Future of Schools

One-time standout Warren Township school now needs an overhaul

Once a star school, Warren Township’s Sunny Heights Elementary spiraled downhill over the past two years, but the district is hoping a grant can help turn it around.

Sunny Heights touted an “A” letter grade from the state in 2011 and was featured in an Indianapolis Star story as one of just five in the state to receive a top grade despite high percentages of students who are poor, learning English as a second language or in special education.

But for the past two years, the school has received a “D,” which the district blames on a revolving door of leadership and staff, as well as problems with discipline and math. The district submitted an application Tuesday for a federal school improvement grant that administrators hope will help, but the chances of getting it are slim — only two to eight schools in the state receive it every year.

“To receive a school improvement grant, the district really has to be committed to making some dramatic improvements to a school,” said Lee Ann Kwiatkowski, Warren’s assistant superintendent of school improvement who recently joined the Indiana State Board of Education.

The grant stems from federal poverty aid that is administered by the Indiana Department of Education. The school should learn if its application is approved at the start of the school year.

Sunny Heights qualifies because it is one of about 300 “priority” or “focus” schools, designated for extra state scrutiny for low test scores and poor state A to F grades. If it wins the grant, Sunny Heights would be eligible to receive up to $2 million per year for five years. But the district only asked for a little more than $2 million total.

“We really tried to look at what was absolutely necessary,” Kwiatkowski said. “We also had to look at sustainability. You don’t want to hire a bunch of people and then at the end of the grant, not be able to keep them.”

She said the biggest problem at Sunny Heights is a lack of consistency.

“We’ve had staff turnover at that school,” she said. “We’ve had a couple of different principals at that school. So I would point to the lack of stability that we’ve had with the leaders and with the staff.”

In the last few years, one principal retired and another was a rookie.

“Often when you have schools that have some challenges, like the discipline issues that we have at Sunny Heights, we have staggered achievement,” Kwiatkowski said. “If you have an experienced principal, they can address the fluctuation better.”

So Warren looked to one of its top principals — Steve Foster — for help.

Foster spent the last four years at Creston Intermediate Academy. When he took over in 2010, it was rated the equivalent of a “D.” But last year, it received an “A” from the state. Nearly 90 percent of its students passed the math section of the ISTEP and 85 percent passed the English/language arts portion, above state averages.

Foster said his main focus, regardless of whether Sunny Heights receives the grant or not, will be on student behavior.

“I’m really about changing behaviors as opposed to just being punitive,” Foster said. “This is just an observation, but I think we’ve been focusing here at Sunny Heights on some of the wrong things — we’ve been working hard, but we’ve been focusing on the wrong things. How do we help students?”

If he does receive the grant, though, he has some ideas in mind.

He wants to build a STEM lab using a Project Lead the Way curriculum that would allow the school to add that to the students’ arts rotation every week. He also wants to add some new technology to the classrooms, such as interactive projectors and white boards.

Because the school’s math scores are low, he would also like to hire a full-time math coach — an expert mathematician that would co-plan with teachers to help improve instruction — and a life skills coach — a counselor who would work with students to improve their behavioral problems, he said.

Stonybrook Middle School, also in Warren, received the same grant last year, so the district has seen the kind of impact it can have on a school. Stonybrook’s state letter grade jumped from a “D” to a “C” last year, said Pam Griffin, Stonybrook’s principal.

Griffin said the grant helped provide extra support in reading and math.

“It would have taken us longer to get to where we are,” Griffin said.

Griffin said she was also able to add intervention classes to students’ schedules. So now, instead of someone stepping in to help students who are falling behind from time to time, they have 50 minute classes every day that are focused entirely on giving them an extra boost.

Stonybrook faces a lot of the same problems Sunny Heights does — low math and reading performance, discipline problems and high poverty. And not every student is on the same page.

The grant money helped the school pay for the technology and training required for a blended learning environment — a strategy that splits student time between independent work on a computer and teacher-led lessons.

Kwiatkowski said Sunny Heights will try the blended learning model, too. The district wants to expand it to all of its elementary and middle schools within the next three years.


Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.