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.”

Silver Lining Playbook

Memphis’ youngest students show reading gains on 2018 state tests — and that’s a big deal

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A student works on reading comprehension skills at Lucie E Campbell Elementary School in Memphis and Shelby County Schools.

Those working to improve early literacy rates in Shelby County Schools got a small morale boost Thursday as newly released scores show the district’s elementary school students improved their reading on 2018 state tests.

The percentage of Memphis elementary-age students considered proficient in reading rose by 3 points to almost one-fourth of the district’s children in grades 3 through 5. That’s still well below the state average, and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said “we obviously have a long way to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has overseen Tennessee’s largest public school district since 2013.

Strengthening early literacy has been a priority for the Memphis district, which views better reading skills as crucial to predicting high school graduation and career success. To that end, Shelby County Schools has expanded access to pre-K programs, adjusted reading curriculum, and made investments in literacy training for teachers.

Hopson said the payoff on this year’s TNReady scores was a jump of almost 5 percentage points in third-grade reading proficiency.

“It was about five years ago when we really, really, really started pushing pre-K, and those pre-K kids are now in the third grade. I think that’s something that’s really positive,” Hopson said of the gains, adding that third-grade reading levels are an important indicator of future school performance.

TNReady scores for Shelby County Schools, which has a high concentration of low-performing schools and students living in poverty, were a mixed bag, as they were statewide.

Math scores went up in elementary, middle, and high schools in Tennessee’s largest district. But science scores went down across the board, and the percentage of high school students who scored proficient in reading dropped by 4 percentage points.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools

Hopson said he was unsure how much the scores of older students — all of whom tested online — were affected by technical problems that hampered Tennessee’s return this year to computerized testing.

“From what people tell me, kids either didn’t try as hard in some instances or didn’t take it seriously,” Hopson told reporters. “We’ll never know what the real impact is, but we have to accept the data that came from these tests.”

But students in two of the district’s school improvement initiatives — the Innovation Zone and the Empowerment Zone — showed progress. “We’re going to double down on these strategies,” Hopson said of the extra investments and classroom supports.

In the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, which oversees 30 low-performing schools in Memphis, grades 3 through 8 saw an uptick in scores in both reading and math. But high schoolers scored more than 3 percentage points lower in reading and also took a step back in science.

The ASD takes over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and assigns them to charter operators to improve. But in the five years that the ASD has been in Memphis, its scores have been mostly stagnant.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said she and new ASD Superintendent Sharon Griffin are reviewing the new data to determine next steps.

“We are seeing some encouraging momentum shifts,” McQueen said.


As fate of ‘Newark Enrolls’ is debated, top enrollment officials resign

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The top officials overseeing Newark’s controversial school-enrollment system have resigned just weeks after the school board blocked the new superintendent from ousting them.

Their departure creates new uncertainty for Newark Enrolls, one of the few enrollment systems in the country that allows families to apply to district and charter schools through a single online portal. Proponents say the centralized system simplifies the application process for families and gives them more options, while critics say it undermines traditional neighborhood schools while boosting charter-school enrollment.

Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, chief of the Newark Public Schools division that includes enrollment, and Kate Fletcher, executive director of the enrollment office, both departed on Friday. The district did not provide information about why they left or who — if anyone — will replace them, and neither of the two could be reached for comment.

Their departure comes after Superintendent Roger León, who took over on July 1, included them among 31 officials and administrators who were given the option to resign or face being fired. Days later, the school board approved all but nine of the dismissals; Ramos-Solomon and Fletcher were among those spared.

Both officials were hired in 2013 shortly before former Superintendent Cami Anderson unveiled the enrollment system, then called One Newark, as part of a sweeping overhaul that also included closing some schools. Parents were outraged by the closures and the system’s glitchy rollout, which left some students without school placements and separated other students from their siblings.

In recent years, Ramos-Solomon has overseen improvements to the system, including tweaking the computer algorithm that matches students with schools to give a greater boost to families who live near their chosen schools. While district data shows that most students are matched with one of their top choices, critics remain wary of the system and some — including some board members — call for it to be dismantled.

León, a veteran Newark educator who was expected by some observers to oppose Newark Enrolls, said in a private meeting with charter-school leaders that he intends to keep the process in place. But he will have to win over the board, whose members have asked the district skeptical questions about the system in recent months, such as why some students are reportedly matched with charter schools they didn’t apply to. (The district says that does not happen.)

Board member Tave Padilla said he was not aware that Ramos-Solomon or Fletcher had resigned, and did not know whether replacements had been lined up. He added that the board had not discussed the fate of Newark Enrolls since a meeting in June where Ramos-Solomon provided information about the system, nor has the full board discussed the matter with León.

“The district now does have the option to keep what we have in place, modify it, or do away with it,” he said. “Whether we choose to do that or not, I don’t know.”