Are Children Learning

After cheating scandal, Flanner House families look ahead

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Mayor Greg Ballard, speaking to the media in August, hailed a deal with City-County Council Democrats on his proposed plan to offer tuition aid for preschool.

Angelea Thomas was still a little overwhelmed Thursday as she buckled her granddaughter, a Flanner House kindergartener, into the car after school.

An otherwise routine day had taken a shocking turn. She and other parents and grandparents were hurriedly informed that morning that an investigation had found Flanner House had cheated on the state ISTEP exam and, as a result, the board that oversees it had decided to close it down.

She has a little less than three weeks to find the little girl a new school.

“It’s devastating, absolutely devastating,” Thomas said.

She said she’s still struggling to believe allegations that at least some teachers at Flanner House had gone as far as to erase their students’ ISTEP answers and change them.

“What message does that send to the kids?” she said. “This is affecting so many people, an entire community.”

Thomas’ mix of anger, disappointment and disbelief was widely shared Thursday among those connected to Flanner House School, the community center that shares its name and the wider education community in Indianapolis.

A ‘gut wrenching’ decision

Less than an hour after the news about Flanner House broke, Mayor Greg Ballard was cutting the ribbon to open a new charter school, the Visions Academy on Riverside Drive. He grimaced when reporters quickly pivoted to the Flanner House news in interviews after the event.

“These are always gut wrenching decisions,” he said. “It was disappointing. We initiated that investigation and asked the state to help us look at that. The board, to their credit, made the right decision.”

A meeting for parents after school was closed to the public, but parents coming out from it said there were a lot of tough questions for school officials and some hard feelings.

Sarah Shelton, who was picking up her kindergartener from Flanner House school Thursday afternoon, said she was frustrated that the school left families in the lurch by closing so soon after the start of the school year.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Shelton said. “I’m frustrated. If they knew this was happening, why did they even enroll us? Us parents have spent all this money on clothes, school uniforms and supplies. Now we have to transfer them to another school, which isn’t going to have the same colors. We’re starting all over, basically. We’re going to be doing double-time trying to find them another school.”

There weren’t easy answers to such concerns.

Pat Roe, chairwoman of the school’s board, said the decision to close was aimed at trying to make it easier for the children. The school year has just begun and the hope is they can assimilate quickly to new schools.

“As a board we are concerned about perception of the community but believe our first priority is to the families we serve,” she said in a statement that was read Thursday by radio host Amos Brown on WTLC’s Afternoons with Amos program. “We are trying to help our families make decisions that are in the best interests of their young person.”

Indianapolis Public Schools spokeswoman Kristin Cutler said the district’s leadership team immediately started working on a plan to enroll Flanner House students who wish to transfer to schools in the district.

“We’re welcoming any Flanner House students to IPS and will provide them with excellent service and educational opportunities,” Cutler said.

Ballard’s office also said it would help find space in other charter schools for parents who preferred that option.

A breach of trust

Wilbert Buckner, the executive director of the Flanner House community center, which rented space to the school but is a separate organization, said he understands the disappointment and frustration of parents at the school.

“It’s kind of a sad day for us,” he said. “People didn’t necessarily know what was going on. It’s kind of come as a shock for lots of people at this point.”

The 116-year old institution was founded as a charity to support African-American families. It runs a highly-rated preschool, a senior citizens center and a public library branch from its location.

Flanner House School, which opened in 2002, was also aimed at helping African-American families. Its students are about 98 percent African American and 96 percent come from families poor enough to qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. The school had once earned good grades from the state before test scores began to slide. It was placed on a performance improvement plan by Ballard, its sponsor and overseer, about two years ago.

Mark Russell, education director for the Indianapolis Urban League, said it was difficult to see the school closed by such a serious breach of trust as cheating allegations.

“This is going to be extremely disruptive, especially for the children,” Russell said. “It’s just saddening and shocking that adults would behave in this manner.”

Charter school concerns

Tosha Salyers, with the Institute for Quality Education, said the actions of the adults at Flanner House are shocking and wrong but shouldn’t reflect badly on charter schools.

“I think because it is a charter school, we’ll hear certain folks trying to make generalizations about the charter movement as a whole, which isn’t true,” Salyers said. “It’s just a bunch of adults who made some bad decisions who happened to be involved in a charter school.”

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association who worked as a kindergarten teacher in Shelbyville until last year, said that with almost a month of school having gone by for some students, they’ll have to acclimate quickly and catch up with where curriculum in a new school might be.

“We are concerned about the students and what’s going to happen to them as they head into their new environment,” Meredith said.

ISTA has been critical of school choice programs, such as publicly funded charter schools and vouchers that children can use to pay private school tuition.

“We are very concerned about what’s happening not just here, but across the country with charter schools,” she said.

But David Harris, CEO of the Indianapolis-based non-profit The Mind Trust, which advocates for educational change and supports charter schools, said there is no evidence that charter schools are inherently more prone to cheating than public schools.

“There’s examples of cheating scandals in all different types of schools, including district-wide,” Harris said. “These kinds of things will happen. The question is what is the recourse once it’s uncovered.”

What to tell the children?

Policy debates over the merits of charter vs. traditional public schools are not on the minds of Flanner House parents this week.

Thomas, the grandmother of a Flanner House kindergartener, feels fortunate that the girl is so young and school is so new for her. It might make her transition easier.

Still, she worries about the older children at the school who understand the school is closing because of wrongdoing.

“I think they’ll be very affected,” Thomas said. “Their friends are going to be split up.”

And she wondered aloud how she would tell her own grandchild that she would not be returning to her friends or teacher after next month.

“I don’t know how to tell her,” Thomas said. “I don’t want her to distrust her teachers or people in authority. I guess I could call it a mistake.”

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”