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.


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.”