a public health issue.

The blog post provoked a vigorous debate in the comments. Some called on Glass to join the national movement demanding more restrictions on firearms. This is not a time for “half measures,” one woman wrote.

Others said that turning schools into “fortresses” would work against their educational mission and questioned how well school resource officers could be trained to respond appropriately to students with special needs – or how fair the district-level threat assessment process is.

In the wake of another school shooting at Arapahoe High School in 2013, one largely forgotten outside the state, Colorado legislators passed a law that holds schools liable for missing warning signs in troubled students.

In an interview with Colorado Public Radio, Bill Woodward, a former police officer who trains schools in how to prevent violence, said more schools are doing threat assessments. But their success may require schools to take even more seriously the idea that their own students might be dangerous.

“I think the biggest barrier is the climate of the school, because I think sometimes schools are just thinking in terms of working with students, helping students out,” Woodward told CPR. “And sometimes when you’re looking at someone who’s made a threat, you have to change to the Secret Service model.”

Woodward said a more comprehensive solution may involve gun control. Schools can’t afford to wait, though.

“There is no silver bullet, speaking metaphorically, but I think gun law changes may well be needed,” he said. “I just think we have to do what we can do now, and we can do things now.”