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.”

external control

State Board of Education pushes Adams 14 to give up authority over its schools

Aris Mocada-Orjas, left, and Abel Albarran work on a math problem at Hanson Elementary in Commerce City. (Denver Post file photo)

With the Adams 14 district failing to meet state academic expectations for eight years, Colorado education officials plan to send in an outside manager — but they don’t trust the district to agreeably cede its authority.

So before it steps in, the board late Wednesday moved to specify what powers it can force the district to give up.

State Board of Education members asked for an opinion from the Attorney General’s office.

The State Board met Wednesday to consider ordering drastic actions for the lowest performing school district in the state, in order to improve the education of the approximately 7,500 Adams 14 students. The state board was expected to vote Thursday, but may now delay its final order until getting legal advice on what it can request from the district.

State board member Joyce Rankin said the board must provide a clear and explicit explanation of its expectations, “because I thought we had this a year ago and apparently we did not.”

Leaders of Adams 14, based in Commerce City, presented their proposal to cede some of their authority, by hiring two outside groups — one to manage the district and one to manage the high school — but maintaining the local school board.

A state review panel that visited Adams 14 cited ineffective district leadership and recommended turning it over to an external manager.

Members of the State Board of Education had several critical questions for district leaders, especially around how much authority the district is willing to give up.

Superintendent Javier Abrego told the state board members that the external manager would not have control over hiring or firing staff.

Board member Steve Durham said that he sensed that both the Adams 14 school board and administration were unwilling to give up significant authority.

Durham earlier had pushed district leaders, including board President Connie Quintana, about whether they would voluntarily give up the right to approve every change an external manager might want to make.

Quintana said she would consider every one of the manager’s recommendation.

“They’re going to tell me what to do so I’m going to adhere to their directives,” Abrego tried to reassure Durham.

“Unless the board tells you to do something else,” Durham said. “It’s difficult to serve more than one master.”

When asked specifically about staffing, Quintana said she was not willing to give up that authority, and then when pushed further, said she would have to discuss it with the rest of the board and the district’s attorney.

State board members also said they had concerns that the district’s proposal sounds similar to its proposal last year, which hasn’t resulted in much progress.

Colorado law dictates that when a school or district has received one of the state’s two lowest ratings for more than five years in a row, the state must step in. Under the law passed earlier this decade, last year was the first year schools or districts could reach that five-year mark.

Those that did, including Adams 14, crafted plans with state officials to make changes and set goals for improvement.

Some low-performers have since improved, and a few others have more time to show progress. But state officials set a deadline of this fall for Adams 14 to earn higher ratings. The district failed to meet that goal.

Many of the changes the state board can order, such as merging districts, have never been tried in Colorado. But even so, Durham proposed that the state spell out what will happen if Adams 14 fails to give up full management authority. In that case, he proposed, the state’s order should state that the district could lose accreditation and the district would have to start procedures to dissolve.

State board President Angelika Schroeder agreed Wednesday that that may be appropriate language.

The hearing was packed, with several people set up to watch the meeting from the building’s lobby. Among those who traveled to Denver for the hearing were teachers, parents, advocates, and the district’s entire five-member school board.

A couple of community members were disappointed they were not allowed to give public comment Wednesday. A nearly monthlong process for written community input closed on Monday.

State board members rejected the criticism that they had not sought out community input, referencing multiple times the “mountains” of written comments that have been submitted for them to review. Much of the public comment submitted to the state board came from teachers union leaders from across the state asking for the state board to avoid turning any of their schools over to charter control.

new schools

Charter-school backers pack little-advertised Chicago hearing about new charters

PHOTO: Intrinsic Schools
Eighth-grade promotion at Intrinsic Schools in Chicago.

Charter-school supporters packed a little-publicized hearing called Wednesday evening to gather input on proposals to open three specialized charter schools in the Chicago Public Schools system.

More than 50 people gathered before Margaret Fitzpatrick, an independent hearing officer hired by the district, to lobby her on proposals for three new schools. Intrinsic Charter School seeks approval for a citywide high school. Project Simeon 2000 proposes a middle school serving at-risk youth in Englewood. And Chicago Education Partnership wants to open a traditional K-8 school in Austin.

