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.

Follow the ratings

Illinois education officials laud their school ratings — but critics say they don’t go far enough

Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State education officials publicly lauded their new school rating system Friday, even as a new, nationwide analysis of school improvement plans criticized Illinois’ approach as too hands-off.  

While the state developed a clear rating system as the federal government requires, Illinois falls short in follow-through, according to the report from the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit advocacy group, and HCM Strategies, a policy analysis group.  

“The state is taking too limited a role in leading or supporting school improvement efforts,” said the report, which examined how 17 states are implementing school improvement plans under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which was passed in 2015 and replaced the No Child Left Behind Act.

Both those federal laws task states with identifying and helping improve underperforming schools and with creating criteria to judge which schools are doing well. Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State officials disagree with the criticism.

“Illinois is being held up as a model for other states to follow,” said Ralph Grimm, chief education officer of Illinois, speaking at the monthly state board of education meeting on Friday. “The entire (state) team has to be commended for providing useful information.”

Illinois’ rating system places every public school in the state into one of four categories based in part on scores on the annual PARCC standardized tests (click here to see how Chicago schools ranked).

Only about a third of Illinois students scored proficient or higher on PARCC tests administered last spring. In reading, 37 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 met that benchmark, while in math 31 percent did. Despite that, the state awarded 80 percent of its schools a “commendable” or “exemplary” rating. 

The state labeled 20 percent of schools “underperforming” or “low performing,” the only designations that could trigger state action. Intervention measures include improvement plans, visits from specialists, and additional funding.

The state released its ratings just days after Chicago released its own batch of school ratings, which take into account a different set of metrics and a different standardized test.

Grimm said the next step will be asking the state’s lowest-performing schools to draft improvement plans and then connecting them with experts to implement their changes.

The state ratings pay particular attention to how schools educate certain groups of students — such as children of color and English language learners. Improvement plans will focus on ways to raise their achievement levels.

Under the latest state rankings, nearly half of Chicago schools failed to meet the state’s threshold for performance, with a disproportionate number of high schools on the low-performance list. Nearly all of under- and low-performing Chicago high schools are on the South Side and sit in or border on the city’s poorest census tracts.

The state could grant underperforming schools $15,000, and  the lowest performers can apply for $100,000 under its IL-Empower program — which helped schools improve by funneling federal funds to them. Advocates have welcomed the change to a carrot to help schools pull themselves up, after years of sticks that overhauled and cut funding for low-performing schools.

Nationally, the Collaborative for Student Success report applauded Colorado for its streamlined application system, and Nevada for asking districts to directly address equity.

The collaborative criticized Illinois for failing to involve parents and community members in its plan. The group also said the state needs to give districts more guidance on putting together school improvement plans. 

carry on

These 16 Denver charter schools won renewal from the school board

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Sebastian Cruz waves to Rev. Leon Kelly as he works with children in a classroom during his after-school program at Wyatt Academy in September 2018.

The Denver school board on Thursday night unanimously renewed agreements with 16 of the district’s charter schools. The lengths of those renewals, however, varied from one year to five years — and signaled the board’s confidence in the schools to deliver a quality education.

The board also accepted Roots Elementary’s decision to close and surrender its charter at the end of this school year. The Park Hill school is facing low enrollment and high costs.

Denver Public Schools is a charter-friendly school district that has for years shared tax revenue and school buildings with its 60 publicly funded, independently operated charter schools. The schools are controversial, though, with opponents viewing them as privatizing public education.

Every charter school in Denver has an agreement with the district that spells out how long it’s allowed to operate. To continue running after that time period, the charter school must seek renewal. The arrangement is part of the deal for charters: They get the flexibility to operate independently, but they must periodically prove to the district that they’re doing a good job.

The school board relies on one set of recommendations from Denver Public Schools staff and a second set of recommendations from a districtwide parent committee in deciding how long a leash to give each charter school. The district staff and the parents on the committee consider factors such as test scores, school culture, financial viability, and the strength of a school’s leaders when making their recommendations.

They also consider a school’s rating on Denver Public Schools’ color-coded scale based largely on academic factors. The School Performance Framework, or SPF, labels schools either blue, green, yellow, orange, or red. Blue means a school has a distinguished academic record, while red means a school is not meeting the district’s expectations.

The staff recommended the school board renew the charters of all 16 schools that applied. Two other charter schools — DSST: Cole Middle School and Compass Academy — are also up for renewal this year. But because they earned the district’s lowest rating, they must go through a separate process in which they will present a detailed improvement plan. Their renewals will depend on the strength of their plans, which is why they weren’t included in this batch.

The board approved the 16 renewals Thursday without discussion. All of the new terms begin next school year. Here’s the rundown:

STRIVE Prep Federal, a middle school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2006
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

Rocky Mountain Prep Creekside, an elementary school in southeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: College View High School, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Green
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Blue
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Elementary School, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, an elementary school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Wyatt Academy, an elementary school in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2003
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Middle School, a middle school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2013
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Denver Justice High School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in central Denver
Year opened: 2009
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

REACH Charter School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

Monarch Montessori, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

STRIVE Prep SMART, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

Academy of Urban Learning, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northwest Denver
Year opened: 2005
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year, with a possible one-year extension

Rise Up Community School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year