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.”

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.”