If approved, the schools would open for next school year.

As part of the first group of parents who sent their children to Intrinsic when it opened its first school, Lucy Weatherly said she unequivocally supported opening a second school under the network.  “We wanted something different for our son,” Weatherly said. “I owe them for a lifetime.”

“Intrinsic is a place that fully supports the holistic growth of students, who get a chance to really discover themselves,” said Ashley Ocanta Matthews, a teacher at Intrinsic.

While most speakers championed the charters proposals, teachers union representatives spoke forcefully against them.

“You deserve a raise, you deserve better healthcare, you deserve the ability to speak collectively with your boss, you deserve not to be terminated without cause,” said Martin Ritter, an organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union, directing his comments to teachers working at non-union charter schools.  “If you’re interested in joining a union, I’ll meet you in the hallway.”

Tension has been brewing at unionized charter schools. Teachers at the Acera charter network announced earlier Wednesday that they would strike on Dec. 4 if contract talks remain stalled.

The Chicago district already oversees 142 non-traditional campuses, either charter, contract or option schools, according to Hal Woods, director of school development with Chicago Public Schools. Contract schools are operated by private companies on contract and often offer a curriculum that differs from that in traditional schools. Option schools are privately run and serve students who have been expelled or previously incarcerated.

After a team including district employees from a variety of education fields and an out-of-state-analyst review each proposal, administrators will forward a recommendation to the board of education for a vote Dec. 5.

Intrinsic Charter School

Supporters, many from a current of Intrinsic Charter School, urged the district approve a second campus. The school, opened in 2013, has won a 1-plus rating, serving a student body that’s 90 percent Hispanic and 82 percent low-income.

The school touted its “personalized learning” model, in which a class of more than 60 students learn in “pods,” as the network calls classrooms, and move between projects and independent work. It is considering locating a new school at either 79 W. Monroe or 1357 N. Elston.

“I’m lucky we found Intrinsic,” said parent Angela Ibarra, one of many parents wearing Intrinsic T-shirts Wednesday. The school, she said, “fits my boy and is not one he had to find a way to fit into.”

Ibarra, mother of a 13-year-old, said she appreciates the individualized learning.

If approved the Intrinsic 2 high school would eventually serve 1,080 students.

Several teachers and parents spoke in support of Intrinsic, many wearing Intrinsic T-shirts. They focused on the varied paths that students could take after high school, either college or part-time work.

Kemet Leadership Academy Charter

The non-profit group Project Simeon 2000 has proposed  an alternative middle school focusing on black male students. It would feature project-based learning, comprehensive support services, and skills needed by local employers. Its supporters said the Chicago district is failing boys of color.

“I know from personal experience that it takes a black male with discipline to give black boys what they need,” said Francis Newman, mother of five African-American sons and a supporter of the proposed Kemet Academy Charter.  “No other community looks for someone outside the community to raise their children.”

The school would target students who have single parents, are more than one grade level behind academically, or have been involved in the juvenile justice system. It would serve 500 students in Greater Englewood, at a campus possibly at 6201 S. Stewart  or 6520 S. Wood.

Moving Everest 2

The Moving Everest 2 school, backed by people with roots in Christian education, promises both a “joyful and character-building school environment” for 810 students by offering academic and after-school services in the Austin area.

Michael Rogers, the founder and executive director, promised a full-time social worker, dental care, and a third meal of the day to students.

Ortabia Townsend, a mother of seven, said that she knows Austin families who have strong connections to the first Moving Everest school.

“There is a lot of love at that school,” she said.

The school, run by the Chicago Education Partnership, is rated a 2-plus. The partnership seeks to open a second school even though its current campus, projected to serve 810 K-8 students, has enrolled only 444 students this year. The new school is proposed for 1830 N Leclaire Ave.

While the proposal does not mention Christian education values, several members of the school’s board of directors have their roots in Christian education. The after-school program that partners with the school, By the Hand, is a “Christ-centered” program.

After district leadership make recommendations on the schools, the school board will vote on the charter proposals Dec. 5.